Secret US-made 'Cuban Twitter' to go under government microscope

The social-media platform was designed to attract young Cubans and get them to rebel against the country's communist government.

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The US government took a page out of Twitter's book to undermine Cuba's leadership, and now lawmakers want some answers.

Over a period of two years starting in 2009, the US government's Agency for International Development (USAID), an organization run by the State Department, established and operated a Twitter-like social network in Cuba with the express purpose of undermining the country's communist government, The Associated Press revealed this week.

On Tuesday, the head of USAID, Rajiv Shah, will sit before a Senate subcommittee on foreign operations and State Department budget, and is expected to take some heat for the program.

According to the AP, the social network, known as ZunZeneo, was established by way of an elaborate network of shell companies and was financed by a foreign bank to limit the chances of it being traced back to the US. Once ZunZeneo was operational, USAID targeted young Cubans for over two years, the report claims. The service was similar to Twitter in its communication features, and was going to be used as a tool to establish dissent against the Cuban government before its plug was pulled in 2012 due to lack of funding, according to the report.

Over 40,000 people signed up for the service, according to the AP, and the US government was collecting information on them for possible use against the Cuban government.

Following the report, a long line of lawmakers denounced the program, including Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who sits on the subcommittee Shah will testify before next week. Leahy called the program "dumb, dumb, dumb."

That the US government was engaging in a clandestine, digital operation on foreign territory is perhaps no surprise. For years, the Chinese government has been saying that the US has been hacking its servers and networks to gain classified information. The US has charged China, among other nations, with also conducting cyberspying and hacking.

Despite lawmakers acknowledging ZunZeneo's existence, none have actually said that they knew about it. USAID has argued that lawmakers were made aware of the program in briefings, but they claim to have no knowledge of those discussions. Sen. Leahy said only that it was mentioned and was not made clear to lawmakers.

The State Department's leadership also has denied all knowledge of the program, with current Secretary of State John Kerry indicating he didn't know it existed. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is also believed to have had no knowledge of the program.

CNET has contacted the State Department for comment on the AP report. We will update this story when we have more information.

About the author

Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.

 

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