Wikileaks: A Simulation of Net Wars to Come

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with James Der Derian and Ronald Deibert (37 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

With Net thinkers James Der Derian at Brown and Ron Deibert at the Univesity of Toronto, we’re looking for a new lede on the Wikileaks story. Julian Assange, poor devil, is the least of it — even if Bill O’Reilly wants to rip him apart with his bare hands and Vladimir Putin would give him the Nobel Peace Prize. What’s interesting, in this conversation anyway, is the glimpse of an arms race in cyberspace, and the cautionary lesson in the geopolitics of the Internet.

James Der Derian would tell you the next big war could be of the cyber variety. More dangerous than Anonymous vs. Mastercard, it could be Our Worms vs. Yours. The parties could be governments or non-state networks. The targets could be military or civilian — Third World hackers against, say, control-tower computers at Heathrow or O’Hare. And in a paranoid frenzy before attackers are identifiable, it could get out of hand very fast — like World War I, but faster.

Historically speaking, trans-national news services usually corresponded to empires. The spread of imperial power was accompanied by these various news services — Agence France-Presse, even TASS — sort of covered wherever the domain of that state power reached. What’s interesting is this: does WikiLeaks represent any power within the spread of particular networks? Is there an interest here that we need to look at, that’s being furthered to the detriment of the popular will that we tend to see identified with the internet?

… because of the densely interconnected nature of the internet and of control systems, cascading effects can run out of control very fast. You could have the equivalent of a World War I scenario. There a small little incident in Bosnia, the assassination of the archduke, led to a conflagration that killed millions of individuals. What caused that to happen was secret treaties, and that’s why the most recent leaks have created such an uproar. Diplomacy was very much a secret game. Every treaty had a secret article connected to it that said: if you are attacked by country X we will come to your support. It created the effect of a densely networked system [in which] you push one button and the next thing you know Germany had to go to war for Austria… Cascading effects went out of control very swiftly.

Ron Deibert would remind you that the next cyber war won’t exactly be the first one. The conflict in 2008 between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia involved not only tanks and naval skirmishing, but also a major denial-of-service attack on the Georgian government and banking system.

There is really a geopolitics of cyber space, a competition over this domain, from the idea level all the way down to the system infrastructure. … Most of what we call cyberspace is actually owned and operated by the private sector.

Keep in mind the context behind all this is that we’re moving in a remarkable rate towards a new mode of communicating, just within the last five years. … We’re migrating to this new way of communicating without developing the usual norms and protocols around basic security practices.

There is a kind of a demographic shift happening in cyberspace. It started out very much as an American dream. A West Coast libertarian ethos informed cyberspace in the beginning, because, frankly, that’s where it was invented. But over the last couple of decades it’s migrated outward. Now we’re seeing the highest rates of growth occurring in zones of conflict, in the developing world: there is a migration from the North and the West to the South and the East in cyberspace, and I think that is going to change the character of cyberspace. Most of the groups that we study, cyber-criminals and underground economies, [are] in places like Lagos or St. Petersburg or Shanghai. For individuals in these places, connecting to cyberspaces is a way for them to get out of the structural economic inequalities that they face on a day-to-day basis.

What we’re all wondering is whether the fear Wikileaks has surfaced could mark the beginning of the end of the open Internet. Will American anxiety about Web freedoms come to resemble the Chinese government’s? As the Guardian notes unmercifully, the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama paeans of a year ago — to information networks that “are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable” — read now like “a satirical masterpiece.” We seem, at least, to be looking at first blood between established power in the U.S. and the adolescent romance with a magical, free, transformative Web.

Related Content

  • sifta

    Great topic! Have been thinking about this myself…

    The observations from Profs. Deibert and Der Derian are certainly chilling, particularly to the question of the end of openness in cyberspace. What I didn’t hear was a rousing dismissal of such a notion… Romanticizing ‘cyberspace’ can lead to hopes and fears of the unknown, and it was great to hear that part of it demystified to some extent. Though stuff like this underscores the point that lack of imagination is also a problem. Wikileaks has brought the discussion of openness to the fore as no longer a philosophical discussion, but a practical discussion with very serious assets at play…

    While the decisions by E-bay, Amazon, etc., to separate Wikileaks from its resources were implemented on the back-end of certain websites, the decisions themselves were very much made in the “real” world — not by teenagers on some IRC chat board. Alhough the real world undoubtedly involves electronic communications, so perhaps the entire cyberspace distinction is passe, as William Gibson sometimes likes to point out.

    However, IMHO, the most important angle on this is the impact on the media, which was discussed briefly at the end. I didn’t quite agree with Prof. Der Derian’s assertion that that the internet necessarily speeds up the news cycle. It can also *lengthen* and extend it. For example, Bill Clinton’s comment in the Democratic Presidential Primary race comparing Obama to Jesse Jackson would have probably been a non-story without the blogosphere ponderings over it. Instead, it wound up being a kind of a turning point. Moreover, the strategy of an information source dribbling the information out bit by bit was effectively used by Dubai police in dribbling out the details of the botched assassination incident, which maximized the impact of the information. This technique is currently being used by Wikileaks in the same way.

  • Potter

    I admit that I have not thought this through- I mean the part about why we need secrets, nor whether Wikileaks may represent or further an interest other than the popular will to our detriment. So I have been cheering these leaks and Assange (that lovable devil) thankful not only for focussing our attention on certain matters that we should be concerned about but for breaching this wall between what leaders know and what we are allowed to know. We need to know, we have a right and a duty to know. And our leaders cannot be depended upon to be square with us, to hold themselves (or their class) accountable, to act in our interest, nor to have all the wisdom necessary. So watching them try to plug the leaks begins to look a lot like the suppression to hold onto power we want to criticize elsewhere and scary. It’s essential, in a democratic society, for openness, for the people to know, not just what the government wants to tell us. We have learned that we cannot rely entirely on the press either and that we are benefiting tremendously from information and ideas and the sheer energy that come across cyberspace.

    I am grateful for the sorting and presenting that the New York Times did with this leak material. David Carr also had a good article in the paper: Wikileaks and the Power of the Press

  • geoff

    Super program! I’d watched PdF’s Symposium on Wikileaks and Internet Freedom yesterday and this, your chitchat with James Der Derian and Ron Deibert – yeah U of T, eh – a very good complement. I think only Mark Pesce might have been thinking similarly to your 2 guests. Carne Ross, the independent diplomat, has useful and interesting input as a former UK foreign affairs silly servant not usually heard from an insider renegade.
    Link to PdF’s symposium for others:

    Really liked Der Derians reference to Trotsky “opening the safe”. Caused me to hunt for a primary, sort of, source:

    “In the period immediately following the successful removal of the Constituent Assembly the Bolsheviks were absorbed above all by the question of peace. Their decree on peace of October 1917, calling for an immediate halt to hostilities and general negotiations for a just peace, had met with a stony response. Trotsky’s first act as People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, the publication of secret treaties, had also had a minimal impact on the conduct of traditional diplomacy. In November 1917 the Bolsheviks communicated their readiness to begin armistice talks with the Central Powers.”

    TROTSKY, Ian D. Thatcher, 2003 Routledge p.96

  • Potter

    Greg Mitchell is blogging Wikileaks “news & views” day by day at

  • nother
  • I had learned about Sykes-Picot just last week while reading a book about the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, I was hoping to make the comparison of the Soviet leaks to Wikileaks here when the topic came up, but it had been made in the show!

    I have been describing the past few weeks as the happiest of my life. It seems as if every question we can not trust our media to ask has the potential to be answered. I am hoping for revelations about the American role of the disappearances of activists in the Philippines, and Japan having six prime ministers spread over the five calendar years 2006-2010. I am discovering answers to questions I would never have known to ask. Looking at the locations and dates of the cables yet to be leaked is enough to make one salivate at twice their normal rate.

    Perhaps because of I am very much a product of the west coast, and certainly because I have had dealings with them in since at least 2006, I’m a little disappointed that no further mention of “Anonymous” (it’s a name the media created for them, the adoption of it by some of them is a joke) is made in what a cyberwar would look like. When I say what I am going to say, keep in mind the word “they” could encompass very different sets of individuals, calling “Anonymous” a “group” is very misleading, but whoever “they” are, they have demonstrated that a bunch of unfunny kids with very little knowledge about computers and no conventional organization to speak of can seriously harm the workings of the world’s largest companies. The activities of the governments of the United States, China, Iran and Russia might look like nothing compared to the activity of bored children.

  • Karl

    As sophisticated as these guests sound, I think they missed a very basic consequence that will likely follow from the recent Wikileaks releases. Government will continue functioning in the same way, except that it will be even more careful and secretive than it was before, which will place greater demands on government employees and make the screening process during the hiring stage more rigorous. Consider the assertion that Pfc. Bradley Manning gave the info to Wikileaks. The response from government agencies will be to more actively filter what information reaches government employees. There is basically going to be a huge crackdown within government agencies, and certainly not the reforms that people may be seeking. This idea of cyber-warfare is interesting and is described in a sophisticated way by Ron Deibert, but government has already been fighting against its own citizenry for decades.

  • nother

    I do worry that technology is being spewed out so quickly that we are not getting are minds around it – it’s getting itself around our minds. it’s one thing for me to supplement my identity with a facebook account but for a nine year old I can see how facebook might predominate their identity. My Korean friend just told me that when he visited his relatives in Korea they had high speed internet and an out house to take a piss.

    In his chapter “The Medium is the Message” in his book “Understanding Media,” Marshal Mcluhan writes about the onslaught of electronic media and the lack of contemplation concerning it: “Subliminal and docile acceptance of media impact has made them prisons without walls for their human users. As A. J. Liebling remarked in his book “The Press” a man is not free if he cannot see where he is going, even if he has a gun to help him get there. For each of the media is also a powerful weapon with which to clobber other media and other groups. the result is that the present age has been one of multiple civil wars that are not limited to the world of the art and entertainment. In “War and Human Progress, Professor J. U. Nef declared: ‘The total wars of our time have been the result of a series of intellectual mistakes.'”

    P.S. I love the new Radio Open Source digs! Ain’t now wars gonna be stared at this URL, that’s for sure.

  • hey great new website design guys! i really like the code, and a very dynamic interface. for a media organization like yours that produces and analyzes media, it is great to see that you have functioning website!

  • …also one thing that this conversation misses in focusing on the ‘complexity theory’ of the cyberspace and perhaps also gets lost in the mass of wikileaks cables is a simple confirmation or repudiation of the ‘casus belli’ for NATO’s war in Afghanistan-Pakistan as well as other more shadowy ones elsewhere in the Middle East and South Asia. I’d say jumping straight to the question of cascading effects, information technology in international affairs, network vs state sovereignty etc. misses the key issue of the day: that U.S./NATO is conducting a war to develop an “Afghan” nation state that might ultimately have little legitimacy, and which might do a lot of harm to the people who live there – as well as most everyone else involved in the fighting, I wish there were a way not to get lost in the admittedly interesting technological transformations of the 21st century and make a connection with a reality about these cables and wars that has something to say about human beings and ways of life – which it seems have been devastated in the last decade.