So at last we find ourselves in a real information war. I called it an internet war some weeks ago, a term that had a nerdy, not-yet-cool-enough-to-be-retro feel to it, back when Anonymous took down Mastercard, Visa and Paypal in protest over the corporate hostility to WikiLeaks (of which more later). ‘Information war’ is more useful, because information is both the target and tool of this conflict.
Since then, Anonymous has taken down Tunisian Government websites and the web page of the Spanish Senate. Taking down a developing country’s official sites and that of one of the more obscure European parliaments, one suspects, will not feature prominently as a feat of arms when the history of the information wars comes to be written tweeted, except… can someone just explain to me how a bunch of hackers briefly pausing from playing Halo and swapping Pedobear jokes knew enough to work out something big was happening in Tunisia, when all the earnest professionals and foreign policy wonks in the western media thought it not worth bothering with?
More to the point, Anonymous used a DDOS tool that can be downloaded from the internet, with an option to allow it to be remotely controlled; in a new version it can be used through your browser. When I was a lad, you had to know your way around computer code to engage in this sort of hactivity, either because you’d done a degree in Computer Science or because you spent your teenage years glued to a PC screen. Now you can just download an app and fire away (realising, of course, that without an anonymisation network you’re broadcasting your IP address). Some have already compared LOIC to the AK-47 as a cheap, mass-produced, highly-effective weapon of insurrection, and they have a point. A Chinese language version will, one suspects, bring truly epic lulz.
But that’s merely the brushfire end of the information war. The big strategic clash is between Wikileaks and, well, the world.
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I say Wikileaks not because it’s the first whistleblower website, which it isn’t, or even the best – Cryptome has been revealing high-quality confidential information for years – but because the diplomatic cables and, like it or not, Julian Assange’s Sarah Palin-like capacity to garner media attention has turned it into the flagship of anti-secrecy forces. That’s why Rudolf Elmer was handing over disks of Swiss bank information to Wikileaks the other day in London, after having failed to interest governments, universities or other media in it.
For decades, conflicts over information were more like family disputes than all-out wars. The great Australian political tradition of hypocrisy over transparency is a fine example. Whenever there’s a change of government here, there’s also a “’Hello Sam’ ‘Hello Ralph’” moment when hitherto-dogged advocates of the need for confidentiality in government transform into zealous partisans of the need for total transparency, employing precisely the arguments made by their opponents, who upon entering government have now forgotten all their cant about transparency (Exhibit A: the current spat over the rights of the Unrepresentative Swill versus the Government over the NBN).
But journalists also become embedded in the cultures they were supposed to play watchdog over, the interests of commercial media companies became aligned with those of the other large companies, media companies themselves sought to avoid transparency of their own operations and, most of all, there are agreed no-go areas for media scrutiny – national security, defence and diplomacy were, it is commonly felt, best left to the pros behind closed doors.
A lot of this was neatly summed up by the appearance of Lowy Institute member and foreign policy establishment apologist Michael Fullilove on the 7.30 Report on 7 January, where he was given an extended opportunity to parrot repeatedly-discredited lines about the threat posed by WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks draws the outrage it does because it declines to play by the rules of the establishment and thereby establishes a fresh dynamic in information conflicts. And in doing so, it tends to shade differences amongst its opponents. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish the Obama Administration from its predecessor, given its rhetoric on WikiLeaks, such as Joe Biden labelling Julian Assange a terrorist, its treatment in detention of Bradley Manning, the remarkable subpoena to Twitter (and, it can only be assumed, Google and Facebook) by the Department of Justice as part of efforts to conjure up a criminal case against WikiLeaks, and its serial harassment of WikiLeaks associates like Jacob Applebaum.
Admittedly, Applebaum’s harassment at least produced the symbolic moment when officials of a government that lost hundreds of thousands of secret documents to a disgruntled soldier were unable to decrypt the Bill of Rights its intended target had placed on a USB stick.
And all that’s quite apart from incidents such as the Obama Administration overseeing the torture and harassment of American citizen Gulet Mohamed, which would have looked remarkable even under the worst excesses of the Bush years.
But as the panic set off by Elmer information and the looming Bank of America material suggest, it’s not just governments that are in WikiLeaks’ sights, but large corporations. This is another front in the information wars, because our largest corporate citizens make western governments look like models of transparency, and lack the checks of political reality and (often) good intentions that constrain politicians.
The largest companies in the world – including some media companies — have as much as or more to lose than governments in this conflict. The readiness of prominent companies like Visa, Mastercard, Amazon and PayPal to cooperate with US Government attempts to shut down WikiLeaks should be considered in no way exceptional. They are all on the same side in this fight. And this is where the information war will burn hottest.