Edward Snowden revelations: GCHQ ‘using online viruses and honey traps to discredit targets’

Documents released by the American former CIA employee claim that the agency is at the forefront of efforts to develop “offensive” online techniques

Britain’s GCHQ has a covert unit which uses dirty tricks from “honey trap” sexual liaisons to texting anonymous messages to friends and neighbours to discredit targets from hackers to governments, according to the latest leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Documents released by the American former CIA employee claim that the Cheltenham-based intelligence agency is at the forefront of efforts to develop “offensive” online techniques for use against criminals, and individuals and regimes considered to pose a threat to national security.

The revelations on Sunday sparked criticism that GCHQ is adopting tactics used by illegal hackers, such as so-called denial of service (DoS) attacks to disable chatrooms, which have no clear authority under British law and may have infringed the rights of other internet users.

The Snowden documents, obtained by American broadcaster NBC, also provide evidence that GCHQ has moved beyond its role as a surveillance agency and now occupies operational territory more traditionally associated with its confreres, MI6 and MI5.

The covert GCHQ unit - the Joint Intelligence Threat Research Group (JTRIG) - runs what it terms an “Effects” programme against Britain’s enemies under what it calls the four Ds: “Deny/ Disrupt/ Degrade/ Deceive.” The mission of the unit is: “Using online techniques to make something happen in the real or cyber world.”

Slides from a 2012 presentation, marked Top Secret, outline JTRIG’s role in discrediting targets using both online techniques, such as using blogs to leak confidential information to companies or journalists, and “real life” methods like the honey trap - a time-honoured intelligence trick of luring an individual into a sexual encounter to gain information and leverage, potentially for blackmail.

Under the heading “Discredit a target”, one slide notes: “Honey trap; a great option. Very successful when it works. Get someone to go somewhere on the internet, or a physical location to be met by a ‘friendly face’.”

The agency also suggests accessing a target’s social networking accounts to replace their photograph, adding approvingly: “Photo change; you have been warned, ‘JTRIG is about!!’ Can take ‘paranoia’ to a whole new level.”

 

As well as sending emails and texts to colleagues and friends of an individual as part of “infiltration work”, the GCHQ unit details how it can discredit companies and “get another country to believe a ‘secret’” by passing off disinformation via computers.

The file also reveals that the agency has perfected software, codenamed Ambassadors Reception, which will “encrypt itself, delete all emails, encrypt all files, make screen shake, no more log on”.

The virus, which is used alongside DoS attacks, appears to have been widely deployed with considerable success. The document adds: “Has been used in a variety of different areas, very effective.”

Civil liberties campaigners said the revelations, which follow the release of documents last week showing that DoS attacks were used by GCHQ to target so-called hacktivist groups such as Anonymous, added weight to calls for closer control of intelligence agencies.

A Privacy International spokesman said: “Whether it's mass interception of data through undersea cable tapping or cyber attacks, it has become clear that the current legal framework governing intelligence activities in the UK is unfit for purpose in the modern digital era, and reform is urgently needed.  Given the deeply flawed nature of this present investigation by the ISC, we hope that a full and independent inquiry is called. Without explaining the application and interpretation of the current legal framework, the ISC cannot properly reassure the public that UK intelligence agencies have not acted beyond the law or undermined cyber security.”

Jake Davis, a former computer hacker who was targeted by GCHQ and jailed last year for attacks on several websites, said: “When we look at what Western governments are doing  - snooping on our emails, infecting our computers, intercepting our phone communications, following our avatars around in online games, encouraging illicit activity and even engaging in their own illicit activity - we have to ask ourselves: who are the real criminals here?

”Throughout the Snowden revelations, GCHQ has insisted its activities are within the law and the subject of ministerial and parliamentary scrutiny.The documents show the techniques developed by JTRIG to block a target’s communications have been used in Afghanistan against the Taliban, sending text messages and calls to enemy fighters at a rate of one per minute. The unit has also been active in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons technology. NBC claimed that British intelligence agencies were involved in the attack in 2010 on Iran’s atomic facilities using the Stuxnet virus.

GCHQ did not comment on the latest documents. In a statement, the agency said: “All of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate.”

Read more:

Why the Government must face up to Edward Snowden's growing indictment of state surveillance

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Account Manager - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing, ambitious, en...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future
Berlusconi's world of sleaze: The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM

Berlusconi's world of sleaze

The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM
Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

Films and theme parks are just the beginning. Disney believes its control of the now decades-old franchise can bring in merchandise and marketing millions for years to come
Could the golden age of the gaming arcade ever be revived in the era of the Xbox?

Could gaming arcades be revived?

The days when coin-ops were the only way to play the latest video games are gone. But a small band of enthusiasts are keeping the button-pushing dream alive
Edinburgh Fringe 2015: The 'tampon tax' has inspired a new wave of female comedians to reclaim period jokes

Heard the one about menstruation?

Yes, if you have been at the Fringe, where period pieces are taking centre stage