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Jan 19, 2011

Web wars soon to embroil
corporations

The information war will eventually threaten companies as much or more than the governments fighting against WikiLeaks.

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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.

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.

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12 comments

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12 thoughts on “Web wars soon to embroil
corporations

  1. John Bennetts

    Ah, Bernard, the end of year festivities must have recharged your batteries.
    SEveral excellent contributions have come from you this year, and it’s only January 19.

    Regarding the use of the “word” lulz: It is an affectation, not worthy of you.

  2. michael crook

    Good stuff on the corporations. It is finally sinking through to those of us interested in the way our society functions that it is the corporations who actually direct our society, not the governments that we elect. It was the mining corporations that launched the advertising campaign that ended a prime ministers career.It is the media corporations that form our opinions and it is the “Fresh food people” corporations that feed us poisonous low nutritional value foods. Worst of all however are the predominently US and UK based military corporations, who have consigned us to permanent war. All of them severally and jointly have our local politicians so terrified (or corrupted) that our elected members have become mere corporate mouthpieces, eg Martin Ferguson, Anna Bligh. Can you believe that BP have been granted offshore drilling licences in Australia, surreal! The corporations are the ones holding back progress on global warming and on sustainability, it is time to break them up, but there is noone with the nerve to do it.

  3. Julian Fitzgibbon

    Given the Internet was originally designed by the military and by American firms largely – can it ever be really anonymous? I used to wonder this in the early days in the war on terror when American authorities would loudly proclaim their inability to track where videos etc were uploaded.
    A sensible military would create the illusion of an anonymous internet while keeping tight control of the extent of information it could garner.
    Then again, with the Americans who knows?

  4. paddy

    Excellent stuff Bernard. Looking forward to more of your work on the upcoming adventures in cyberspace. It’s certainly going to get even more “interesting” as wikileaks turns it’s attention to the banks etc.

  5. Stevo the Working Twistie

    Bernard, I agree with almost every word – the only bit I can fault is the title: “Web wars soon to embroil corporations”. Soon? Corporations, including the one I work for, have been at the front-line of a guerrilla war for the last 15 years at least. Spam, viruses, hoaxes, phishing, DDoS – been there, done that. It’s just nobody thought to call it the “Information Wars” up until now.

    @Julian – You’re right that the original design of an internet was originally conceived by the military, however the organic design and build of what we today call the The Internet (intentional capitals) was almost entirely done by people in educational and research institutions – including the IP Address and MAC Address standards. Part of the founding ethos of many of these people, the forebears of today’s “hackers”, was that “information wants to be free” – hence the openness of the design.

    Most IT security work consists of trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube…

  6. Malcolm Street

    Fun to see IPA parrot Tim Wilson on The Drum last night, defending leaking government info but being full of moral indignation about information on companies being leaked… Nice try for your corporate mates, but no cigar.

    Pity they didn’t put Chris Berg on, who at least has some original thought processes, but he strikes me as more a libertarian than the typical IPA drone and mightn’t have stuck to the party line…

  7. John Bennetts

    Malcolm must have a very high pain threshhold.

    I found myself arguing at the television every time Tim Wilson opened his mouth, so for the continuing health of both the watcher and the watched, I turned it off.

    Where does the IPA find their stooges? It’s all so sad.

  8. Bernard Keane

    Thanks John – you might Google “truly epic lulz” – it was a nod to the source material.

  9. John Bennetts

    Bernard, being of a certain age, I also had to google the term. The world is not better for its existence.

    BTW, now that the verb “to google” has been accepted into the english language, isn’t it time to drop the capitalisation which is associated with a proper noun? Kinda like English Vs english.

  10. MLF

    Agree, excellent stuff. (Agree on ‘google’ too…)

  11. Julian Fitzgibbon

    @Stevo.
    Well MAC addresses are unique even though they may not travel very far – but I don’t surveillance if it was possible would operate at that level. It would have developed in conjunction with the hardware manufacturers. Hence that the paranoidsphere’s obsessions with “trapdoors”.
    I don’t really know but I would be enormously surprised if much common anonymisation techniques aren’t largely ineffective against NSA and the like. I read one of the wikileak activists complaining about the twitter subpoena that they were just tryin to legally obtain information that they already had via wiretaps – then again wikileaks activists carry on like pork chops.
    I think history teaches us that everytime a new method of communication develops, mechanisms of interception spring up alongside whether it was the Royal Post or the telephone or Enigma. Encryption probably just represents a red flag saying “secrets in here.” History also teaches that once a system has been intercepted, the interceptor (if smart) is very very careful not to reveal that, otherwise what was an excellent intelligence source simply becomes a channel to feed meaningless misinformation to.
    Probably the best way to maintain secrecy is either develop a system where a message is sent en clair, but another message has been encrypted inside it. Or, even more openly, develop a language of double meanings and speak publicly but with “forked tongues”
    Anyway, I always assume I am potentially observable on the internet. Which come to think of it is just as well as Lord knows what kind of mischief I might try if I ever truly thought I was anonymous

  12. joff74

    I exclude criket journos form this ofcause however having studied a littel bit of journalism and prof writing at university however not completing it due to my disgust with Uni style corporate values. Begs my question why would anyone want a tertairy media degree from an aussie university when all they do is brain wash one into working for corporate media seem to go against all the media coedes of ethic the arts & entertianment alliance in Australia represent.
    And this year walklie goes to the biggest spin doc in corporate media out there, please not Mr Milne again i suppose.

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