It appears as though Russian interest in America and our political landscape wasn't limited to ads and bots. According to The Wall Street Journal, the country's influence campaign extended to gathering personal information on Americans. The Internet Research Agency, which is backed by the Russian government, used fake social media accounts to collect names, email addresses and more. The activity continued after the 2016 election.
Using social media, Russian accounts such as @Black4Black and @BlackMattersUS reached out to small business owners, asking for personal information in order to write profiles and promotional content. They promised to add these companies to a business directory as part of their activist outreach. But nothing ever happened.
In another case, a supposed activist organization called BlackFist actually paid a man named Maurice Bright via PayPal to teach self-defense lessons in his community. The group asked for personal information of attendees and videos of the classes in exchange. "They were really adamant about getting names," Mr. Bright told The Wall Street Journal, especially after he refused to send along any contact information. He chose to discontinue the partnership after the group wanted him to start teaching offensive, rather than defensive, tactics.
It's not fully clear why Russian operatives want this personal information, but it could be tied to either identity theft or a larger effort to influence US politics. After all, two million American identities were stolen for fake net neutrality comments. It's quite possible that this kind of personal data could have been used for similar efforts to influence the US political landscape.
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- This article originally appeared on Engadget.