“Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.” - Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Anyone with experience in extended, unconventional conflict should be able to recognize current patterns in the Bitcoin and digital currency space that resemble subversive activity.
Is a game of social engineering being leveled at the Bitcoin community? Based on open source information alone, it’s conceivable that certain individuals or teams are trying to demoralize and disrupt the Bitcoin ecosystem.
This article won’t definitively answer the question; it will present a thought experiment about how a “red” team would arrange itself going up against the Bitcoin ecosystem, with some examples that demonstrate the tactics. Readers can draw their own conclusions.
Before charging ahead, it might be helpful to know whose thought experiment you are reading. I graduated from the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School in Fort Bragg, North Carolina with a major in Unconventional Warfare and minor in Engineering. I spent some time as a Special Forces Intelligence Sergeant on a deployment to Iraq, which could be compared to high-octane detective work with the possibility of firefights. The detective work was focused on identifying personas and connecting the dots between events, actions and resources.
If I were a person who wanted to bring down Bitcoin, in other words, the following is how I’d go about it.
By sharing the simplicity of this sort of disruptive activity, I hope to help raise the level of community awareness, and slow the speed and efficiency of any potential disruption. Being aware that you’re being exploited is crucial to defending against it mentally and emotionally.
The Strategic Plan
As far back as July of last year, the question was being asked openly as to the existence of sock-puppets and bots operating in the social networks. Scholarly reviews were even written in response to bounties on the topic. Though difficult to nail down with certainty, a number of indicators did point to instances of shared syntax and similarities through pattern analysis. The use of sock-puppet accounts and bots controlled to respond via algorithm is a logical choice for an attacker needing maximum flexibility using minimal resources. There are a good number of individuals around the world capable of efficiently performing these activities on a broad scale across numerous languages and cultures.
If I were one of those individuals, I would be executing the following strategy:
Priorities of Work
- Team First: Build a small team of experts in programming, writing and social engineering. Being surrounded by a solid team of capable, independent thinkers makes most jobs a breeze (or at least entertaining when things go sideways). It should be easy to find a good team in an anonymous and technical environment. If flying solo is necessary, it can be done but is far less effective without mental and emotional backup from trusted peers.
- Draw the Map: Identify central communication hubs (IRC, Reddit, Twitter, etc.). These will become your stomping grounds. Get to know the atmosphere of each and incorporate into your goals and planning. For example, r/bitcoin has more than 100,000 subscribers, and a lot of journalists rely on it for coverage. Use the visual representation of key players to begin whatever campaign has been established. If the moderators are on to your shilling, claim CENSORSHIP!! loudly and often, try to migrate users to a new hub or sub, and continue fighting to get back on.
- Clone Wars: Develop a pool of pseudo-identities via sock-puppet account creation tools and begin building available pools of personas with varying degrees of reputation on all of the central communication hubs. Create and eliminate as needed. Anonymity in numbers is your friend here.
- Targeting: Identify centers of influence (vocal developers and thought leaders) as well as soft spots that could potentially evoke emotion (centralization/monopoly! Satoshi’s vision! Nonbelievers!). Take note for future exploitation. The more controversial the individual, the more extreme and subversive the characterizations can become. For instance, was one of the key Classic developers on psychedelics recently? It doesn’t matter if he actually was or not, because now people are asking that question. Mission accomplished.
- Connect the Dots: Create a spider-web diagram along with a significant action database to identify and analyze relationship patterns. Blockstream, for example, is a binding factor as it funds so many developers. Take down Blockstream and you take down over half the Core development team. Palantir is one of the mapping tools you can use. This will provide an internal visual reference for those long nights of plotting your next move, and help communicate long-term vision and strategy with your team.
- Turn on the Engine: Utilize a network of pseudo-identities to engage in subversive behavior in communication hubs. (See #4.) This is one big “movement to contact” drill, meaning to search for the fights. Find topics that draw out people’s emotions and play to them consistently enough to create controversy. Sometimes passion is required, other times mockery and a cruel dismissive attitude works best. Dynamic environments require dynamic responses.
- Observe, React and Respond: Analyze impact and adjust tactics or targets. If the response to certain tactics appears to be disrupting momentum toward your strategic objective, adjust your fire onto things that will. Like a judo expert, sometimes using your opponent's momentum for your own benefit is the wisest path. Other times, a direct jab to the throat solves the problem.
Tactics to Be Employed by the Pseudo-Identities
- Intensify Discussion: Any news that could be perceived as negative must be amplified to extremes and made into hyperbolic worst-case scenarios. The public departure of Mike Hearn from the Bitcoin space created an environment ripe for exploitation. The media got ahold of that and ran on it for days. This would have been a huge victory for subversives because it further eroded the perceived global integrity of Bitcoin both as a software and a solution. But the Hearn story is only one small example; the list of potential topics is endless: Blocks might fill up...the network will clog...nodes will crash... users will leave...Bitcoin will die!!!! Fear is not difficult to manufacture.
- Depress Positive Momentum: Any story with positive attention should be downplayed while messengers of positive news should be accused of “being shills,” “scam artists,” or worse. Blockstream’s acquisition of capital and talent would, in many circles, be viewed as a net positive. Employing the simple tool of implied guilt, however, the perceived value of the asset book becomes a joke, or is used as evidence of foul play. For example: Bitcoin Core’s implementation of mempool limits to prevent the doomsday scenarios of #1 above gets spun as “another fee market!!!” Reality matters less than perception. Another victory.
- Character Assassination: Identify flaws and foibles in thought leaders especially; question the integrity and good intentions of anyone who appears to possess either. Any number of names can be pointed to here. With the right amount of assets, you can accomplish quite a bit. Even if you don’t have the facts, choose potentially divisive targets and deploy your sock-puppets to make up rumors. Perception is what matters.
- Instigate Fights: Mock and ridicule both sides of any disagreement that forms to accelerate existing antagonism and grow the division between disparate sides. This past month, a spam attack targeting members of the Reddit Bitcoin communities added more fuel to the fire. The message was sent from a variety of accounts, most with no posts or comments. The message was tailored to look like a personal message, championing the Ethereum platform. Naturally, this created a conflict due to the perceived competitive nature of Bitcoin and Ethereum.
- Maintain Access to Pseudo-neutrality: Maintain a number of pseudo-identities with mild, thoughtful reputations to build support or ridicule when advantageous; ridicule and write off any who openly challenge your intentions; when pressed, claim objectivity. Or if reputation is not needed, go into full-blown troll mode and resort to ad hominems. This creates a scene and adds to the sense of collective group insanity, which demoralizes further.
- Deny and Shift Blame: Any attempts by others to accuse of exploitation must be met by either silence or derision (situationally dependent). This is a simple tactic because it never gives any satisfaction of gains made in honest, impassioned debate. If the only result of the majority of your online debates is that you dread the replies to your posts, valuable discussion slows to a crawl.
I would guess with a fair amount of certainty that there are well-developed teams in the world operating similarly to what I outline above. The goal is to slow, stall and/or destroy the viability of specific digital currencies or all of them in general. The possible motives and players who hold them are an entirely different topic.
Note: I did not write this as a manual for engaging in this behavior, but rather to demonstrate that such behavior is definitely possible with limited resources. Based on my analysis and intuition, there are most certainly actors engaging in these sorts of games.
Awareness is truly the only effective defense of these techniques. The Bitcoin ecosystem has a tremendously resilient network with a great deal of infrastructure invested behind it. But even elephants are not immune from being eaten by ants from time to time.
This is a guest post by Blake Miles and the views expressed are those of the author. This article was written with the assistance and advice of Aaron van Wirdum.