On Thursday night, people in Russia and Iran started getting weird text messages. The texts offered people $10 million for information about cyber threats related to the upcoming U.S. election. It had a handy link where respondents could report tips. The U.S. State Department has admitted responsibility for the text messages, according to Reuters.
The State Department told Reuters in an email that the unsolicited text messages were meant to build awareness internationally. “This is a worldwide campaign in multiple languages,” State told Reuters.
The messages are written in Farsi or Russian and say, “the United States pays up to $10 million for any information on foreign interference in American elections.” The provided link routes to the U.S. Rewards for Justice program, a website where people can report tips about wanted terrorists and election interference for cash.
The State Department announced the program on August 5 and started sending out text messages a day later. “The reward offer seeks information on the identification or location of any person who, while acting at the direction of or under the control of a foreign government, interferes with any U.S. federal, state, or local election,” a press release said.
Reaction to the texts on Russian and Iranian social media been critical. “Imagine, for a second, a mirror situation: the Russian Foreign Ministry directly addresses American citizens and announces collecting information about Washington's intervention in Russian domestic policy, offering a website,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Facebook.
Former CIA officer Jeff Asher also criticized the strategy. “This is the absolute dumbest possible idea,” he said on Twitter. “Let's say you actually by some miracle reach somebody with information who wants to share it. Now you've tainted them with overt [United States Government] contact and you've bypassed the org that can conceivably handle them covertly (CIA).”