It isn’t without a touch of amusement that I’ve been watching the recent developments in the all-out digital war that has grown over the past several months to involve Wikileaks, the FBI, the Egyptian and Tunisian governments, Bank of America, internet group Anonymous, electronic security company HBGary Federal and the Chamber of Commerce. What started as a debate over internet freedom has blown into an all-out war with a growing list of belligerents.
Ever since Cablegate, the term Wikileaks gave their gradual dissemination of thousands of American diplomatic cables, several businesses, government agencies and hackers have been engaging in a pitched battle over the Internet. For those who haven’t been following, it started with hackers taking Wikileaks’ main site offline, followed by companies like MasterCard, PayPal, and Amazon depriving Wikileaks of their services. Anonymous, a decentralized group of not-quite-hackers, took upon themselves the mantle of freedom fighters and followed up with distributed denial-of-service attacks on the organizations that denied service to Wikileaks, shutting their sites down for several hours.
Though they did nothing whatsoever to pursue the lawbreakers who attacked Wikileaks, the FBI and other countries’ intelligence agencies launched stings against Anonymous that netted a number of teenagers, few of whom are liable to prosecution. When describing the FBI raid on her home to Gawker, a 19-year-old woman from California remarked that “the whole thing was sort of a botch,” saying that the agent in charge of the raid admitted to being disappointed that she didn’t have a Guy Fawkes mask — a symbol appropriated by Anonymous — that he could take as a trophy. She added that he subsequently made the mistake of giving her his card.
But back to the narrative: as the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt began in force, Anonymous was inspired to redirect its ire towards the websites of various agencies of authoritarian governments. But most recently, literally minutes after the chief executive officer of internet security company HBGary Federal Aaron Barr boasted to the Financial Times that he had infiltrated Anonymous, his business’s site was hacked, the results of his “infiltration” were shown to be worthless, and thousands of company e-mails were disseminated by Anonymous – and their contents have caused quite a stir.
The leak, though itself criminal, revealed a plot of dubious legality in the works by HBGary Federal and law firms representing Bank of America and the Chamber of Commerce. The companies were throwing around plans – which encompass forgery, fraud, and cyber crimes – with the purpose of discrediting and spying on Wikileaks and its supporters on Bank of America’s behalf, and unions and progressive organizations on behalf of the Chamber, going so far as posting details from opponents’ work histories, personal lives, spouses – even their children.
Glenn Greenwald, a columnist and prominent defender of Wikileaks, was mentioned in the leaked e-mails as a vital pillar of support for Wikileaks – and it was ominously suggested that Greenwald, “if pushed[,]will choose professional preservation over cause.” Not only, says Greenwald, does he take these threats “seriously,” but he has highlighted government complicity in the wake of the leaks, noting that it was the Justice Department who referred Bank of America to the law firm that solicited its cyber-thugs.
Odious? Yes. Potentially criminal? Yes. Will justice prevail? That depends on what you mean by “justice.” If you mean a group of chaotic teenagers will have their houses raided by FBI agents and prosecuted, I think you’re right. If you mean repressive, thuggish tactics executed by well-connected connected ex-pols with the implicit endorsement of the U.S. government will be held to account, don’t hold your breath.