Published On: September 22, 2017

Russian Hacking Mystery Solved

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When Russia created Facebook profiles of fake Americans to influence the 2016 American election, it could make up fake names and biographical details, but it needed photos, too.

Now a salesman in Brazil has stepped forward to say that his own family photos were stolen to invent the profile of “Melvin Redick,” one of many American impostors created in the spread of Russian fake news on Facebook and Twitter.

Last week, The New York Times featured “Melvin’s” Facebook profile as an example of fake social media accounts that were used to attack Hillary Clinton during the US presidential campaign, promote leaked emails obtained by Russian hackers, and propagate the Kremlin’s political views.

The fictitious Melvin was an early promoter last year of a website, DCLeaks.com, that American officials believe was created by Russian military intelligence. But The New York Times could find no American who fit the details Melvin provided on Facebook.

putinThere was no Melvin Redick in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he supposedly lived. The high school and college Melvin listed in his Facebook profile were contacted by The New York Times, but the schools had never heard of him. And when The New York Times asked Facebook about him — as well as other profiles that appeared to be the work of Russian hackers — the company concluded that they were impostors and removed them from Facebook.

The New York Times noted that one of Melvin’s photos on Facebook showed him sitting in a bar in Brazil. In another, a bedroom seemed to have a Brazilian-style electrical outlet. Globo.com, the online news service of Brazil’s biggest media conglomerate, saw the coverage by The New York Times and agreed to help solve the mystery of Melvin.

Globo.com crowdsourced Melvin’s photo, asking readers for help. Globo.com reproduced images The New York Times had taken from the Facebook page, including pictures of the man and his daughter. “Do you know these people?” Globo.com asked online.

A Globo reader spotted the photos and recognized her son-in-law, Charles David Costacurta of Jundiaí, a city in São Paulo state. Charles was contacted by Globo, but he was suspicious at first, said Carlos Dias, a Globo reporter. Eventually, Charles agreed to meet with Globo at a television station.

Fake Russian Facebook page for Melvin Reddick using photo of Brazilian

Fake Russian Facebook page for Melvin Redick using photos of Brazilian, Charles Costacurta

The photos were in fact of him, Charles told Globo, and were 2014 shots of himself and his daughter that he had posted on Facebook. He was particularly disturbed that the images had been stolen, he told Globo, because he used the privacy settings on Facebook to limit access to his profile. “I was scared, and I asked my girlfriend to take a look because I do not understand much about social networks and the internet,” Charles said.

Before publishing the photos, The New York Times tried to find their source using Google’s image search function, but nothing turned up. This suggested that they might belong to a Facebook user because Facebook blocks Google image searches of its profiles. Facebook declined to say whether it had searched internally and found the photos before Charles came forward. For Charles, his cameo role in Russia’s fake news campaign appeared to be a harsh lesson in the fragile nature of privacy in an age of social media. “We’re totally vulnerable,” he told Globo.

[This article appeared originally in The New York Times in somewhat different form.]

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