World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation.Marshall McLuhan, Culture Is Our Business, 1970
Marshall McLuhan’s prophetic quote was published a year after the first successful transmission of text between machines. At the time, computers took up entire rooms and were connected through the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). Charley Kline attempted to send the word “LOGIN” from an SDS Sigma 7 at UCLA to an SDS 940 at Stanford Research Institute. “L” and “O” were successfully delivered, but then the system crashed. After fixing some bugs, the message was delivered an hour later.¹ So, the first set of letters sent over the Internet’s precursor were L, O, and L again—a common acronym for “laughing out loud.” The universe has a sense of humor.
Today, billions of LOLs are traveling the Internet backbone on a daily basis. The World Wide Web connects the planet through billions of “smart” devices. According to We Are Social’s “Digital in 2017 Global Overview” report, there are:
- 3.77 billion Internet users (50% of the global population)
- 2.80 billion social media users (37% of the global population)
- 4.92 billion mobile users (66% of the global population)
- 2.56 billion mobile social media users (34% of the global population)
- 1.61 billion e-commerce users (22% of the global population)²
Given the staggering size of the Internet, its billions of users, and all of the massive data that comes along with it, it is no surprise that spies, hackers, and activists are leveraging its power in the guerrilla information war.
The Era of the Hack
The early 21st century has seen many high-profile hacks, leaks, and politically motivated uses of the Internet. In 2010, the non-profit group WikiLeaks gained prominence. WikiLeaks.org is a website that allows anonymous whistleblowers to submit confidential documents through an interface that uses military-grade encryption to keep identities hidden. The group gained global attention with the release of Collateral Murder—a leaked video of a July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrike by U.S. Apache helicopters during the Iraqi insurgency following the Iraq War. The helicopter crew, mistaking a camera for an RPG, engaged fire on a group of men who ended up being civilians and two Reuters journalists. After two sets of 30 mm cannon fire airstrikes and one hellfire missile strike were completed, anywhere from 12 to over 18 people were dead and 2 children were badly wounded. “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards,” and other video game-like commentary can be heard over the radio chatter.
The video sparked international outrage and debate over the justification of the strike. Daniel Ellsberg, a former United States military analyst best known for leaking the Pentagon Papers to the media, said of the airstrike:
“It would be interesting to have someone speculate or tell us exactly what context would lead to justifying the killing that we see on the screen. As the killing goes on, you obviously would see the killing of men who are lying on the ground in an operation where ground troops are approaching and perfectly capable of taking those people captive, but meanwhile you’re murdering before the troops arrive. That’s a violation of the laws of war and of course what the mainstream media have omitted from their stories is this context.”³
WikiLeaks was just getting started. Later that year, they released Cablegate—251,287 United States diplomatic cables, which at the time was “the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain.”⁴ It quickly topped that number in 2011, with the release of The Global Intelligence Files—over five million emails from Stratfor, a private intelligence firm whose main clients are intelligence and defense agencies. Among some of the revelations:
- Email ID 5358202: STRATCAP – Goldman Sachs teams up with Stratfor on insider trading scheme
- Email ID 5462138: Stratfor attempts to falsely link American journalist Alexa O’Brien to Al-Qaeda
- Email ID 1352579 – Existence of sealed indictment against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange
- Email ID 1609065: Bank of America spies on Occupy Wall Street activists
- Email ID 1344941: DEA asks US government for permission to assassinate Mexican drug cartel leader
- Email ID 396510: Dow chemical Bhopal disaster killed 22,000 Stratfor spies on dissenters⁵
WikiLeaks’ other notable leaks include the Afghan War logs, the inner workings of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), emails of Syria’s head of state, and the NSA’s spying on world leaders.
In 2017, WikiLeaks published Vault7—a cache of CIA hacking and espionage tools. According to WikiLeaks:
“The CIA lost control of the majority of its hacking arsenal including malware, viruses, trojans, weaponized “zero day” exploits, malware remote control systems and associated documentation. This extraordinary collection, which amounts to more than several hundred million lines of code, gives its possessor the entire hacking capacity of the CIA. The archive appears to have been circulated among former U.S. government hackers and contractors in an unauthorized manner, one of whom has provided WikiLeaks with portions of the archive.”
The Vault7 publication goes on to describe CIA hacking tools that can infect Samsung televisions, turning them into bugging devices, as well as an array of viruses built for iOS and Android smartphones. The 24-part series can be found at: wikileaks.org/vault7
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange certainly sits among the Deep State’s most hated men—along with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The Snowden Revelations
In 2013, ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked top secret documents he obtained while working for Booz Allen Hamilton to The Washington Post and The Guardian. The documents (many of them are included in Big Brother Technology) provided the world its first true glimpse of the inner workings of the global cyber-military-industrial-complex, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, and the state of indiscriminate surveillance in a post-9/11 world. These disclosures have been the most revealing since the inception of the NSA—an agency that earned the nickname “No-Such-Agency,” and has its roots in early cryptography.
The interception of signals intelligence (SIGINT) was vital during the Second World War. In 1943, the US and UK formed the BRUSA Agreement, in which they agreed to share “all special intelligence derived by cryptanalysis of the communications of the military and air forces of the Axis powers, including their secret services.”⁶ This would lead to the establishment of Five Eyes—a SIGINT sharing alliance between the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In 1971, the international electronic eavesdropping network codenamed ECHELON was officially established.⁷ The justification was national security—monitoring Soviet threats during the Cold War.⁸ But the potential for abuse was obvious. In 1975, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Frank Church, speaking on the NSA’s eavesdropping capabilities, accurately stated:
“That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.”⁹
He was right. The Snowden disclosures prove that privacy is a thing of the past in the digital age, and that the surveillance programs are not always used for reasons of national security. In fact, The Guardian, citing Snowden documents, reported that British officials used their spying power to gain a “negotiating advantage” at the 2009 G-20 London summit. They did this setting up fake Internet cafés and installing key- logging software onto delegates’ phones.¹⁰ In another instance, the NSA “tapped phone calls involving German chancellor Angela Merkel and her closest advisers for years and spied on the staff of her predecessors.”¹¹ Glenn Greenwald also reported that the U.S. government has used counter-terrorism as a pretext in order to spy on other countries in the “business, industrial and economic fields.”¹²
Edward Snowden backs this claim in a December 2013 “open letter to the people of Brazil,” summing it up as follows: “These programs were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They’re about power.”¹³
The thousands of Snowden’s leaked documents provide great detail about the global surveillance state’s toolset. XKeyscore is an NSA tool that allows government analysts to search through vast databases of emails, online chats, and browsing history of millions people all around the world.¹⁴ The NSA’s PRISM surveillance program harvests data directly from the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, Paltalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple.¹⁵ NSA documents published by The New York Times show that the NSA pushed to “exploit phone and e-mail data of Americans after it lifted restrictions in 2010,” which enables “large-scale graph analysis on very large sets of communications metadata.”¹⁶
Although the NSA justifies this surveillance under FISA, claiming that they only spy on foreigners, leaked documents show that the NSA creates sophisticated graphs of the social connections, locations, traveling companions, and other personal information of American citizens.
The documents show that on a single day in 2012, the NSA collected e-mail address books from: 22,881 Gmail accounts, 82,857 Facebook accounts, 105,068 Hotmail accounts, and 444,743 Yahoo! accounts.¹⁷ From this information, the NSA can draw a detailed map of a person’s life.
As the worldwide smartphone market boomed, the NSA took advantage. Smartphones are a spy’s dream—all of a person’s contacts, behavior, interests, GPS location, photos, credit card numbers, and passwords are there for the taking. Snowden’s documents show that the NSA set up task forces to compromise the security of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android mobile operating systems. They also possess a stash of scripts that perform surveillance on different features of the mobile operating systems—including the mapping feature, voicemail and photos, as well as Google Earth, Facebook and Yahoo! Messenger.¹⁸ Stashing clandestine hacking techniques and software vulnerabilities can have detrimental ramifications when the secrets are leaked to the public.
Stashing clandestine hacking techniques and software vulnerabilities can have detrimental ramifications when the secrets are leaked to the public.
Sacrificing Security in the Name of… Security?
It is safe to say that digital security is more important than ever, and its importance continues to grow in a digital-dependent world. One would think, then, that our intelligence agencies would be working hard to keep the homeland protected by reporting vulnerabilities to the software companies as they are discovered. Instead, they are routinely undermining global security by keeping them secret, exploiting them, and using criminal hacking techniques that would get a normal citizen arrested. This kind of irresponsibility renders all global digital commerce and communications unsafe.
This situation became clear when a global wave of ransomware resulted from leaked NSA hacking tools. In April 2017, a mysterious hacker group called The Shadow Brokers leaked the tools online. They included EternalBlue, a Windows vulnerability that the NSA chose to exploit for offensive purposes rather than report to Microsoft, and DoublePulsar, a backdoor implant they developed. Within a month, hackers used the tools to develop WannaCry, the biggest ransomware attack in history. On its first day, WannaCry infected more than 230,000 computers in over 150 countries. The worm locked users out of their computers until a ransom was paid in untraceable Bitcoin cryptocurrency. By encrypting all the files on infected computers, the attacks affected banks, airports, hospitals, railways, and even shut down the radiation monitoring system at Chernobyl.¹⁹
The Internet, for now, is a neutral zone where ordinary citizens with a bit of technical knowledge can wield immense power. The 2016 U.S. presidential election was a perfect example of the power of hacks used for political means.
The Hack Heard ‘Round the World
In 2016, WikiLeaks published 20,000 emails from inside the U.S. Democratic National Committee. Voters were rightly outraged to find that the DNC had undemocratically stacked the deck against potential candidate Bernie Sanders in favor of Hillary Clinton for the 2016 election nomination.²⁰ The leak of these emails, and the contents within, are believed to have ultimately swayed the election in favor of Donald Trump.²¹ The official narrative from the United States Intelligence Community states with “high confidence” that the leak was part of a Russian plot to interfere with and influence the U.S. presidential election,²² and it has spawned U.S.-Russia tensions that haven’t been felt since the Cold War.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange denies that any state actor was part of the DNC hack, and someone called Guccifer 2.0 has claimed responsibility. Indeed, hacking methods make it hard to distinguish the source of a hack. As security expert and founder of McAfee antivirus software John McAfee said in an interview with Larry King:
“If I was the Chinese and I wanted to make it look like the Russians did it, I would use the Russian language within the code, I would use Russian techniques of breaking into the organization. There simply is no way to assign a source for any attack.”²³
The Russian hack narrative is further questioned by the revelations in the Clinton tell-all book, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. The authors write that the Russian blame-game strategy “had been set within twenty-four hours of her concession speech” and that the press was influenced to push the Russian narrative rather than addressing the content of the stolen emails.
Nevertheless, this situation is the latest example of the political power of the Internet. The U.S. government responded by grilling representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google on Capitol Hill in October 2017. The Senate judiciary subcommittee concluded that Russia had influenced the 2016 election by buying thousands of ads which “sought to sow discord around sensitive social issues, not try to convince Americans to vote for either Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton.”²⁴ The DNC leak has shown the power of political leaks in the digital age, and is part of a greater hacktivist movement in the 21st century.
Hacktivists vs. the Deep State
Hacktivism is defined as: the practice of gaining unauthorized access to a computer system and carrying out various disruptive actions as a means of achieving political or social goals.²⁵ The deep state, or shadow government, has made examples of hacktivists who dare to challenge or embarrass them.
Barrett Brown is an American journalist who has written for The Guardian, The Huffington Post, Vanity Fair, The Daily Beast, and other publications. His unofficial association with the Anonymous hacktivist collective put him on the FBI’s radar. Federal agents raided both his mother’s house and his apartment in March 2012, executing a search warrent for “records relating to HBGary, Infragard, Endgame Systems, Anonymous, LulzSec, IRC Chats, Twitter, wiki.echelon2.org, and pastebin.com.”²⁶ He was indicted in Texas federal court in December 2012 and accused of, among other things, posting a link that led to private hacked material from intelligence firm Strategic Forecasting (Stratfor). He originally faced 105 years in U.S. Federal Prison, but was ultimately sentenced to more than five years in federal prison and ordered to pay nearly $900,000 in restitution to Stratfor. He was released for good behavior after 28 months and put on probation.²⁷ Since then, the government has been pressuring him not to do interviews with media, which he has been defying. His glimpse into the inner workings of the prison-industrial-complex has only strengthened his resolve to build Project PM,²⁸ a project he founded to analyze troves of leaked information concerning the cyber-military-industrial-complex.²⁹ Jeremy Hammond, the hacktivist actually responsible for the Stratfor hack, is currently serving ten years in U.S. Federal Prison.
Hacktivists are exerting more power than ever, and the deep state will certainly do whatever it takes to circumvent that power.
The Future of the Internet
As I write this in November 2017, the FCC is getting ready to vote on moving the Internet out of Title II classification, meaning that big telecoms like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon, the very companies in bed with the NSA, may become the gatekeepers of the Internet. They will be able to dictate what data gets access to its “fast lanes,” what data will be slowed down, and what will be removed entirely. The move is garnering almost universal opposition. I suspect the ulterior motives include hindering the free flow of data so that sites like WikiLeaks and other hacktivists are slowed down and stifled.
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Here’s what they said.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 31 Oct. 2017, wapo.st/2BFp4Vf
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29. Zaitchik, Alexander. “Barrett Brown Faces 105 Years in Jail.” Rolling Stone. 5 Sept. 2013) rollingstone.com/culture/news/barrett-brown-faces-105- years-in-jail-20130905