Jul 08 2011

Hypocrisy about cyberwar

One of the crucial steps by which the US entered a state of permanent warfare was when acts of ‘terror’ (however one defines that politically malleable word) shifted from being criminal acts that could and should be treated as lying within the province of law enforcement agencies, to political acts that required a military response such as bombing and invading countries or extra-judicial ones such as setting up kangaroo courts where the normal processes did not apply but convictions could be easily obtained or even where people could be held without trial indefinitely.

In a previous post, I said that cyberwar is the latest device by which people are made to feel as if they and the nation are under a state of perpetual siege. It was only a matter of time before the other shoe dropped and computer hacking became a basis, not for criminal prosecutions, but to start a war. The US government has now said that “computer sabotage coming from another country can constitute an act of war, a finding that for the first time opens the door for the U.S. to respond using traditional military force.” It looks like we are being prepared for yet another war to be started.

What is interesting (though not surprising) is the double standard the US government uses on this issue. When the group known as Anonymous launched a DDOS (distributed denial of service) attack on those companies like Amazon, PayPal, Visa, that stopped dealing with WikiLeaks as a result of government pressure, the US government strongly condemned the action, using noble language about how awful cyberwarfare was and the danger of limiting the free flow of information. Attorney General Eric Holder promised to do everything necessary to find the culprits and punish them harshly. However, there was no similar investigation of the much more highly sophisticated cyberattack on the WikiLeaks website that occurred two weeks before, which had all the indications of being sponsored by the US government.

As another example, Hillary Clinton has demanded internet freedom for those abroad while simultaneously pushing for restrictions and increased government snooping capabilities on people in the US, even demanding access to people’s Twitter accounts. It also turns out that the US Chamber of Commerce is accused of involvement with a group of military contractors in a hacking plot aimed at progressive groups. What are the odds that Clinton will call for a full investigation by the Attorney General into this?

Similarly, while the US government said they deplored the Mubarak government’s attempts to restrict the use of the internet during the height of the protests, al Jazeera reports that a US company based in California called Narus (which is owned by Boeing and does internet surveillance work for the US government) helped Egypt in that effort. This shadowy company would not talk to al Jazeera to answer their questions. Is the US government going to investigate the actions of Narus? Don’t hold your breath.

But perhaps the most breathtaking example of hypocrisy is that both the US and Israel publicly bragged about being the creators of the worm called Stuxnet, “the most sophisticated cyberweapon ever deployed” that supposedly attacked the computers involved in running Iran’s nuclear reactor and caused problems. So if the US and Israel use cyberwarfare to attack Iran, it is the occasion for public self-congratulatory high-fives, while if the people of another country hack into US computers, it is considered an act of war that could warrant even military retaliation.

NPR had a series of stories in May (part 1, part 2, and part 3) on the ‘covert’ war being waged against Iran which is in addition to the open economic warfare of sanctions. These reports discussed the ‘covert’ actions involve bombings in that country, cyber attacks, and assassinations of Iranian scientists, without once raising the issues of hypocrisy, let alone legality, of such actions. (I put the word ‘covert’ in ironic quotes because it is being openly discussed as if it were above-board, the only secret aspect being the actual details.)

As always, the test of whether someone is speaking in good faith is to see how we would react if the tables were turned. What would be the reaction if the Iranian media openly talked about Iran’s covert actions against the US and Israel involving cyberwarfare and assassinations of scientists? I think the answer is obvious.

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