#1214404: A DC Think Tank Uses Fake Twitter Accounts And A Shady Expert To Reach The NSA, FBI, And White House
ICIT bills itself as "America's Cybersecurity Think Tank." But BuzzFeed News found it's running fake Twitter accounts and its top expert has questionable credentials.
Earlier this year, leaders from the Marine Corps, the Department of Homeland Security, NASA, the NSA, the White House, and the FBI gathered at a Ritz-Carlton in Virginia to discuss the latest in cybersecurity and information warfare.
The event was organized by the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology, a nonprofit think tank founded just a few years ago that quickly established itself as a convener of well-attended cybersecurity events, a facilitator of Capitol Hill briefings, and the beneficiary of hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorships from top private sector security vendors.
The day’s closing session featured James Scott, ICTI’s senior fellow and cofounder, discussing Russian cyberinfluence operations and his new book about information warfare. What audience members from intelligence and law enforcement agencies didn’t know is that Scott and ICIT have been running their own deceptive information operation.
BuzzFeed News identified a network of at least 45 fake Twitter accounts being used to amplify ICIT content and Scott’s book, as well as a group of fake YouTube accounts that upload and like ICIT videos and frequently post adoring comments about Scott on content featuring him.
Reporting by BuzzFeed News has also established that Scott, ICIT’s top expert, previously sold spammy and fake social media engagement services, has a history of manufacturing flattering articles about himself and his ventures using dubious SEO techniques, and ran companies that are magnets for online complaints about dishonest business practices. His background in information security also primarily consists of self-published books on the topic that he only began publishing in 2013.
“He’s a master of manipulating online reputation.”
James Scott is also not his real name. He is James Scott Brown, according to public records, court documents, and a person who worked with him before he reinvented himself as an information security expert.
“He’s a master of manipulating online reputation,” a person who worked with Scott years ago when he was selling himself as a high-powered corporate executive and consultant told BuzzFeed News. “He will not only create a fake identity for himself but he will also create fake credentials, articles, blog posts and reviews about himself to create a buzz and convince people that he is legit.” (The source asked not to be named out of fear of repercussions from Scott, and because they did not want their name associated with him.)
ICIT declined to comment to BuzzFeed News about whether its use of fake social media accounts and engagement is in conflict with its work to help defend the US against security breaches and information operations. It and Scott also declined to answer detailed questions about his professional background and previous ventures.
However, during a brief phone interview prior to cutting off contact, Scott falsely claimed ICIT had no connection to the Twitter accounts, and said external parties were using them to discredit ICIT and his book about information warfare.
“We’ve been set up … and they’re not Russian; we’re not sure who they are,” he told BuzzFeed News, later adding, “The important thing here is it’s being weaponized against us.”
As the conversation wore on, Scott changed his story and said the Twitter accounts were perhaps created by people trying to help ICIT.
“I think it’s some people on the alt-right that think they’re helping us. I think it’s some people on the progressive left that think they’re helping us. And I think there’s some jokers in between that are just toxic,” he said. “I don’t know, man.”
After being provided a list of the accounts, as well as detailed questions, ICIT issued a written statement to BuzzFeed News and admitted it does in fact operate the Twitter accounts in question.
“ICIT actively identifies, curates and shares cybersecurity content via social media accounts that are managed and maintained by its marketing and public affairs employees,” the statement said. “These digital educating and marketing campaigns are organized manually by ICIT employees, who manage numerous social media accounts tailored to specific issue areas and audiences in the cybersecurity field.”
The Twitter accounts use profile images taken from stock image or headshot websites and retweet, like, and post content from ICIT and Scott at the kind of high frequency associated with bots. The accounts reviewed by BuzzFeed News did not engage in replies or other types of interaction that could indicate they are run by humans. (ICIT said in its statement that the accounts are not bots, but did not offer information to substantiate this.)
During the course of reporting this story, Twitter suspended 11 of the accounts, but the company declined to comment on the reason.
Along with amplifying ICIT content and links about cybersecurity, the accounts have for months been sharing memes that combine brooding photos of Scott and quotes from him or his book about the role of memes in information warfare.
BuzzFeed News / Twitter
Scott often retweeted memes of himself from the fake accounts. During the phone interview, he claimed these were authentic people supporting his work.
“If I see people that have gone through the exercise of making a sincere meme that’s promoting the book — yeah I’ll hit it up,” he said.
Meanwhile, a group of fake accounts on YouTube have also been busy promoting Scott and ICIT.
“James Scott is the most important figure in cyberwar thought leadership right now. I'm completely floored by how brilliant he is. ... This man is without a doubt the most dangerous man on the planet,” reads one comment on the video of his conference session about Russian influence operations.
“It breaks my heart to see the anguish and pain in James' face. The pressure he is under, I can only imagine; Advising to the White House for the past three polar opposite administrations, CIA, MI6, NSA...the things he must know, the secrets he keeps,” wrote a commenter that included in their message a link to an Instagram account that consists entirely of James Scott memes and photos. Those memes are the same ones being shared by fake accounts on Twitter.
When Scott took the stage in front of NSA, FBI, and DHS executives at the January event, ICIT cofounder Parham Eftekhari echoed those credentials.
He said Scott has written “over 50 books” on topics related to critical infrastructure and information security, and that Scott advises the Senate Armed Services Committee, NATO, MI6, and “dozens” of Senate and congressional committees.
Scott is indeed a prolific author, but not all of his self-published books are about information security. As for the claim that he advises the Senate Armed Services Committee, an aid to the committee told BuzzFeed News they could not confirm that Scott has had any interactions with it. ICIT does, however, organize roundtables and meetings on Capitol Hill with members of Congress and their staff, according to information it provided to BuzzFeed News. (NATO and MI6 did not reply to requests for comment on Scott.)
“He doesn’t like it when I go on about him,” Eftekhari said during his intro. “But I think it’s really important for people to understand the perspective that he brings because he’s literally one of the guys that’s in there at the highest levels of the government advising on these issues.”
If that’s true, it raises serious questions about the due diligence performed by those at the highest levels of the US government in terms of who they seek advice from on the critical issues of cybersecurity and information warfare. If it’s not, it’s the latest in a long line of fabrications and exaggerations related to the life of James Scott Brown.
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|Date added||May 16, 2018, 8:31 p.m.|