April 4, 2014
It appears the U.S. government is doing its best to ensure that nobody anywhere in any corner of planet earth will ever trust American technology again (or U.S. aid for that matter). This process of distrust first really got going with the Edward Snowden revelations, which demonstrated that essentially all major U.S. tech firms are mere wards of the state with little to no privacy protections, and absolutely zero backbone.
This story of the U.S. government covertly creating a “Cuban Twitter” called ZunZuneo in order to overthrow the regime there has enormous long-term ramifications on many, many levels, which I will address throughout this post.
From the AP via The Washington Post:
WASHINGTON — In July 2010, Joe McSpedon, a U.S. government official, flew to Barcelona to put the final touches on a secret plan to build a social media project aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government.
McSpedon and his team of high-tech contractors had come in from Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Washington and Denver. Their mission: to launch a messaging network that could reach hundreds of thousands of Cubans. To hide the network from the Cuban government, they would set up a byzantine system of front companies using a Cayman Islands bank account, and recruit unsuspecting executives who would not be told of the company’s ties to the U.S. government.
McSpedon didn’t work for the CIA. This was a program paid for and run by the U.S. Agency for International Development, best known for overseeing billions of dollars in U.S. humanitarian aid.
Now we can pretty much guarantee that foreign nations will forever be skeptical of any U.S. “aid”. Great work morons.
Documents show the U.S. government planned to build a subscriber base through “non-controversial content”: news messages on soccer, music, and hurricane updates. Later when the network reached a critical mass of subscribers, perhaps hundreds of thousands, operators would introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize “smart mobs” — mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice that might trigger a Cuban Spring, or, as one USAID document put it, “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”
At its peak, the project drew in more than 40,000 Cubans to share news and exchange opinions. But its subscribers were never aware it was created by the U.S. government, or that American contractors were gathering their private data in the hope that it might be used for political purposes.
“There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement,” according to a 2010 memo from Mobile Accord, one of the project’s contractors. “This is absolutely crucial for the long-term success of the service and to ensure the success of the Mission.”
The program’s legality is unclear: U.S. law requires that any covert action by a federal agency must have a presidential authorization. Officials at USAID would not say who had approved the program or whether the White House was aware of it. McSpedon, the most senior official named in the documents obtained by the AP, is a mid-level manager who declined to comment.
“The program’s legality is unclear”, as if that matters!
But the ZunZuneo program muddies those claims, a sensitive issue for its mission to promote democracy and deliver aid to the world’s poor and vulnerable — which requires the trust of foreign governments.
The Associated Press obtained more than 1,000 pages of documents about the project’s development. The AP independently verified the project’s scope and details in the documents — such as federal contract numbers and names of job candidates — through publicly available databases, government sources and interviews with those directly involved in ZunZuneo.
“We should gradually increase the risk,” USAID proposed in a document. It advocated using “smart mobs” only in “critical/opportunistic situations and not at the detriment of our core platform-based network.”
USAID’s team of contractors and subcontractors built a companion Web site to its text service so Cubans could subscribe, give feedback and send their own text messages for free. They talked about how to make the Web site look like a real business. “Mock ad banners will give it the appearance of a commercial enterprise,” a proposal suggested.
McSpedon worked for USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), a division that was created after the fall of the Soviet Union to promote U.S. interests in quickly changing political environments — without the usual red tape.
We have an “Office of Transition Initiatives“? Who knew…
In 2009, a report by congressional researchers warned that OTI’s work “often lends itself to political entanglements that may have diplomatic implications.” Staffers on oversight committees complained that USAID was running secret programs and would not provide details.
“We were told we couldn’t even be told in broad terms what was happening because ‘people will die,’” said Fulton Armstrong, who worked for the Senate Foreign Relations committee. Before that, he was the US intelligence community’s most senior analyst on Latin America, advising the Clinton White House.
How’s that for Congressional oversight. This phony “people will die” rationale seems to be the reason for all shady secret programs these days.
The money that Creative Associates spent on ZunZuneo was publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan, government data show. But there is no indication of where the funds were actually spent.
Paula Cambronero, a researcher for Mobile Accord, began building a vast database about the Cuban subscribers, including gender, age, “receptiveness” and “political tendencies.” USAID believed the demographics on dissent could help it target its other Cuba programs and “maximize our possibilities to extend our reach.”
Of course, the NSA would never compile such data domestically, right?
Carlos Sanchez Almeida, a lawyer specializing in European data protection law, said it appeared that the U.S. program violated Spanish privacy laws because the ZunZuneo team had illegally gathered personal data from the phone list and sent unsolicited emails using a Spanish platform. “The illegal release of information is a crime, and using information to create a list of people by political affiliation is totally prohibited by Spanish law,” Almeida said. It would violate a U.S-European data protection agreement, he said.
“If it is discovered that the platform is, or ever was, backed by the United States government, not only do we risk the channel being shut down by Cubacel, but we risk the credibility of the platform as a source of reliable information, education, and empowerment in the eyes of the Cuban people,” Mobile Accord noted in a memo.
To cover their tracks, they decided to have a company based in the United Kingdom set up a corporation in Spain to run ZunZuneo. A separate company called MovilChat was created in the Cayman Islands, a well-known offshore tax haven, with an account at the island’s Bank of N.T. Butterfield & Son Ltd. to pay the bills.
A memo of the meeting in Barcelona says that the front companies would distance ZunZuneo from any U.S. ownership so that the “money trail will not trace back to America.”
Officials at USAID realized however, that they could not conceal their involvement forever — unless they left the stage. The predicament was summarized bluntly when Eberhard was in Washington for a strategy session in early February 2011, where his company noted the “inherent contradiction” of giving Cubans a platform for communications uninfluenced by their government that was in fact financed by the U.S. government and influenced by its agenda.
They turned to Jack Dorsey, a co-founder of Twitter, to seek funding for the project. Documents show Dorsey met with Suzanne Hall, a State Department officer who worked on social media projects, and others. Dorsey declined to comment.
This is not going to be good for Twitter’s reputation internationally, or Facebook for that matter…
By early 2011, Creative Associates grew exasperated with Mobile Accord’s failure to make ZunZuneo self-sustaining and independent of the U.S. government. The operation had run into an unsolvable problem. USAID was paying tens of thousands of dollars in text messaging fees to Cuba’s communist telecommunications monopoly routed through a secret bank account and front companies. It was not a situation that it could either afford or justify — and if exposed it would be embarrassing, or worse.
If you did this it’d probably be called money laundering and you’d be locked up in a cage forever. Such as what happened to Charlie Shrem.
Toward the middle of 2012, Cuban users began to complain that the service worked only sporadically. Then not at all.
ZunZuneo vanished as mysteriously as it appeared.
Call me crazy, but it might be better idea to end the embargo if we want to foster a “market economy” in Cuba. No, that would be way too enlightened and rational. Better to covertly attempt to spark a revolution that could spiral in impossible to know directions…
Meanwhile, we are encouraging people out in the streets in other countries, while brutally cracking down on domestic protests by labeling Occupy Wall Street demonstrators as “terrorists”.
At the end of the day, would it be so horrible if the U.S. government wanted to foster greater social media communication for Cubans? No, not at all. Unfortunately, that is not what it was doing. Rather, we attempted to covertly foster dissent with the expressed purpose of regime change. This will only encourage an arms race of this sort of activity from all governments against one another all over the world.
This revelation will serve to sow further distrust across the globe, both for American humanitarian intentions and American technology generally. Besides, don’t we have enough problems internally to focus on. Why do we seem to be allocating so many taxpayer resources abroad rather than here at home? As an American, that’s the most disturbing part in all of this to me.