GCHQ's cyberspooks had Nudge Unit envy – leak

Get 'em to a TED Talk, trickcyclist urged. They need neurobabble


As 10 Downing Street was establishing a Behavioural Insights Team, or "Nudge" unit, based on pop psychology, so too were the spooks at GCHQ.

Clearly not wishing to be left out of the behavioural craze sweeping the chattering classes and the thinkfluencers in the ad world, spooks thought they should be brought up to speed on the latest fads.

So they hired a psychology professor to investigate, The Intercept reports.

A leak from 2011 titled Behavioural Science Support for JTRIG's Effects and Online HUMINT Operations wanted to know how social psychology had been applied to "advertising and marketing" and criminology.

The 120-strong JTRIG – or the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group – looked at cybercrime, serious crime, terrorism and support for military operations.

Its jobs included discrediting regimes including Iran and Zimbabwe, and domestic threats such as the EDL. Interestingly, it also saw its role as providing support to the UK's climate change negotiators.

Online work included creating "spoof online resources", such as Facebook groups and YouTube channels, fake personas or fake messages from real people in order to discredit them, and even fake websites. Classic honeypot stuff, in other words.

However, the team was also curious about the pop psych beloved of waffle shops like the RSA and Radio 4, and which has been the staple of many a TED talk.

"Knowledge of concepts such as branding, product placement, sales promotions, niche marketing, crowd sourcing, herd behaviour, market segmentation, public relations and viral advertising/marketing may be particularly relevant for JTRIG's effects and online HUMINT operations," the document muses.

The author of the study did throw in a caution:

One important caveat to the psychological work on the above topics is that it has for the most part been based on limited samples of the human population (white, middle-class, American, male, students).

This lack of representativeness means that the theories and research findings may not be generalisable to to other populations.

Or even generalisable to females – more than 50 per cent of the population.

The issue of small sample size would eventually be recognised as a problem in neuroscience – as we reported here, most fMRI studies were completely worthless, despite the dramatic and colourful pictures of "your brain on..." (whatever a Harvard undergrad's brain was on that day).

But we rarely saw that caveat at the height of the mania for neuroscience-inspired pop psych, when the media couldn't give us enough fMRI-derived pseudoscience. Even as our chatterati was heralding the behavioural woo as "new discoveries in psychology", they either didn't know that the "brain science" on which it is founded was being conducted on tiny (typically fewer than 20 participants) studies.

Or perhaps the results were so sympatico with existing beliefs and prejudices, they didn't want to know. Take your pick.

The author of the GCHQ report is at Middlesex Uni. Not surprisingly, the spook paper doesn't appear on her publications page.

A witty study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience earlier this year found that adding totally irrelevant data purportedly drawn from brain experiments makes a theory sound more plausible. It certainly mesmerised our intelligentsia for a few years. ®


Other stories you might like

  • Battlefield 2042: Please don't be the death knell of the franchise, please don't be the death knell of the franchise

    Another terrible launch, but DICE is already working on improvements

    The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. Since the last edition on New World, we hit level cap and the "endgame". Around this time, item duping exploits became rife and every attempt Amazon Games made to fix it just broke something else. The post-level 60 "watermark" system for gear drops is also infuriating and tedious, but not something we were able to address in the column. So bear these things in mind if you were ever tempted. On that note, it's time to look at another newly released shit show – Battlefield 2042.

    I wanted to love Battlefield 2042, I really did. After the bum note of the first-person shooter (FPS) franchise's return to Second World War theatres with Battlefield V (2018), I stupidly assumed the next entry from EA-owned Swedish developer DICE would be a return to form. I was wrong.

    The multiplayer military FPS market is dominated by two forces: Activision's Call of Duty (COD) series and EA's Battlefield. Fans of each franchise are loyal to the point of zealotry with little crossover between player bases. Here's where I stand: COD jumped the shark with Modern Warfare 2 in 2009. It's flip-flopped from WW2 to present-day combat and back again, tried sci-fi, and even the Battle Royale trend with the free-to-play Call of Duty: Warzone (2020), which has been thoroughly ruined by hackers and developer inaction.

    Continue reading
  • American diplomats' iPhones reportedly compromised by NSO Group intrusion software

    Reuters claims nine State Department employees outside the US had their devices hacked

    The Apple iPhones of at least nine US State Department officials were compromised by an unidentified entity using NSO Group's Pegasus spyware, according to a report published Friday by Reuters.

    NSO Group in an email to The Register said it has blocked an unnamed customers' access to its system upon receiving an inquiry about the incident but has yet to confirm whether its software was involved.

    "Once the inquiry was received, and before any investigation under our compliance policy, we have decided to immediately terminate relevant customers’ access to the system, due to the severity of the allegations," an NSO spokesperson told The Register in an email. "To this point, we haven’t received any information nor the phone numbers, nor any indication that NSO’s tools were used in this case."

    Continue reading
  • Utility biz Delta-Montrose Electric Association loses billing capability and two decades of records after cyber attack

    All together now - R, A, N, S, O...

    A US utility company based in Colorado was hit by a ransomware attack in November that wiped out two decades' worth of records and knocked out billing systems that won't be restored until next week at the earliest.

    The attack was detailed by the Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) in a post on its website explaining that current customers won't be penalised for being unable to pay their bills because of the incident.

    "We are a victim of a malicious cyber security attack. In the middle of an investigation, that is as far as I’m willing to go," DMEA chief exec Alyssa Clemsen Roberts told a public board meeting, as reported by a local paper.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021