Spies, private investigators, criminals, and even some journalists have long used false identities to trick people into providing information, a practice known as pretexting. The Internet made pretexting easier. Aviran thought that fake online personae, known as avatars, could be used to spy on terrorist groups and to head off planned attacks. In 2004, he started Terrogence, which became the first major Israeli company to demonstrate the effectiveness of avatars in counterterrorism work.
When Terrogence launched, many suspected jihadi groups communicated through members-only online forums run by designated administrators. To get past these gatekeepers, Terrogence’s operatives gave their avatars legends, or backstories—often as Arab students at European universities. As the avatars proliferated, their operators joked that the most valuable online chat rooms were now entirely populated by avatars, who were, inadvertently, collecting information from one another.