Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On the right to Anonymous Cyberprotest

Marshal McLuhan talked about World War 3 being fought in cyberspace, with no distinctions between the military and the public. (He didn't use the word “cyberspace,” that was coined by fellow Canadian, William Gibson.) McLuhan, however did predict the world wide web, 30 years before its inception. His “global village” is now a technical reality and with it, coinciding with his other imaginings about our futures, we do find ourselves at least committing acts of cyberattack. On this matter McLuhan and I must agree. We have the ability, we have the motive, we have done the deed, to do so is nothing short of expected. 

We used radio in the same way, then television. It would be silly to deny the internet. In this discussion we will attempt to distinguish “cyberattack” from “cyberwar” as well as “cyberwar” from “cyberprotest,” as there seems to be some confusion, at least on the part of the media. It may be that this intention is actually “spin,” and we shall not fail to notice the opportunity for that spin to backfire. The internet is not television. The internet is a two way street. It would be unfortunate if, for instance, the idea of the freedom of the net became jeopardized because of a broad acceptance of that freedom as dangerous.

Firstly, we must agree that the idea of a cyberthreat is real. I'm sure this isn't much of a stretch for us. Like other technologies, we may not understand how they work, but as lay users, we are familiar with the idea of “infections, viruses, hacking,” etc. One of the more recent, popular (and admitted to) stories of cyberattack was the intentional placement of the stuxnet worm inside the Iranian Nuclear enrichment program. (Which, it is reported, put them back “months.”) I quote from wikipedia:

Stuxnet is a Windows computer worm discovered in July 2010 that targets industrial software and equipment.[1] While it is not the first time that hackers have targeted industrial systems,[2] it is the first discovered malware that spies on and subverts industrial systems,[3] and the first to include a programmable logic controller (PLC) rootkit.[4][5]
Different variants of Stuxnet targeted five Iranian organisations,[9] with the probable target widely suspected to be uranium enrichment infrastructure in Iran;[10][11] Symantec noted in August 2010 that 60% of the infected computers worldwide were in Iran.[12] Siemens stated on November 29 that the worm has not caused any damage to its customers,[13] but the Iran nuclear program, which uses embargoed Siemens equipment procured clandestinely, has been damaged by Stuxnet.[14][15][16][17] Kaspersky Labs concluded that the sophisticated attack could only have been conducted "with nation-state support"[18] and it has been speculated that Israel may have been involved.[19]

So here we have a very specific, targeted weapon used successfully by “unknown” sources. Cyberwar? I think not. Cyberattack? Yes. The attack came in the form of a program, placed preemptively and with malicious intent.

Later the same year, Wikileaks founder and international man of mystery, Julian Assange was arrested on charges of some sexual misconduct or other, (these concerns are of no importance to our discussion.) His arrest does nothing to address the true prior intentions of any who would prosecute Mr. Assange, namely, hiding the work that Wikileaks does exposing the corruption and deception of governments and corporations. (Or at least, this is what is claimed.) These forces, of course, reveal the real threat Wikileaks represents, by their complaints. This is a contest over our ideas on the possible typification of information. On one side we have the parties hoping to keep their wrongdoings private, on the other we have the parties attempting to expose them.

What we must notice here is the accuracy on the substance for which these accusation are hurled. When the public is free to examine, for instance, the emails coming and going from American embassies, we are not bringing up irrelevant talking points. We don't care (too much) if so and so hates you know who, we are much more interested in cheating, lying and trickery. These things that we refer to as “wrongdoing” are evidence of wrong being done. We all agree on that. So this contest isn't about what is being said, it is about the right to know what is being said. As such, we can center our discussions around the concept of information, versus the information itself.

I can understand the desire, ability and need to keep classified information hidden from the public. However, this information has already been released. We can, if we so choose, rifle through the info to discover its content. As it turns out, there isn't anything of any real importance in the material. If Wikileaks ever releases anything truly earth shattering, perhaps their desires could be founded. In the near future, Wikileaks promises to release documents proving the financial malfeasance of American banks. Again, I'm sure this release will also be contested on the grounds of a right to privacy, as opposed to the subject matter, proving guilt, or at least complicity. The point is, the information provided is only as powerful as what we do with it. If there is to be a revolution, information could start it, but it is the people on the street moving their bodies, waving signs or taking bullets, that make the indelible marks (if there are to be any.) Such is it that here again, we find ourselves discussing the rights to said information, rather than the info itself.

The point of our discussing the Wikileaks case comes to us in the form of the group known as Anonymous. During the time immediately following Assange's arrest, the media began reporting of the retaliation undertaken by “his watchdogs” on specific websites. These websites were those attempting to distance themselves from Assange (out of an apparent fear of guilt by association,) such as those responsible for hosting Wikileaks, funding the site, etc. Anonymous simply used it's might to shut down these sites, some for a few days, costing them millions of dollars. Assange claimed he had no affiliation with Anonymous, they simply undertook his cause. The media claimed they were “an army of hackers” “internet terrorists” and we were in the grips of a cyberwar. We were not.

The actions undertaken by Anonymous were a cyberprotest. There were a few interviewees on the tv who attempted to explain this to the media. However, “CYBERWAR” sound much more dramatic and malevolent than cyberprotest. (Herein lies a problem with any group that wishes to remain Anonymous, you have no spokesperson.) At the time I was angered by the attitude of the media and, as I am a bit of a geek myself, I sought out this mysterious group. As it turns out, I didn't have to look very hard and the reality of the situation was so blatantly plain that my anger with the media became disgust. Such is it that you find yourself reading these words, rather than some other....

Here are my unedited notes from that day...

The actions undertook yesterday by the group known as “Anonymous” exemplify the legal and moral right of anyone to expect free speech, to protest non-violently and how there is no difference between “the real world” and the “internet” in these matters.

First: Who is Anonymous?
For the most part, they are ordinary 21c young adults. Their numbers are reported to be nearing 10,000 but this number grows and shrinks dependent on the action taken place. They are not all teenagers, they are not all “hackers.” (Nor did any “hacking” take place yesterday, by the way, this action was all “above the board.”) I could be Anonymous, you wouldn't know. ( I happen to know a couple “hackers” so I asked them if they knew of anyone who admitted to being part of Anonymous. They said they didn't and I believe them.)

Second: Where is Anonymous?
Everywhere. They do have “homes” that they frequent, up until yesterday they had their own website and social network, all of which has been revoked. For the most part Anonymous operates on forums like the notoriously wild-west-like site 4chan. (“Wild west” as in, nearly lawless. You have been warned.) As well as other dark digital highways that even I won't venture into.

Third: What is Anonymous?
They are a group that wish to keep the internet intellectually free. Being human, they also protest other activities for which action has been deemed worthy. You or I may not agree with them, this is not in question, only the right they have to act as they do.

Fourth: What are they doing?
This is where the media have missed the mark completely. There is no hacking taking place. To be clear, what Anonymous is doing is analogous to a protest. It works like this:
-First members of Anonymous, or those who wish to “join the movement” download a specific program from certain sites, made available by Anonymous.
-They then install the very small program that connects them to a network of other “like-minded” operators in what has been dubbed “a hive.”
-The controllers of the hive direct it to a specific website and essentially press “go.”
-The targeted website is then bombarded with many computers repeatedly attempting to access it. The desired result is an “overload” of requests that shut the website down because it is unable to cope.

If it wasn't taking place on the web, people would realize that it is just a protest. It is exactly the same as 200 people heading down to city hall for a “sit in.” We all push into the lobby, we sit down, we have jammed the entrance, no one can get in. The only difference is, on the internet our presence is digital. This is cyberprotest. It is distinct from cyberattack because it is not a program, unlike the stuxnet worm, which was designed, implanted and left alone. This was a (very large) group of humans, choosing to do the work to make their computers part of the protest. Further to the distinction, cyberprotest does no damage to the system, cyberattack would.

If anything could be called a cyberwar, then it all must be called cyberwar, because both sides have never stopped attacking those they felt worthy. (Some attack simply because they can.) These attacks, by individuals and programs, such as worms or viruses, are cyberattack, by our proper definitions. A consistent and deliberate programmed internal damaging of systems. Cyberprotest on the other hand, only hurts your cash flow. It is the possible interruption of business. Perhaps, in the real world, if we did all march down to a bank and stuff its lobby full of protesters, we would get arrested. (Thus the advantage of Anonymity.) However, we could just be dispersed, and even if we weren't it is unlikely all of us would be charged criminally. If we were, it would be a misdemeanor, at most. Where the real advantage of cyberprotest lies, and point at which, paradoxically, we find a similarity in the truth about numbers, ask “What would happen if 10,000 or 100,000 or a million protesters showed up at the bank?” They can't arrest us all, and they would be wrong to. The exemplary opinion sticks. 

We are only humans, we are probably wrong thinking in our complacency, most of the time. These “blowouts” must be achieved from time to time. If we've been fighting a nonstop cyberwar since the inception of the possibility, and see no possible end, how is this any different than in the non-cyber world? The real world is the same, it is made up by those of us who choose to change it. One can only hope we each do so correctly.

When you reduce it enough, what you are left with is a simple and easy choice:

On one side you've got the people who want to rip you off and/or lie to you while keeping it all secret.

On the other side you've got everybody else.

Anonymous is on the side of everybody else and so am I.

We are all anonymous.

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