A little more than a week ago, the story broke. It didn't register much on the major news networks, but as the rabbit hole went deeper, it got quite interesting. A summary:
- Aaron Barr, CEO of HB Gary Federal, tries to unveil the identities of the people he perceives to be the "leaders" of the internet group Anonymous as a stunt to generate publicity (and hopefully clients) for his company.
- Bad move. Anon strikes back, hard, hacking into all his social media accounts (including a vulgar but hilarious Twitter hack) and email, putting a large collection of his emails on a popular torrenting website. Arstechnica has a characteristically great (though long) piece outlining the 1 and 2.
- In these emails are found multiple presentations, all with the intent of destroying Wikileaks. The most interesting of these is one given in conjunction with Palantir and Berico Technologies to Bank of America's outside law firm, Hunton & Williams (who were apparently soliciting such presentations).
- This presentation included tactics such as fabricating documents to be released to the public, applying personal pressure to key figures in Wikileaks organization (including full bios of families and friends), "cyber attacks against the infrastructure to get data on document submitters," and a "media campaign to push the radical and reckless nature of Wikileaks activities." It went so far as to name Glenn Greenwald (and others) as essential supporters of Wikileaks, and opined that "if pushed [they] will choose professional preservation over cause." In short, it outlined illegal and certainly unethical activities that HB Gary Federal and friends would commit against Wikileaks if hired.
- To top it off, it's found that the Justice Department recommended Hunton & Williams to Bank of America.
- Everyone starts backpedaling - HB Gary Federal's parent company (HB Gary), their partners, the law firm, etc.
As time passes, both sides (and more broadly, all organizations desiring to influence public opinion and make change/maintain the status quo) will become more sophisticated in their approach. The centralized powers like HB Gary (corporations, trade groups, and governments, to name a few) will devote their resources to muddling the debate and spreading misinformation. A few of Burr's leaked emails describe powerful software that can manage large numbers of online personas - coherently linked social media and email accounts. These are being used to sway online discussions and convey the impression of consensus, which can be powerful in swaying public opinion. As an example, think about how easy it would be for a company to hire a blogger to disseminate propaganda and then use these personas and paid traffic to make it seem like the blog is generating a lot of traffic, giving it legitimacy. It's easy to see how an organization with resources can accomplish its ends in a totally opaque and seemingly organic fashion.
But fundamentally, the forces at work and the larger changes in the playing field favor the grassroots protests and Wikileaks of the world. The outsiders have real people behind their cause - and, in many cases, some pretty skillful hackers. It isn't hard to envision a world in which protests - be they against governments, corporations, or people - are taken to the next level.
Holding up signs outside an oil company whose drilling is killing indigenous people in Peru doesn't really do much. Conversely, educating everyone connected to the CEO - friends, family, etc. - about the atrocities the oil company is perpetrating can have a massive impact on the CEO's life. Imagine the effect of his/her 10 year old daughter, grotesque picture in hand, asking why her parent is responsible for the deaths of so may people.
These tactics will be used by all parties, but in the end I hopeful that the just causes will prevail far more often than not. The internet greatly increases the possibility for transparency, resulting in the greater spread of truth, around which the crowds rally to bring about change. Of course, the path will certainly be filled with confusion and setbacks - for example, the mass persona software programs mentioned above will certainly have success until internet denizens learn of their existence en masse and web companies respond by making social media fraud more difficult. But these will happen, and the freedom of information on the internet will generally work against such tactics, giving them shorter and shorter half-lives.
And so perhaps its naive optimism, but I think the true beneficiary of the sort of targeted systems disruption proposed by Aaron Barr (and carried out by countless others, in all likelihood) will be the disenfranchised crowds seeking justice.