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.

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