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FBI trolls Russian embassy with geotargeted ads for disgruntled spies

FBI trolls Russian embassy with geotargeted ads for disgruntled spies

Aurich Lawson | Getty Images

The FBI’s latest counterintelligence operation against Russia is hardly secretive—you just have to be standing in the right place.

In the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the FBI has stepped up its recruiting efforts in the US, hoping to attract Russians who are dissatisfied or disillusioned with the war. People standing in close proximity to the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC, can see the ads, which appear in Russian, on Facebook, Twitter, and Google.

One ad appeared in a Washington Post reporter’s Facebook feed when he was standing on the sidewalk next to the embassy’s walls on Wisconsin Avenue NW, but none appeared in his feed when he crossed the street.

“It’s a brilliant recruiting strategy because I think there’s probably a lot of folks within the Russian government that are incredibly dissatisfied with Putin’s war, and therefore it’s a great opportunity to see if any of those dissatisfied people could help us understand Putin’s intentions better,” Peter Lapp, a former FBI counterintelligence agent, told the Post.

Many advertising platforms allow advertisers to target ads based on location. Locations can be as broad as a country or region or as small as a radius defined by the user. For Facebook ads, the minimum is one mile, though it’s possible to trim that further by excluding certain locations via ZIP codes or specific neighborhoods.

The Facebook ad that appears at the Russian Embassy shows Sergey Naryshkin, director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, standing uncomfortably at a lectern alongside a stern-looking Putin. The text over the image quotes Putin, saying, “Speak plainly, Sergey Yevgenyevich.” The ad recalls a series of tense moments from one of Putin’s televised meetings in the build-up to the war, during which he repeatedly interrupted Naryshkin and pressed him to “speak plainly” when the spy chief stumbled over his words. At the bottom of the image, the FBI wrote, “Speak plainly… we are ready to listen.”

This ad appears on Facebook when a user is near or at the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC.
Enlarge / This ad appears on Facebook when a user is near or at the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC.


Above the ad, the FBI implores readers to contact the agency. “The information provided to the FBI by the public is the most effective means of combating threats. If you have information that could help the FBI, please contact us,” it says. The ad links to the Washington field office’s counterintelligence program, encouraging visitors to “visit us in person” and saying that “[t]he information you provide will be handled in a confidential manner, and our interactions with you will be professional and respectful.” The same text appears on the bottom half of the page in Russian.

Lapp told the Post that the ads will probably have Russian counterintelligence officials working overtime to determine whether any of the country’s spies or diplomats visited the site or the FBI’s field office. 

“Russian counterintelligence officers are currently in an all-hands-on-deck mode to make sure their folks don’t stray and that they are keeping an eye on their own officers to make sure that no one goes rogue,” he said. “This will probably cause those folks to work even harder than they are already working, and they may end up chasing ghosts, things that aren’t there, and spend time doing this. That in and of itself is a counterintelligence success for the FBI.”

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