GCHQ used URL shorteners to track activists operating in the Middle East, it has been claimed.
GCHQ's covert Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) created its own URL shortening service, called lurl.me, to disseminate articles and identify and track activists.
The tool was also used for 'campaign management', tracking the success or otherwise of links to articles and other propaganda published during the so-called Arab Spring.
The suggestion was made by Mustafa al-Bassam, aka tFlow, co-founder of the LulzSec hacking crew.
JTRIG, according to Al-Bassam, had attempted to influence elections in Iran and boost the revolutionary movement in Syria. Al-Bassam claimed that this is based on first-hand experience as part of the LulzSec group attacked by JTRIG, as well as documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The lurl.me service was started in 2009 and discontinued in 2013 after the Snowden disclosures. Al-Bassam, meanwhile, shifted from hacker to consultant in March.
Al-Bassam said that GCHQ used the lurl.me service in a variety of covert campaigns, but typically as a hook to mask links to malicious sites that used flaws in web browsers and other software to download malware onto targets' PCs.
He claimed that a fellow hacker going by the name of P0ke was compromised in this way.
However, the main focus of lurl.me was the Iranian elections in 2009 and the early stages of the uprising in Syria in 2011. GCHQ used a number of Twitter accounts to disseminate information via the lurl.me URL shortener, according to al-Bassam's research, and the Twitter accounts typically tweeted only between 9am and 5.30pm GMT.
The Twitter account and associated lurl.me links promoted, in particular, two proxies for Syrians to use when the country's government blocked the internet.
"Al-Bassam makes the connection between these proxies and the GCHQ Molten-Magma hacking tool, a CGI HTTP proxy with the ability to log all traffic and perform HTTPS man-in-the-middle attacks, snooping on encrypted traffic," according to one report.
The Arab Spring broke out in Tunisia in 2010 and rapidly spread to other countries in the Middle East, including Libya, Egypt and Syria.
The protests focused initially on corruption and the erosion of democracy, but the instigator was rising food prices in 2009 and 2010 that dramatically eroded many people's real earnings.
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