Though I should actually be working on an oral presentation on Maoism, I cannot restrain myself from commenting on the latest “Wikileaks-Coup”. Once more, the (allegedly) “subversive” website attracted an incredibly intense media coverage. I will spare you an elaborate recap of what has happened – you can read, watch or listen to the story on each and every media channel. All major newspapers, news websites, and broadcasters have put the story on the publication of 250.000 “sensitive” diplomatic documents on the top of their agendas; you can find background information on the issue almost everywhere. Sensational headlines speak of a “real” diplomacy crisis. Another catchy term is “cablegate”, an allegory to the infamous Watergate-scandal of the Nixon administration in the 1970s. Well, I have my doubts here.
Especially the last comparison seems to be far from being appropriate. In the original scandal, the then government was directly involved in illegal surveillance and monitoring activities; of course, similar things happen today all the time (in partly much more sophisticated manner), too. However, today’s “cablegate” documents have not shown yet, that the US administration did anything particularly “deceptive” or “evil”. Even if some notes on certain politicians are rather embarrassing. But are they really that surprising? Would secret, diplomatic notes from other countries look any different? Let’s see: Arabia has a problem with a possible Iranian hegemony – tell me something new. Putin is Batman, Medwedew resembles his sidekick Robin and Ahmadinedschad reminds people of Hitler – well, I kinda knew that before Wikileaks told us. And to realise that Berlusconi loves parties you do not have to be a diplomat. Moreover, when I read what the US diplomats think of Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle, I literally had to laugh out loud – because the characterizations are simply true (well, at least from my political perspective); nothing “sensitive” here. As regards spying on the UN, history has shown that diplomats had always been involved in rather shady forms of information gathering. That’s scandalous to very naive people only.
The whole issue appears to be a bit overblown and serious consequences for the diplomatic relationships between the involved nations remain to be seen. This has already been proven all day, when the different involved statesmen and -women downplayed the impact of this “revealment”. There is no real diplomacy crisis, just a few blushing faces (and some flattery damage containment). However, I am only mocking about today’s “over-emotional” coverage of the issue – I am not thinking that there is nothing truly surprising or maybe even shocking in this 250.000 documents. All I am saying is: It’s a bit too early to draw any hasty conclusions. We have to wait – and contemplate advantages over disadvantages of a force like Wikileaks in our current information environment. This applies to various dimensions of the issue:
1. The most basic question is of course: When does the monopoly on information of a (democratic) state end – and when do activities of organizations like Wikileaks violate a government’s right on secrecy? I am far from being an enemy of a “free” information flow and I do not believe that contemporary democracies are the most perfect political system to live in (though, and here I agree with Churchill, all others are still much worse). But I am also convinced that too much transparency can be harmful for a collective, i.e. a nation-state in certain truly sensitive respects.
2. Wikileaks fulfills an important function by keeping debates on information, censorship, the media and the role of the Internet alive. In the case of the Afghan and Iraq War Logs, it confirmed what critical observers already assumed: That there is a another, far more complex and difficult reality to both wars. It has also shown that online media can truly circumvent and stimulate traditional media. Hence, there is a moral and political justification for a platform like Wikileaks – to break established hegemonies. However, in the very moment an “independent” organisation accumulates the strength to challenge the establishment, it is not far from becoming a hegemonic factor within a certain power discourse itself. It is today the no. 1 source for classified information; there are no other notable Wikis for political leaks. In order to hold its position, it actually needs to “produce” constantly new breaking stories. It needs the media and vice versa. This encompasses certain demerits. Therefore, I sometimes doubt that Wikileaks always remembers its enormous responsibility every time it publishes masses of governmental documents – I simply cannot believe that its staff reads and evaluates every single piece appropriately before pushing it over to the media and the public, respectively. So how does who in Wikileaks actually decide which information goes out? I am not the first who questions the organization’s inner and outer transparency. One should never trust 100% in what a government is announcing – the same applies to its antagonists.
3. There is also the question of the actual political impact – I have already touched the problem above. For instance, though there had been a loud and vital discussion on the war logs, the number of anti-war protests did not really increase. As so often, the “scandal” arose broad attention for a relatively brief moment. The new media, the mass media, governments and the public – all factors influence each other, but the actual outcome of each debate needs to be evaluated and scrutinized anew. However, some rather unwelcomed effects of this one are already tangible: Restrictive governments can misuse the whole issue to justify their strict information policies, less restrictive ones will revise their information security policies.
To make one thing clear: Being critical towards Wikileaks here does not mean that I am fully supporting the different official governments’ stands in this debate; I would define my position as a neutral, extremely sceptical one. What I wanted to point out is: It is important that such events are accompanied by sober, balanced discussions which consider all positive and negative factors; and that it is not enough to throw out a stack of controversial documents and then see what happens.
The subversive homepage Wikileaks scored last night its biggest coup this far: The website’s organizers obtained at least 92.ooo classified, secret military documents on the war in Afghanistan and put them online. This flood of information draws a quite different picture of the conflict – and reveals the true nature of the war. The documents, covering the whole operation from its beginnings in 2004 until December 2009, include for instance facts and figures regarding civilian casualties caused by NATO troops and corroborate the assertion that the Pakistani as well as Iranian secret services are supporting insurgents, i.e. the Taliban. Wikileaks forwarded the material to the Guardian, The New York Times, and the German Spiegel. Thus, the growing influence of the Internet on traditional mass media seems to prove true once more; this very important example consolidates the WWW as a source of unique information for professionals in journalism – and challenges governmental hegemony on information control. However, the whole issue needs a critical examination as benefits and disadvantages have to be measured.
Update: Julian Assange of Wikileaks on the Afghanistan War Logs (Guardian/youtube)
To get all information, click the link above or here.
Furthermore, here’s an impression of the broad media response to the information leak – almost all major newspapers and broadcasters worldwide reacted instantly to the incident:
However, various important newspapers have not covered the story, yet – at least on their official homepages. Among those publications are for instance the German FAZ and TAZ, China Daily, Japan Times, Jerusalem Post.
The Information Society – A Highly Vulnerable ‘Body’?
Cyber-Battlefields and Digital Crime Scenes
The continuing technological process of late Western capitalistic-democratic societies led to the creation of new social, governmental and economic spaces in the World Wide Web. Since its beginning, people populate the many spaces of the Internet with digital effigies or ‘cyber-identities’, respectively and institutions as well as all kinds of organizations established online presences. Today, individuals, collectives and even whole systems connect their data bases to create a new, digital environment (e.g. Lister et al. 2009: 163 et seq.) or ‘body’. A dynamic, unstable body, consisting of innumerable ‘cells’. Not all of its parts are equally connected; access to some areas is restricted and safety measures are taken.
Information thereby became the most valuable resource: Its commodification is to some (postmodern) media-philosophers the most significant feature of our current economical and social system (Lyotard 1984). The vast spaces of the Internet are filled with information. A lot of it might be regarded as useless, but concerning the context and the intention of use, information can become very valuable. Getting access to information / knowledge is often the main purpose of belligerent or criminal activities in cyberspace.
Along with the Internet, new forms of warfare and criminality evolved. The shape of these conflicts and the used weapons are thereby largely determined by the very same technological factors as our new environment (Coker 2004: 84). This is also applicable on cyber criminality, another phenomenon which arose with the constant progress of computer- and communication technology. There are various forms and a wide range of possible targets of both cyber/information warfare and crime. Individuals as well as institutions or even whole systems can be focused by hostile actions. Whether hacking, spying, stealing: cyber attacks developed multiple appearances during the last fifteen years and challenges governments, corporations and users everyday (e.g. IWS). The Internet can be a battlefield as well as a digital crime scene.
This essay examines the different forms of information and cyber warfare in the Internet, attempts to highlight its techniques as well as targets and provides some ideas for further research. The main aim is to approach the overall question whether the information society is a highly vulnerable ‘body’ or not. Due to the limits of this assignment several aspects can be ascertained only cursorily; a in-depth analysis cannot be provided. However, basic observations and some prospects on this issue will be highlighted. First of all, the most important terms in this context have to be defined.
2. Defining the Subjects: Cyber / Information Warfare, Cyberterrorism and Cybercrime
The definitions of important terms in the discourse(s) on cyber warfare are not always clear, and certain buzzwords are relatively ambiguous. In context of the New Media, Cyberwarfare describes a wide range of aggressive actions using and simultaneously targeting New Media. Possible targets can be mere websites as well as computers managing sensitive data, stock exchange, controlling traffic or the like (PCMAG; Psycom; IWS). Techniques of choice would be destructive programs like viruses, ‘hacking’ or ‘spyware’. Cyberterrorism and Cybercrime use the same techniques and strategies, but there is a distinction to be made in regards of the protagonists and aims / goals in each case; the (political-)context seems thereby to define the form of ‘cyber aggression’.
Cyber- or informationwar is very often used as an umbrella term for more specific variations. However, observing media discourses on the topic leads to the assumption that the term more specifically refers to digital conflicts between two or more nation states / political entities (e.g. Times Online). Cyberterrorism origins from insurgent groups and has very often a certain ideological or social background (PBS.org; Georgetown University). Discourses on the issue deal with fears of devastating terroristic attacks on essential technological networks such as telecommunication, energy or banking systems. Cybercrimes are mostly conducted by individuals or criminal organizations; they often try to make economical profit with ‘stolen’ or faked information (e.g USDJ). These classifications are not fixed and the lines between the different forms of cyber aggression can blurry. Thus, it is assumable that in the context of a cyber conflict – whether war, terrorism or crime – the levels of aggression can overlap, i.e. a cyber war between states can for instance entail forms of cyberterrorism and crime.
In every case knowledge / information can be identified as a key factor in multiple ways: 1. Knowledge of successful strategies to achieve a certain (military or criminal) goal, i.e. how to use the proper ‘weapons’; 2. Knowledge of ‘defense-strategies’, i.e. protecting databases against unauthorized access or destructive programs; 3. Knowledge itself as the ‘prey’ of offensive actions, whether to obtain or to erase it – with the long term aim to enrich own knowledge or to cause severe damage to the opponent. Stealing, spying, processing and interpreting information can be regarded as the main tasks of the ‘cyber-soldier’ and digital criminals in times of World Wide Web. Therefore, they have to learn a new “cybernetic language” (Coker 2004: 84) which allows them to move and ‘fight’ in the new spaces, i.e. they must be capable to understand and use new technologies.
3. Levels of ‘Cyber-Aggression’
There are manifold targets of hostile/criminal activities in cyberspace. These actions are not limited to institutional homepages or data bases containing valuable information; individuals can become victims, too. One could speak of different “levels” on which acts of cyber warfare and crime occur. These can be defined as attacks on personal websites (personal context), the sabotage of governmental computers (political context) and the deprivation or destruction of information on corporation data bases (economical context). The different forms of cyber aggression can aim for all these contexts/levels at the same time.
Again, digital attacks on a specific object can focus different aspects. In the case of an individual, the activities can range from stealing and/or destroying sensitive details, spying (e.g. e-mail, chats etc.) or, if a digital effigy exists, the attempt to perish reputation (KBS World). Depending on the context and the target of cyber aggression, the scale of such actions varies. During the Georgian-Russian War in 2008, Moscow (allegedly) used cyber warfare as one component of its overall war strategy:
Here, cyber warfare could be observed and analyzed in an almost ‘classic’ sense. Nevertheless, there is one major problem: the aggressors are not clearly identifiable as there are strategies to maintain anonymity in the Internet. Furthermore, cyber wars can break out between countries even though the involved governments live in peace with each other ‘offline’. A popular case would be the cyber-conflict between China and the USA: Despite the fact that both nations have tight economical bonds to each other, the US government alleged several times that China would constantly ‘attack’ the USA in cyberspace, with the aim to deprive valuable information or intelligence, respectively. US media sources regularly covered this story:
Apparently, the same applies to European media sources (e.g Telegraph 21/11/08). Besides, it seems that Russia is also perceived as a ‘cyber-villain’ (e.g. BBC 17/05/07; BBC 03/02/09). However, these countries accused the USA for cyber warfare in other contexts, too (e.g. The Guardian 24/01/10). Though taken quite seriously, the conflicts still happen in a ‘remote’ space as diplomatic relations in neither case stopped.
Defining the sources of cyber crime is even more difficult, as actually every individual with access to the Internet can possibly conduct unlawful operations. Preconditioned, he/she knows how to use the digital code for such purposes. To sum up: Despite all their advantages, digitalized information societies can suffer attacks in several dimensions; our new environment / the digital body can be penetrated in various ways. Hence, technological progress and computerization entail another dualism.
Is the information society a vulnerable ‘body’ now? At first glance, the answer seems to be yes. There are many dangers to the ‘netizen’ and his habitat, multiple ways to harm the network exist. But simultaneously new defense mechanisms emerge continuously. A critical observer may ask in how far certain forms of cyber crime and terrorism are actually welcomed by a whole industry of anti-virus, anti-spyware etc. Questions of observation/surveillance (e.g. Webster 1995: 52 et seq.) must be considered, too. In case of the average user, the individual itself determines largely the level of its own vulnerability by controlling how much information he/she puts online. The digital connection of corporations, social and political organizations is a logical consequence of the technological progress, as the fast exchange of information embraces numerous advantages – despite certain threats. Approaching the discourses on cyber war, -terrorism and crime challenges the observer to deal with very complex and highly dynamic concepts. Discussing these issues leads to numerous interesting as well as crucial (media-)philosophical, ethical, economical and judicial questions.
For instance, how intense will the influence of cyber war on the shape of contemporary and future conflicts be? Its importance will surely increase and it will remain a crucial factor in military strategies. However, it is unlikely that it will somehow replace conventional warfare in the near future. Attacks in cyberspace mostly still have a purpose or impact in/on the ‘real’ offline world; the crimes committed and battles fought in the World Wide Web are not completely detached from it. They are not exclusively restricted to what Baudrillard (1983) described as the Simulation but lead to perceptible consequences. Another important aspect in this context: The concept of information societies is not applicable to all countries on the globe as many regions still lack of a proper technological infrastructure. This margins the limits of cyber warfare to a certain extent.
Furthermore, ascertaining the discourses on cyber warfare and terrorism – especially in the mass media – might reveal certain imbalances in the coverage of the issue. By using methods like content analysis and/or critical discourse analysis ideologies, stereotypes, myths etc. might be identified.
The European Network and Information Security Agency (Enisa) recently published a report on mobile social media. The paper includes an examination of the chances and dangers of mobile social networking as well as recommendations for a safer use of this technology. It focuses for instance identity-stealing, loss of sensible data, and risks for reputation. To avoid these dangers the authors of the report provide 17 “golden” rules: some are just “common sense” others mere commonplaces.