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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Peeling Back the eBananas Scandal

A package showing up on your doorstep normally gives you a little hit of excitement. But for one Massachusetts couple last year, the arrival of each new package triggered feelings of anxiety and dread. This week on Gadget Lab, we talk about the cyberstalking campaign that six former eBay employees allegedly launched against the married owners of a news website that’s often critical of the ecommerce industry. It’s a twisted tale featuring shipments of live roaches, a pig’s head mask, unwanted pornography, and a whole lot of bad feelings. WIRED’s own Brian Barrett joins us for the first half of the show to tell us about all the terrible antics the former eBayers have been charged with carrying out.

Later in the episode, we’re joined by WIRED’s Lily Hay Newman to discuss a new, previously unknown Russian internet group that’s been spreading disinformation online. Secondary Infektion, as the group is known, has for years been trying to disrupt elections, sow discord among European nations, and spread nationalist Russian propaganda using thousands of temporary social media accounts. A new report from researchers at Graphika outlines the group’s activities.

Show Notes

Brian Barrett’s story about the alleged eBay harassment scandal is here. Also read Lily on Grafika’s report about Secondary Infektion.


Lily recommends keeping your tattoos and clothing logos hidden during public protests. Brian recommends Alabama Booksmith, which sells signed first editions of books. Mike recommends the Black Lives collection streaming for free on the Criterion Channel. Lauren recommends Duolingo for learning new languages.

Brain Barrett can be found on Twitter @BrBarrett. Lily is @lilyhnewman. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Mike is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our executive producer is Alex Kapelman (@alexkapelman). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.

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Lauren Goode: Absolutely bananas insane. Mike, do you know what I'm referring to?

Michael Calore: Is that the new flavor of smoothie that shows up in your Hello Fresh box?

LG: Does Hello Fresh deliver smoothies?

MC: [Laughs] I don't know. You tell me.

LG: I don't know, but I'm intrigued. No, I'm going to explain what that means. Just keep that phrase in mind. Absolutely bananas insane.

[Intro theme music]

LG: Hi everyone, I'm Lauren Goode. I'm a senior writer at WIRED, and you're listening to Gadget Lab. I am joined remotely by my cohost, WIRED senior editor Michael Calore, who is back from a break. We missed you.

MC: Thank you. Thank you. It's great to be back, and it's great to see your face on the little postage stamp on my screen.

LG: I'm sure you missed Zooming in your time off.

MC: I did, yes.

LG: All right. "Absolutely bananas insane" is what WIRED's digital director, Brian Barrett, tweeted the other day when he shared his story about the harassment campaign that six former eBay employees allegedly launched against a Massachusetts couple who happened to run an ecommerce news site. And that is what we're going to talk about first on today's podcast. Brian, thanks for coming on Gadget Lab.

Brian Barrett: Thank you guys for having me back.

LG: Then later in the show, WIRED's Lily Hay Newman is going to join us to take us through the details of a troubling Russian disinformation campaign. But first, I'm just going to call this story bananas eBay. Is that OK? Can we just call it bananas eBay? I think that's what it says in the court documents, right?

BB: Yep. I think so. Allegedly bananas eBay.

LG: A criminal complaint released this week by the Massachusetts District Attorney's Office lays out this series of bizarre allegations that former eBay executives coordinated a long outrageous harassment campaign. Brian, take us through the details of the case. How did this all start? What do we need to know?

BB: Well, I will just give you the speed-run version, because there are too many details. It's a 56- or something page criminal complaint, and every page is more bizarre and alarming than the last. So it all started last August. Two eBay executives who we now know to be the former CEO and the former head of PR we're texting each other, complaining about a site called EcommerceBytes, which they felt was covering eBay too negatively. The former CEO says to the former head of PR something to the effect of, "Take her down." That was in one of the texts. And that launched an alleged caper that lasted for two or three weeks. One thing I want to make clear is that everything here, nothing's proven. There's still a legal process to play out, and the two executives in question are not charged with anything. It's sort of a Thomas Beckett, "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" situation. It feels like where they handed the ball to their head of global security and he ran with it and threw it at a middle-aged couple from Massachusetts.

LG: So what exactly did they do?

BB: We have six eBay employees and contractors, all of whom have left the company since or were fired, who plotted a bizarre campaign to harass this couple. The strategy was two-pronged. One, they were going to mail increasingly disturbing packages to their home that included live cockroaches, a Halloween mask that looked like a bloody pig's face, live fly larvae, live spiders, a funeral wreath, and a book about how to cope with a dead spouse. This is a married couple. Phase two was to create a phony social media profile that would continually batter these people with DMs, taking credit for all of the deliveries that were going on. Eventually, in a huge galaxy brain strategy moment, the eBay employees said, "You know what? We're going to make this couple feel like they're under attack, and then step in as eBay and solve their problem for them so that they will be nice to us."

LG: What?

BB: Yeah, it did not work out that way, but that was the plan. A couple of other highlights, and I'm sorry, we'll get to the questions, but there's just so much guys. They flew out from California—allegedly—to Massachusetts, drove to this couple's house—allegedly—with a GPS tracker that they intended to put on the couple's car, but couldn't get into the garage because the garage was locked. They advertised—allegedly—sex parties at all hours on Craigslist with this couple's home address, so they doxed the couple's address. And it just keeps going. There's much more, but I'm going to stop there, because that's sort of the gist of it. It's really incredible that this could have happened, and I'm very curious to see where it goes from here.

MC: So tell us about EcommerceBytes. What did this couple do to draw the ire of these eBay executives? What kind of stories are they writing?

BB: Yeah, this is an industry newsletter focused on ecommerce. They cover sites like eBay obviously, but also Amazon and Craigslist occasionally, anywhere that there's an ecommerce aspect. And there were specific stories that the executives reportedly weren't fans of. But when you look at them, they're not crazy over-the-top of critical; it's just the kind of criticism you would expect if you're a multibillion-dollar company. The other thing to note, though, is that eBay had gripes about some of the commenters too; they felt that some of the commenters on the site were especially egregious and over the top, and in some cases threatening. And so that was an element to this as well.

LG: So presumably this couple, at some point, contacted authorities and said, "This stuff is happening to us." How did this plan unravel?

BB: So according to court documents, you're right, they called the police. And in fact, when the eBay team made contact with them and said, "Hey, we're here to help," they said, "Well, actually we are already talking to the police, so go to them." The couple knew that they were being followed; they spotted that they were being followed by a van, a minivan. They got the license plate number, almost exactly right; they were off by one number. But basically they got enough information to trace this rental car that was following them around town, back to a member of the eBay team. And it all kind of unspooled from there.

MC: So there are other news organizations that cover very specific parts of the tech industry. Like for example, I'm thinking of all of the different new sites and blogs and newsletters that cover electric vehicles and write about Tesla and write about Nissan and Honda all the time. Has any sort of harassment campaign shown up anywhere else in the tech industry, or is this a pretty much an isolated incident?

BB: I invite Lauren to chime in here. The closest thing that comes to mind isn't harassment specifically, it's when HP did a surveillance campaign and sort of listened in on phone calls of nine or so journalists several years ago. Tensions obviously run hot with a lot of these companies, but I've never seen it get to this point and go to these extremes. "Alleged" extremes.

LG: Right, alleged. Yeah, nothing quite like this comes to mind. I mean, one thing that I was thinking about is, we're aware that some tech companies have dossiers on reporters. They like to compile information about us and our beats and what we typically covered in our prior coverage, hoping that in some way they can glean some insights into our psyches and what we're thinking about certain things and people and products. The most famous example we have is very close to us. Over a decade ago, Microsoft accidentally sent its dossier on our colleague Fred Vogelstein to Fred Vogelstein, via email. Yeah, he was emailed this. He wasn't supposed to see it. And he was able to see exactly all of the information that Microsoft had compiled on him. So the existence of that kind of document doesn't necessarily signal any kind of animosity. But that said, sometimes things can get quite tense between reporters and the companies they're covering.

BB: Yeah, and one other sort of recent example that maybe comes closer is Uber, back in the bad old days of Uber, had floated the idea of spending up to a million dollars to do oppo research on a journalist named Sarah Lacy, who had written a lot of critical things about the company. But even that, and at the time that was shocking and scandalous, it was nowhere near mailing live cockroaches to someone's house.

LG: No, this is wild. Okay so I have two questions. One, of the six former ebay employees who are cited in this filing, does that include the former CEO and the former top comms executive, or are they two characters in addition to the six employees who launched this alleged campaign and two, what are the charges these people face?

BB: So to the first point, that's a really important distinction that I feel like is getting lost. And there are still things we don't know, but the two executives, they are not charged with anything. They are not named in the criminal complaint. We have confirmed their identities independently through reporting, and I think there's still a lot of questions that remain. It seems at least plausible that a lot of this was just a team of rogue employees who went down a very bad path. I think the bigger accountability question is what enabled the culture, where they felt like that was okay to do in the first place, right? So even though they weren't actually hitting buy on the Halloween mask, they were still sort of overseeing this world in which these people did that.

And in terms of the charges, all six of the former employees and contractors, they're charged with conspiracy to commit cyberstalking and conspiracy to tamper with witnesses. On that second point, we didn't get to that, but basically they tried to coach each other through various interviews with police and eBay's own internal investigative team to figure out how they were going to lie most effectively to get out of this. So each charge carries a sentence of up to five years and a fine of up to $250,000 plus restitution. It's hard to quantify what the restitution would be for a two week or whatever long campaign of terror. But I guess we'll find out as this continues to play itself out.

LG: All right, Brian, I am really glad that you're on this case because I'm sure you're going to continue to update us and we'll have to have you back on the show to do so, but stick around for this next segment. We're going to take a quick break and we come back, we're going talk about the disinformation campaign you haven't heard of yet.


LG: Welcome back. By now, it's well known that Russian operatives have perpetrated multiple coordinated campaigns to spread disinformation online. But until recently, one operation has flown under the radar. It's called Secondary Infektion. The infection is spelled with a K, and its tactics have been difficult to track. It's also notable because of just how many platforms this group has reached in this ongoing disinformation war. So this week, WIRED senior writer, Lily Hay Newman, wrote a story about this on WIRED.com, and we've brought her on the show to tell us all about it. Lily, thanks for joining us.

Lily Hay Newman: Good to be here.

LG: So how is Secondary Infektion different from other dis information campaigns?

LN: Right. So I think the crucial differences here is that, Secondary Infektion is all about covering its tracks. They use burner accounts for everything they do as their big hallmark. So every post on a blog, every post on a social network, it's all from a onetime account that they just use really briefly for that action and then the account goes away. And that emphasis on, what we call operational security, is just really unusual in these campaigns because other groups like the Internet Research Agency, that you may have heard of, that have been sort of gallivanting about perpetrating these disinformation campaigns over the recent years, they're really focused on their reach and sort of growing the brand of their accounts, and trying to get a lot of followers so they can really get their information or disinformation out there as far as possible. But Secondary Infektion just seems to have a really different approach and potentially really different goals in what they're trying to achieve.

MC: So Lily, the other two big disinformation campaigns run out of Russia are the IRA, which you mentioned, and the GRU. From what we've seen of those, how is this different in scope? From what I understand from your story, they all have similar targets. They're going after disrupting international elections, they're trying to sow unrest between European countries, but Secondary Infektions' net spreads a little bit wider. Can you tell us about that?

LN: Yeah, they definitely have a lot of overlap in targeting. There are also some differences in what the different groups were particularly interested in pursuing in terms of targets. But the scope is a really interesting factor because the other two were really focused on prominent mainstream, social media or things like hacking to be able to do leaking campaigns of legitimate data, things like disruptive attacks, things like that. Whereas, Secondary Infektion is casting this really wide net, again with these one time burner accounts across all sorts of platforms, so not just prominent social networks, that we know in the US, or prominent in other markets, but much more niche, sort of local micro-blogging forums. And again, the reason it's so significant to have all these types of more disparate sites that they're using is that they're also using the burner accounts.

So it's like they both don't have a concentrated presence in a few sites and also have these really ephemeral identities rather than developing more fully formed personas. So it's much more of a, just throw everything against the wall and see what sticks, type of approach, seemingly. But I think a big question about Secondary Infektion and something to note, this is research from the social media and disinformation research from Graphika. One thing Graphika is still really open to hearing more research on it doesn't have conclusions on yet, is really what the ultimate goals of these campaigns were. Because they sync up with a lot of the targeting of the other Russian operations, as you were saying, but they don't seem to be as effective, stuff can't go viral this way generally. So it's just a little more unclear what exactly they were trying to do.

Perhaps they were so focused on hiding their identity so they could kind of get it out in front of the other groups and sort of poke around and see what's happening and see what might work. Maybe it's sort of a reconnaissance type of action, but it's really hard to say. And Secondary Infektion is also really big on making fake leaks, where they say they're releasing a leak, but really it's just forged documents or forged data that they've created. And those forgeries were never, or almost never very good. It was pretty obvious that there were forgeries. So it's really unclear what their ultimate goal was since it wasn't as obviously effective as the other groups.

LG: So it sounds like there are two alarming parts to this, at least. One being that they have been so hard to track, and the second being that we're just not sure what it is they want.

LN: Yeah, exactly. And I think, the fact that they seem to be a distinct third entity, it really indicates the shortcomings actually of our view of what's been going on with Russian disinformation in these recent years. It's been so prominent and in all of our minds and yet there was this whole other operation happening. Secondary Infektion has been around since 2014 and they clearly were funded all this time to be doing operations throughout. So there's some type of persistent interest in what they're doing, but we don't exactly know what the benefit was from all of this.

BB: Is there an element to, it's certainly alarming, is it also a little bit reassuring that they are terrible at their job?

LN: Yeah. Researchers we talked to definitely pointed out that one thing you can take from Secondary Infektion is that not all Russian disinformation operations are the pinnacle of sophistication and effectiveness. That they are trying stuff out and messing around and just trying to figure out what to do the same as anyone else would be, and that there isn't this sort of sinister all-knowing power here. That it's a human endeavor for sure.

MC: I would like to do the American thing and make this all about us.

LN: By all means.

MC: We're in an election year right now. And which Russian disinformation campaign should we be most worried about this year? Is it one of these three or is it one that we have not yet heard of?

LN: Yeah, I think that's a really great question. Secondary Infektion, for their part, they're not gone. The researchers have seen activity as of March 2020, but they seem to have kind of dropped under the radar again, after researchers started publishing preliminary findings about them over the last year, and then this big report has just come out that's more comprehensive. So I don't want to say they're gone, but it's worth noting that they've scaled back a bit, at least from what we can see. But I think your point is really good that we need to be concerned about all options here. It could be that hacking and leaking were disruptive operations, like we saw in 2016, come back and that is a concern, or it could be that there's a fourth, a fifth, more groups than we can imagine, with other approaches or agendas. And while I don't want to freak anyone out, something that we can take from Secondary Infektion is that we don't have the full picture.

BB: And Lily, isn't it true that, Burisma for example, there have been reports that it was hacked several months ago, and given the amount of energy that Trump has in the past, tried to make it seem like some sort of shady connection with Biden. The closer we get to the election, the more likely we are to maybe see the results of that or some other sort of hacking we don't even know about to try to throw things off as November gets closer.

LN: Yeah, that's really a good point. And I think the fact that we in the US experienced this in 2016 is going to put everyone on high alert going into November, both for legitimate things that could crop up that are a concern, as well as just sort of devolving into conspiracy theories about taking every signal as a potential issue. So that's sort of the whole purpose of disinformation campaigns is to sow that uncertainty about what's real, what's really going on. And I think Brian's making a great point that that is also an important thing to watch out for.

LG: Lily, thanks for taking us through this story, or as much as we know right now, and I encourage everyone to go to WIRED.com and read both Brian's story about the eBay scandal and Lily's story about this Russian disinformation campaign. We're going to take a quick break and we come back, we'll do recommendations.


LG: All right, Lily, what's your recommendation for our listeners this week?

LN: So I'm going to recommend something not to do. As protests continue around the US, and people are really mobilizing and trying to get out there, my recommendation would be to not wear logos to protest, visible logos on your clothing or something like a recognizable image, something like that. And I also recommend that if you have any tattoos that they not be visible when you're attending protests. Because, this is always sort of a theoretical concern, but just in recent weeks, there have been reports about protesters being tracked by law enforcement, away from protests, because of either what they were wearing or a really recognizable tattoo. So it's just something to keep in mind. There was even an example in Philadelphia very recently. And just plain wear clothes, it's unassuming, and it's just a simple way to make you blend into the crowd.

LG: Great advice, Lily. Thanks for that, Brian, what's your recommendation.

BB: I'm going to recommend my local bookstore. Can I do that?

LG: Absolutely.

BB: They're called, Alabama Booksmith. I live in Birmingham, Alabama, and they are great, they're very friendly people. And what they do is they only sell signed first additions of books, so it's great for a gift. If you are someone who likes a signed book or want to give a signed book, they have a great selection. So my general recommendation is support your local bookseller in these times, because it's a hard economic time. And if you're looking for a nice little gift, try Alabama Booksmith. Wonderful people, good books.

LG: Great. Thank you so much, Mike, what do you got for us? I look forward to hearing whatever it was that you enjoyed or consumed on your break.

MC: I spent a lot of time on my break, listening to the new Russian death metal band called Secondary Infektion. They're very good. You should check them out.

LN: They emerged out of nowhere.

MC: So this month there is a great moment in political history, and I'm referring to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, in response to police brutality and in celebration of their achievements recently, and in celebration of Juneteenth, which we just had this week, the Criterion Channel has put together a collection called Black Lives. It's 28 films directed by or featuring Black filmmakers or people from different African-American communities and African communities around the world who have stories that need to be told. The Criterion Channel is a streaming service. You can get it on any device. You can watch it on your computer. You can watch it on your phone. You can watch it on your Roku, that streams movies with great cultural import right, art films, winners from Cannes and historical films going all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century. This collection of 28 movies is outside of the Criterion's paywall for the entire month of June.

There's all kinds of great stuff in there. It's all independent films, small films, things that you probably have not seen. Movies like Kathleen Collins' feature, Losing Ground. There are a few, I think, four movies from the director Charles Burnett, a black film director who was prominent in the seventies and eighties. Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunn, is one that I watched two days ago, which was absolutely fantastic. If you're looking for a place to start, I recommend Agnes Varda's half hour documentary on the Black Panthers, shot in Oakland in the seventies, and also Les Blank's movie about Mance Lipscomb. It's 45 minutes long. It's called A Well-Spent Life. Mance is a blues singer and a farmer from Texas, and you kind of zoom into his life for three quarters of an hour, and it's just delightful. So this collection is streaming during the entire month of June. You have a couple of weeks left in the month to get caught up. It's entirely free, whether you're a subscriber or not.

LG: This is great. Thank you, Mike. There's so many great recommendations here, and we should also note that streaming services like Netflix and Apple TV and Amazon Prime have also put together a bunch of different collections. They're calling them different things, like for example, Netflix has a collection called Black Lives Matter, and it includes a lot of different films and series and documentaries that will help you learn more about the Black experience and racial injustice and are very much worth taking a look at.

My recommendation this week is the app Duolingo. Many of you are probably familiar with this, it's been around for a while. I joked the other night on Twitter that I have now entered the Duolingo phase of sheltering in place. Looking for things to do as we are primarily staying home and trying to keep the people around us healthy. So it's fun, there's a little owl who welcomes you to every lesson. I mean, it's sort of a gamified experience. You get points and you level up and you unlock new experiences. And I'm not at the point yet where I'm trying to, I'm certainly not good enough yet to be deeply conversational, so I'm not quite sure how the app will ultimately compare to things like immersion learning or other understanding, like sort of more complicated conjugations and things like that. But in terms of just learning phrases and sort of like slowly increasing your learning of those phrases over time, I am really enjoying Duolingo. Has anyone else used it?

LN: I did use it once to try to learn Dutch. I didn't even really think it that was going to happen, but I was just curious and it was very fun and I did enjoy the owl and I was into it for a little bit, but Dutch is really hard guys. Hats off to all Dutch speakers. So that's my story.

MC: Hats off to the Dutch. It is an impossible language to learn.

LG: Can you say hello in Dutch?

LN: Aw, man, this was like years ago, man.

LG: I will say that when I tweeted the other night that I was using it, a friend texted me and said, "Give up on Duolingo." And it was incredibly ominous and I was like, "Good Lord, what did Duolingo do to hurt her?" It was like she had a bad experience with it for some reason, but I am enjoying it so far.

MC: Great.

LG: All right, that's our show for this week. Thank you to Lily and Brian for joining us.

BB: Thank you guys.

LN: Stay safe out there guys.

LG: And thanks to all of you for listening. If you have feedback, you can find all of us on Twitter. Just check the show notes. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth. Our executive producer is Alex Kapelman. We'll be back next week. And until then, stay healthy.

[Outro theme music]

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