A Colombian Hacker Shares His Experience Working in Politics—and Rigging Elections
“I worked in politics that are not seen.”
So says convicted hacker Andrés Sepúlveda, currently serving 10 years in a high-security Colombian prison for his crimes in multiple elections.
In a Bloomberg profile published Friday, Sepúlveda told his story for the first time in the hope that his confession will aid in his chances for a reduced sentence. He said he spent eight years using his technical skills to hack and manipulate elections across Latin America. Most notably, he claimed to have helped Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto win the 2012 election.
Bloomberg explains in detail the types of tactics Sepúlveda used for his “jobs,” noting that he often worked for political consultant Juan José Rendón (something Rendón denies). Hacking such things as travel schedules, email databases and phone calls, Sepúlveda employed “a rotating group of 7 to 15 hackers” from throughout Latin America. While he often chose hackers to gather a variety of different skills, The Huffington Post notes that Sepúlveda himself was a pro at “cognitive hacking,” described as a way that a hacker “attempts to change people’s perception of reality.” This is illustrated many times throughout the Bloomberg piece:
[H]is insight was to understand that voters trusted what they thought were spontaneous expressions of real people on social media more than they did experts on television and in newspapers. He knew that accounts could be faked and social media trends fabricated, all relatively cheaply. He wrote a software program, now called Social Media Predator, to manage and direct a virtual army of fake Twitter accounts. The software let him quickly change names, profile pictures, and biographies to fit any need. Eventually, he discovered, he could manipulate the public debate as easily as moving pieces on a chessboard—or, as he puts it, “When I realized that people believe what the Internet says more than reality, I discovered that I had the power to make people believe almost anything.”
While much of Bloomberg’s profile focuses on the details of multiple Latin American elections, there are some chilling references to the state of American politics:
On the question of whether the U.S. presidential campaign is being tampered with, he is unequivocal. “I’m 100 percent sure it is,” he says. …
Sepúlveda’s contention that operations like his happen on every continent is plausible, says David Maynor, who runs a security testing company in Atlanta called Errata Security. Maynor says he occasionally gets inquiries for campaign-related jobs. His company has been asked to obtain e-mails and other documents from candidates’ computers and phones, though the ultimate client is never disclosed. “Those activities do happen in the U.S., and they happen all the time,” he says.
In fact, as The Huffington Post reports, there are already examples of this distorted reality occurring in the U.S.: the “Stop Kony” campaign of 2012, for example, or armies of Twitter bots “influenc[ing] the outcome of elections in the U.S.” Or, as seen in this election season, Donald Trump:
No one seems to like the guy; his unfavorability rating is currently at 63.3 percent, according to the Huffington Post. Yet traffic to pieces about him and searches for his name have been hitting the ceiling since very early on. …
Now, that’s not to say Trump is rigging the computers. There’s such a thing as a hate search, and a hate read, and I don’t doubt for a second that many people who hate Trump are reading about him just to keep up-to-date and informed on their hatred. But can that account for all the hype?
Bloomberg ends its profile by noting a recent media accusation against Sepúlveda’s alleged boss, Rendón. It states that last year “the Colombian media reported that Rendón was working for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.” Although both Rendón and the Trump campaign deny this report, an exposé of an almost decade-long hacking career should serve as an example of how a darker side of the Internet can influence voters.
–Posted by Emma Niles