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10 April, 2016

How to hack an election

Andrés Sepúlveda rigged elections throughout Latin America for almost a decade. He tells his story for the first time.

PART 2

Sepúlveda grew up poor in Bucaramanga, eight hours north of Bogotá by car. His mother was a secretary. His father was an activist, helping farmers find better crops to grow than coca plants, and the family moved constantly because of death threats from drug traffickers. His parents divorced, and by the age of 15, after failing school, he went to live with his father in Bogotá and used a computer for the first time. He later enrolled in a local technology school and, through a friend there, learned to code.

In 2005, Sepúlveda’s older brother, a publicist, was helping with the congressional campaigns of a party aligned with then-Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Uribe was a hero of the brothers, a U.S. ally who strengthened the military to fight the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). During a visit to party headquarters, Sepúlveda took out his laptop and began scanning the office’s wireless network. He easily tapped into the computer of Rendón, the party’s strategist, and downloaded Uribe’s work schedule and upcoming speeches. Sepúlveda says Rendón was furious—then hired him on the spot. Rendón says this never happened.

For decades, Latin American elections were rigged, not won, and the methods were pretty straightforward. Local fixers would hand out everything from small appliances to cash in exchange for votes. But in the 1990s, electoral reforms swept the region. Voters were issued tamper-proof ID cards, and nonpartisan institutes ran the elections in several countries. The modern campaign, at least a version North Americans might recognize, had arrived in Latin America.

Rendón had already begun a successful career based partly, according to his critics—and more than one lawsuit—on a mastery of dirty tricks and rumormongering. (In 2014, El Salvador’s then-President Carlos Mauricio Funes accused Rendón of orchestrating dirty war campaigns throughout Latin America. Rendón sued in Florida for defamation, but the court dismissed the case on the grounds that Funes couldn’t be sued for his official acts.) The son of democracy activists, he studied psychology and worked in advertising before advising presidential candidates in his native Venezuela. After accusing then-President Chávez of vote rigging in 2004, he left and never went back.

Sepúlveda’s first hacking job, he says, was breaking into an Uribe rival’s website, stealing a database of e-mail addresses, and spamming the accounts with disinformation. He was paid $15,000 in cash for a month’s work, five times as much as he made in his previous job designing websites.

Sepúlveda was dazzled by Rendón, who owned a fleet of luxury cars, wore big flashy watches, and spent thousands on tailored coats. Like Sepúlveda, he was a perfectionist. His staff was expected to arrive early and work late. “I was very young,” Sepúlveda says. “I did what I liked, I was paid well and traveled. It was the perfect job.” But more than anything, their right-wing politics aligned. Sepúlveda says he saw Rendón as a genius and a mentor. A devout Buddhist and practitioner of martial arts, according to his own website, Rendón cultivated an image of mystery and menace, wearing only all-black in public, including the occasional samurai robe. On his website he calls himself the political consultant who is the “best paid, feared the most, attacked the most, and also the most demanded and most efficient.” Sepúlveda would have a hand in that.

Rendón, says Sepúlveda, saw that hackers could be completely integrated into a modern political operation, running attack ads, researching the opposition, and finding ways to suppress a foe’s turnout. As for Sepúlveda, his 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.

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