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Researchers used fake social media accounts to influence NATO troops during military exercise

Posted February 20, 2019 2:07 p.m. EST

— Researchers were able to use fake Facebook and Instagram accounts to "instill undesirable behavior" among NATO troops participating in an exercise, according to a report published this week.

The goal of the experiment, which was conducted by NATO's Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, was to "exploit social media and open source data to gather information on and influence military personnel during a military exercise."

"The level of personal detail we found was very detailed and enabled us to instill undesirable behavior during the exercise," the report said, adding that the scope of the experiment was "limited" when compared to "large-scale efforts such as the work undertaken by the Kremlin's Internet Research Agency to influence the US presidential election 2016."

"We identified a significant amount of people taking part in the exercise and managed to identify all members of certain units, pinpoint the exact locations of several battalions, gain knowledge of troop movements to and from exercises, and discover the dates of the active phases of the exercise," the report said.

Details of the experiment were first reported by Wired.

The experiment used Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to gather information although the report said Twitter "was rarely used during the exercise, and gave no useful information."

"Our experiment showed that, at the current level of information security, an adversary is able to collect a significant amount of personal data on soldiers participating in a military exercise, and that this data can be used to target messages with precision, successfully influencing members of the target audience to carry out desired behaviors," the report added while noting that effort encountered some challenges as social media companies pushed back on some of the fake accounts, indicating they "are increasing their efforts to prevent abuse of their platforms."

The report said that "Facebook in particular provided significant pushback," suspending several of the fake accounts and pages used during the experiment.

NATO regularly conducts large-scale exercises in order to maintain the readiness of its military forces. One of the more recent exercises, Trident Juncture, took place in October-November and involved some 50,000 personnel from NATO and partner countries as well as hundreds of aircraft, dozens of ships and up to 10,000 military vehicles.

While the efforts detailed in the report were only an experiment, officials have said that Russia has similarly used social media and other measures in its attempts to affect NATO troops deployed near the alliance's eastern border with Russia.

"We have seen some hybrid warfare tactics used against NATO troops in the eastern part of our Alliance, including disinformation, false allegations of criminal activity, and attempts to hack or intimidate our soldiers on social media," NATO official told CNN.

"It is important that NATO Allies continue to train their troops to be vigilant, including online. At the same time, we are strengthening our cyber defenses and taking all necessary measures to protect our networks," the official added.

NATO has boosted its military presence in the eastern part of the alliance a move seen largely as a response to Russia's 2014 military intervention in Ukraine and Moscow's seizure of Crimea.

Some 4,500 NATO troops are deployed as part of four multinational battle groups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

The battle groups are led by the UK, Canada, Germany and the US respectively.

The Latvia-based NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence was launched in 2014.