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3 Feb 2011

The Internet: The Battleground in the World's First Global 'Info War'

The various politically-driven hacker groups who previously worked quietly and surreptitiously in cramped suburban spare-rooms all over the world have emerged into the open, more or less, as they take open revenge for what they see as the oppression of free speech. Yet, to see this episode in isolation is to completely miss the point, for the wrangle over Wikileaks is just the tip of a very large iceberg, it's merely the opening shots in what is a very large and potentially dangerous cyber-struggle being conducted over the entire surface of the planet, even as you read these words.

The front line of this cyber-war is largely invisible to most of us, but recent events have brought some of the main targets into public view. The past week has seen organised attacks by a loose confederation of hacker groups on major corporate websites according to The Guardian. Mastercard, PayPal, Visa and Amazon are among them but they are certainly not alone.

George Monbiot describes the Wikileaks struggle in terms of the enclosure movement by oppressive landlords during the 18th century. In this case though the 'common' right to freedom of information championed by the populace, which it was thought at one time the internet would protect, Monbiot sees as being attacked by powerful interests. He calls it 'astroturfing', in the sense that the tendency for grassroots movements to appear among the public in times of trouble is being mimicked by corporations and the state. The tactic is identifiable in two ways, first, those issues debated by seemingly ordinary members of the public in which there there are massed profits at stake, for example the losses which may be incurred by corporations through measures to counter climate change, often include much more abusive and insulting language in newspaper and website comments pages than those issues in which finance is not a factor. Second, the views expressed by those we may call the 'belligerents' often follow right-wing, conservative, anti-tax, anti-regulatory agendas.

Essentially Monbiot is suggesting that the internet has become a battleground, that there is a secret guerrilla warfare going on, with both sides adopting the tactics of sabotage, subterfuge and trickery, of which the vast majority of the public have very little knowledge. The scary thing is that he's right.

Monbiot is mostly talking about propaganda warfare using discourse and debate, PR, marketing and other linguistic media. He only really glosses over the Wikileaks affair as an opener to a broader discussion. Yet, the real nasty heart of this war is being fought right in the heart of cyber-space with computer hackers and cyber-spies as the 'front-line' troops. These 'cyber-warriors' see the internet as one of the best ways in which to hit back at numerous intrusions on privacy, attacks on civil liberty and a whole host of other evils launched against the global population both on and off the internet. Ironically the arrest of Julian Assange has highlighted one such complaint, the controversy over the European Arrest Warrant which, since it was introduced in 2003, has been widely condemned, not least for creating a bizarre situation in which someone can be arrested in Britain for an offence under Swedish law and be extradited relatively easily without the presiding judge having enough evidence to legitimately support the extradition. Such things give ammunition to the numerous Icke-inspired crazies in Europe and America promoting the existence of a global 'New World Order' in which the European Union is seen almost as a resurgent fascist super-state. The conspiracy theorists may be grossly deluded but in one sense they have a point, the frontline in the struggle for control by powerful interests has already moved into everyone's own locality and will affect us all, if it hasn't already.

The main group behind the Wikileaks attacks call themselves 'Anonymous'. They emerged from various internet chat forums, particularly the 'b' message boards on 4Chan, a site regularly used by hackers as an online meeting space and also as a launch pad for various acts of trickery and mischief-making. Morality issues appears to be new ground for them as mostly they appear to be or to include trolls, those irritating characters who hang around on forums purely with the rather vindictive intent of tormenting anyone who appears to be vulnerable. 4Chan is a site that has recently resurfaced publicly in the current clamour over the attack on Gawker, the Manhattan-based network of hyper-fashionable blogs and media sites.

Gawker account holders, including the site's founder, Nick Denton, recently found their personal information dumped on the internet after a twenty-four attack by the previously unknown hacking group 'Gnosis'. Yet what makes the Gawker attack significant is that the site has had very little to do with the Wikileaks affair unlike other companies who have been targeted specifically because of withdrawal of support for Wikileaks or outright condemnation of it. Gawker's criticism of 4Chan made it a target for a revenge attack and it has accordingly suffered at least one attack already in response. A spokesman for Gnosis implied during an email conversation on the media website Mediaite that Gawker's apparently lamentable security had been almost an open invitation to attack.

Charles Arthur writing in The Guardian describes Anonymous as a "stampeding herd, not sure quite what it wants but certain that it's not going to put up with any obstacles, until it reaches an obstacle it can't hurdle, in which case it moves on to something else. This makes it sound like the most conspicuous manifestation of 'anarchy' you could ever encounter short of overall societal breakdown. That distinction appears to be equally applicable to Gnosis and it is actually important because it helps to explain where the most politically orientated hacking groups have come from, groups like Hacktivism for instance.

Hacktivism's website is interesting in its apparent blandness. The main page is all white apart from a dimly outlined headliner constructed from what appears to be elongated dashes. Appropriately on one level this conveys the notion of semi-invisibility. There is a clickable link which brings up a 5-page PDF document explaining the methods and apparent virtues of 'hacktivism'. "Hacktivism is the fusion of hacking and activism" it explains "more specifically hacktivism is described as hacking for a political cause". The document goes on to describe what appears to be the group's main philosophy, drawn from Stephen Levy's 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. This could also equally apply to other political hacking groups and thus almost to what appears to be a general 'cyber-war movement'. Essentially, Levy describes the 'hacker ethic' in terms of a series of tenets which may very well have found general acceptance within the hacking community:

• Access to computers should be unlimited and total

• All information should be free

• Mistrust authority - promote decentralization

• Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race or position.

• You create art and beauty on a computer

• Computers can change your life for the better.

This is classic anarchism dressed up in the language of the techno-geek. To fully understand this mentality therefore you have to understand the political philosophy of anarchism. This is actually very simple. No acceptance of any forms of authority at all and that includes anything which is perceived to encourage any form of hierarchy including religion or any form of spiritual belief, any concept of leadership or any notion of private or personal property both in physical form and intellectual. What is even more concerning about anarchism is that it appears to regard any form of personal interaction as entirely legitimate providing it is acceptable to the wider group. Therefore whilst incorporating arguably justified forms of political protest this philosophy actually goes beyond it. It is the breeding ground for both freedom fighters and bullies alike. One could also argue that it contains within itself an ultimate irony, in the sense that while anarchists often profess to oppose fascism, anarchism itself can very easily be the platform for it, as the history of 1930's Germany testifies.

This should explain something of the current global situation regarding the internet in which we find ourselves. The internet has literally become a global battle-ground for any group wishing to pursue its own interests whether or not that is at the expense of others. That includes all the world's nation-states with their various intelligence agencies and political agendas across the entire political spectrum. From the various nation-states of the capitalist west to the extreme communism of North Korea to the Islamic theocracy of Saudi Arabia and Iran, all are actively engaging in cyber-war. Naturally it also includes Islamic extremist terrorist groups such as Al Quaeda and other extremist religious movements.

All across the world, cyber-war between nation states is now prevalent. For example, Pakistani cyber-attacks have been launched against India recently while in January Google and Adobe were the latest in a long line of western companies attacked by Chinese government-sponsored hackers. In 2007 the Pentagon warned that Chinese hackers were planning an assault on the US Navy's carrier fleet and in August 2008 the BBC News website reported the ongoing cyber-war between hackers in Russia and Georgia, presumably encouraged by their respective governments. Cyber-war is also going on between South and North Korea with the former reporting in March an increase in attacks on its electronic infrastructure of up to 20 per cent above those of last year. Closer to home, Lord West, the previous Labour government's Security Minister, announced in June last year that the most serious threats to UK security came from cyber-attacks by Russia, China and Al-Quaeda. Other countries known to be actively indulging in cyber-war include Iran, which boasts of having the world's second largest cyber-army, Estonia and Israel. Indeed it is perhaps more appropriate to ask which nations aren't participating in such activity rather than those who are.

It's no wonder then that every nation on the surface of the planet will be or has already developed specialist units or departments within their respective security services devoted to the identification and defeat of cyber attacks. Certainly the US intelligence community including both the CIA and National Security Agency are well up on the game as are MI5.

When you consider all the various players engaged in the game, for some certainly see it as such, you should begin to see that the Wikileaks affair is more than an interesting episode unfolding on our tv screens and computer networks. It's a wake-up call. As Tom Mendelsohn described in The Independent this month, "what we're witnessing right now is the opening of hostilities in the first big infowar. The war for the Internet is very big indeed."

Essentially, what he's saying is that everyone who currently uses the internet is now either a warrior in the war for overall control of the net, or an unwitting, or not so unwitting, spectator of it. If the 'war' is won by the nastier elements among the global corporations and their government puppets then it will be the end of free speech as we know it among those who don't have the computer skills to surreptitiously discover the truth. If the anarchists win the cyber war, all information entered on computer will be common property, no matter how personal or embarrassing it may be. Simultaneously nation states are themselves embroiled in a global tussle to wrest control of the net both from 'the other guy' and also from their own populations. In essence then, it could be argued that the net is currently a battleground on which everyone is fighting everyone else. At stake is the control of information or, alternatively, free and unrestricted access to it.

How this will all pan out is anyone's guess, but it's very interesting watching it all unfold before our very eyes in the meantime. The future is about to change, and change dramatically.

Robin Whitlock

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