Anonymous, the WikiLeaks-loving online hacktivist collective, claims the US military is developing a piece of software that can infiltrate Facebook and other social networks using an army of fake profiles, cross-referencing information to "track and identify" individuals.
Evidence of the software - code-named 'Metal Gear' by the group - was uncovered in leaked emails belonging to US security contractor HBGary, after the company was attacked by Anonymous for providing assistance to the FBI in unmasking its members.
In a press release issued late on Wednesday, Anonymous revealed a US patent application by IBM's research labs for software designed to recognise individuals by analysing their linguistic traits and online behaviour. The group also posted what it claims is an tender for 'persona management software' made last year by the US Air Force, which it claims was won by technology consultants Booz Allen Hamilton.
"This operation stems from a string of leaked HBGary emails wherein a company by the name of Booz Allen Hamilton, in direct contact with [HBGary chief] Aaron Barr, is believed to have bid on an successfully won the contract to develop an unnamed software from the US Air Force," the group explained.
"We believe Metal Gear involves an army of fake cyber personalities immersed in social networking websites... crawling information from major online communities (such as Facebook), and identifying anonymous personalities via correlating stored information from multiple sources to establish connections between separate online accounts, using this information to arrest dissidents and activists who work anonymously."
"It is sophisticated enough to develop a 'profile' for each puppet to add a level of 'realism' to each. In short, there would be no feasible way to distinguish between 100 people commenting on a subject, and 100 of these puppets doing the same," the press release claimed.
In a lengthy audio statement explaining their initial findings, members of Anonymous claimed an informant inside the US Air Force had confirmed the existence of the technology. One speaker explained its implications:
"Imagine losing your anonymity. Imagine creating an online account under one alias and, months later, creating another online account under another alias, completely splitting the two. Nobody knows your old one; nobody knows your new one. They're completely different," said the Anonymous spokesperson.
"Imagine software that can correlate every login time from both of these accounts, every piece of grammar you use, every nickname... this software automatically finding out who you are online."
If true, the allegations echo comments made by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange earlier this week, when he claimed that the Internet - and particularly social networks - is being used by governments as the "greatest spying machine the world has ever seen".