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Net Effect: Parsing the impact of Anonymous

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The current chapter in the WikiLeakssaga has finally forced me to come out of my blogging semi-retirement!While I'm still trying to make sense of everything that has happenedin the last ten days, here are some analytical notes on Anonymous andthe challenges facing the Obama administratio as it mulls an appropriate response to WikiLeaks. 

The impact of therecent wave of cyber-attacks launched by Anonymous on a handful of companies that dropped WikiLeaks astheir client – Amazon, EveryDNS, MasterCard, Visa and others – ishard to gauge. I'm certain these attacks won't make any of thesefirms to reconside, strike peace with WikiLeaks, and offer them some vouchers in compensation. But couldthe attacks serve as a deterrent to other firms that have beenconsidering dropping WikiLeaks?

Perhaps – but Idon't know how many such companies there are. Right now, WikiLeaks is heavily dependent on Twitter and Facebook as theirprimary channels for external communications; it's these two firms thatneed to be watched most closely. (I don't expect many people call on Google to remove WikiLeaks from its search results - but let's wait & see...) So far, both Twitter and Facebook have been taking rather bold steps: they declined to stop doing business withWikiLeaks and actually removed the accounts of Anonymous (alas with littlesuccess, as new accounts were created within minutes). It's clear that should these two companies succumb to pressure and part with WikiLeaks this would result in a major online backlash. 

Now, the fact that Aunonymous chose to go after Visa and MasterCard has created all sorts of other challenging issues. While the attacks targeted only the public web-sites of these companies –rather than the underlying infrastructure that allows cardtransactions to be processed – such subtleties are likely to getlost in the public debate. As far as policymakers are concerned,these attacks would be viewed as striking at the very of the globaleconomy (even if they obviously aren't in reality). It's still notclear to me whether any credit card data has been leaked orcompromised as a result of such attacks, even though Anonymous postedsome links to such data on their Twitter feed. This too won't matter, as most people would assume that data has, in fact, been stolen. 

I seriously doubtthat the US authorities would be able to effectively go afterAnonymous, in part because there are too many people involved, theyare scattered all over the globe, and attributing cyber-attacks tothem would be impossible (and would surely require reading a lot ofchat transcripts from IRC). The only other possible policy responseat their disposal is to make it easier to trace such attacks in the future –most likely by empowering the likes of NSA/Cyber Command. I wouldimagine that after the current cyber-attacks on credit card companies – even ifthey didn't cause much damage –this would enjoy bipartisan supportin the US.

As far aslong-term developments are concerned, I think that much depends onwhether the WikiLeaks saga would continue being a debate about freedomof expression, government transparency or whistle-blowing or whether it would become a nearly-paranoid debate aboutthe risks to national security. Anonymous is playing with fire,for they risk tipping the balance towards the latter interpretation - and all the policy levers that come with it. 

That said, I don'tthink that their attacks are necessarily illegal or immoral. As longas they don't break into other people's computers, launching DDoSshould not be treated as a crime by default; we have to think aboutthe particular circumstances in which such attacks are launched andtheir targets. I like to think of DDoS as equivalents of sit-ins:both aim at briefly disrupting a service or an institution in orderto make a point. As long as we don't criminalize all sit-ins, I don'tthink we should aim at criminalizing all DDoS.

I can spend hoursdebating this subject but, in short, while Anonymous' actions mayresult in greater government oversight of the Internet, they are notnecessarily illegal or immoral just because they involve DDoSattacks. The danger here is obviously that if the narrative suddenlybecomes dominated by national security concerns, we can forget aboutDdoS as legitimate means of expression dissent – that possibilitywould be closed, as they would be criminalized.

What is the impactof these attacks on WikiLeaks? The organization has been silent aboutits own relationship to Anonymous – I didn't see any tweets, letalone press-releases, that either spoke out against or in favor ofcyber-attacks. As far as strategy is concerned, I think it's a bigmistake for WikiLeaks to stay silent on the issue. In the absence ofany statements from their end, most people – especiallythose who have never heard of Anonymous before – would assume thatthey are part of the same hacker gang. (Sarah Palin seem to haveimplied as much when she accused WikiLeaks about attacking her site).

That WikiLeakschose not to address this issue publicly suggests that theorganization is either overstretched or has not yet reached a levelof maturity that some of us expect from it before expressing ourunqualified support for what they do. As long as most people linkWikiLeaks to the cyber-attacks on credit card companies, it's a netloss for WikiLeaks. It would also make it easier for certaincyber-hawks in Washington to justify classifying them as a“terrorist” organization – at least whenever they appear onFoxNews. Arguably, this is not a battle they can win with factsanyway – but they should at least be leaving some public record oftheir stance on such issues. I'm also not sure about theoverstretching argument: I'm sure plenty of smart people wouldvolunteer to do PR for WikiLeaks for free...

All in all, if thepublic continues to associate WikiLeaks with hacking andcyber-attacks – rather than, say, providing a safe platform forwhistleblowers – this will greatly erode the goodwill thatWikiLeaks has built over the course of the last few months by increasing their cooperation with media organizations and NGOs. That“normalization by third parties” allayed the concerns of many – butcyber-attacks may once again seed doubt in many people's minds.

Looking beyondAnonymous, I'd like to note that when it comes to crafting an appropriate response to WikiLeaks, the Obamaadministration is in a very delicate position. On the one hand,the domestic pressure to do something about WikiLeaks is growing–and it will get even worse, as Anonymous continues its attacks andadds more political targets to their list (and I'm sure they will asthere is some vicious circle at play here: the more attacks theylaunch, the more people condemn WikiLeaks, the more new targetsAnonymous has). On the other hand, it's obvious that going afterWikiLeaks would put the final nails in the coffin of the StateDepartment's Internet Freedom Agenda, which is the most obviousvictim of the last ten days.

I have always hadmixed feelings about this Internet Freedom drive. While I think it'smisguided and led by highfalutin techno-boosters unaware of thegeopolitical background to their own actions, it's also obvious to methat there is some good that may come out of the US government'sinterest in such matters – for example, the support they offered totools like Tor has been most appreciated. (That support, however,predated the formation of the Internet Freedom Agenda as articulatedby Clinton in January 2010).

The real questionhere is whether, as the public attitudes towards tools like Tor –which provide the very anonymity that benefits leakers – quicklyturn negative, the State Department and agencies like the NationalEndowment for Democracy would lose the ability to fund anything inthis space. It's also not clear to me whether many of the geeksassociated with the “Internet freedom” movement would feelcomfortable taking money from the US government, given that thelatter are actively pursuing people like Assange.

I think thispartly explains why the US government has been so slow/low-key inleashing out against WikiLeaks, leaving the rhetorical heavy-liftingto populists like Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and Joe Lieberman.Leaving in their hands also means abandoning control of theconversation; so far, it seems to me that such approach has beenquite detrimental.

For example, manyforeign politicians are already calling on Washington's duplicity andlack of media freedoms and disrespect of human rights – all becauseGlenn Beck and Sarah Palin said something radical. As far as mostforeign audiences are concerned, few draw distinctions between theelected officials, those in the opposition, and the punditry – theyare all part of “Washington”; so whatever the radicals sayswould, of course, eventually be associated with the White House andthe State Department. I don't know how long the administration canafford to stay on the sidelines of this debate.

Another possibleunfortunate consequence of the current backlash is that more USgovernment funding would go to tools that don't provide fullanonymity but that still allow to circumvent censorship inauthoritarian states. These are the tools developed by the Falun Gongtechnologists who already enjoy vast support from various neoconinterest groups in DC.

This would be mostunfortunate and would further alienate geeks from policymakers, asFalun Gong tools are less effective and, well, they don't providemuch security at all. This would only further reveal the duplicitousnature of Washington's Internet Freedom Agenda: it will seem as ifall they want to promote is the ability to break through China'sfirewall – but not the ability to say and publish what one wantswithout attribution. Many people in the State Department are not verykeen on the Falun Gong crowd either, so I can't imagine that theywould be interested in highlighting such issues (and yes, I know thatState Dept is not monolithic but getting into internal squabblinginside Foggy Bottom would add another page or two to this post!).

I hope to postmore analysis soon! In the meantime, make sure to check my Twitterfeed, where I do post occasional observations and share links aboutWikiLeaks.

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