As I See It: Partisans and Mercenaries
January 26, 2015 Victor Rozek
Long ago in simpler times, I read a novel in which one character kills another with a credit card. I remember being dismayed that something so trivial as a credit card could be used as a weapon. It seemed there was no end to human ingenuity when it came to dispatching other human beings.
By the time computers became militarized, I was no longer dismayed. It was obvious that a tool capable of amplifying human capacities would not be limited to the perfection of human nature. But with the growth of the World Wide Web, something unforeseen happened that sent the process of turning computers into weapons careening out of control. That something was the emergence of hacker communities. As computers became weapons, hackers became combatants. Suddenly cyber warfare wasn’t limited to one nation annoying another. Unlike conventional warfare, anyone could play. And the Internet has been nothing if not a target-rich environment for two emerging classes of hackers: partisans and mercenaries.
Partisans are groups that believe in a cause. Whether they wear white hats or black is largely based on how you feel about their cause. Mercenaries are opportunists who mostly believe in making mischief and money. They wear white hats if you’re the one hiring them, black hats if their skills are directed at you. The extremes are represented by groups like Anonymous and Lizard Squad. Anonymous frequently strikes a blow against some perceived injustice; while Lizard Squad took down the PlayStation and Xbox networks and sold software that enabled buyers to inflict a DDoS attack on the website of their choice.
Occasionally, however, both partisans and mercenaries turn their attention to digitally slapping some of the certifiable crazies strutting the international stage.
By almost any measure, Kim Jong-un is one of the maddest hatters in the gene pool. He is addressed by an array of titles, each more pretentious than the next. But one guy’s “Glorious Leader” is another’s pudgy blowhard with a bad haircut. Which is probably how Sony saw him when it green-lighted the now-infamous satirical movie The Interview.
Understandably, pulling the curtain back on the Wizard of Pyongyang might not be appreciated, nor could North Koreans be expected to find humor in the graphic assassination of their “Dear-Leader-who-is-the-perfect-incarnation-of-the-appearance-that-a-leader-should-have.” Well, not so much after his head blows up.
Sony cared more about profit potential than the possible consequences of releasing its monument to bad taste and stupidity. But it discovered there was a price to pay for disrespecting the satirically challenged. That price was exacted, according to the FBI, by North Korean military hackers who broke into Sony’s digital underwear drawer and started waving its contents around.
When Sony initially determined not to distribute the movie, the impact extended beyond tabloid revelations. The expense and embarrassment suffered by Sony was one thing. But hackers, with coding skills and threats, were able to accomplish what North Korea could never hope to achieve through bellicose bullying alone: they forced a free society to subject its freedoms to cost/benefit analysis.
That, of course, is what Sony did. It was already humiliated by the release of financial documents, unflattering emails, and the personal data of its employees. With the additional threat of violence, Sony’s exposure could exceed projected profits. So Sony caved. Effectively, it allowed hackers to dictate policy. Kim Jong-un added another title to his collection of honoraries: de-facto CEO of Sony.
Korean demands, however, showed a curious lack of understanding. Hackers insisted that all signs of The Interview be completely obliterated, including trailers and any future Internet presence. But hackers, of all people, should be aware that the Internet is unbendable to a single will. With histrionic puffery, the North Korean defense committee threatened attacks on “the White House, the Pentagon, and the whole U.S. mainland” if the U.S. dared retaliate on Sony’s behalf. Days later North Korea’s access to the Internet abruptly vanished. Lizard Squad claimed credit.
The ease with which hackers were able to disrupt and defang a major corporation (and conversely black-out a nation) guarantees imitators. Businesses, particularly in the financial sector, are regularly hacked. Most prefer to keep their vulnerabilities from being publically exposed. But occasionally, successful penetrations like last year’s Home Depot and Target hacks that put 40 million credit card numbers in play, become public knowledge. Gaining control of data is to hackers what controlling territory is to warfare. Cyber extortion and ransom are trending and unlikely to go out of fashion any time soon.
If North Korea discounted today’s digital realities, what Westerners ignore is that respect–particularly around issues of politics and religion–has life-and-death importance in honor cultures. And sometimes the ramifications of exercising our freedoms thoughtlessly can be truly horrific.
The recent attack on the offices of Charlie Hobdo, which left 17 people dead, is dreadfully illustrative of the tensions between one culture’s demand for respect and another’s for unfettered speech. To much of the Muslim world, the cartoons were blasphemous, Islamophobic, and racist, not to mention humiliating to a culture that believes it has been debased by the West for centuries. To the Western mind, they were nothing more than editorial illustrations, a tradition dating back to the 1700s, representative of democratic values, especially free speech.
Although few in the media would admit it, the violence was sufficient to spawn a degree of self-censorship. Many American media outlets chose not reprint the Charlie Hobdo cartoons. Even in the “home of the brave” free speech is increasingly linked to the potential price of exercising it. The Internet, however, kept the cartoons and the controversy alive.
In France, partisans retaliated. The French arm of Anonymous declared war of ISIL, vowing to track jihadist activities, expose their financial transactions, and take down their websites. Shortly after the announcement Ansar-Alhaqq, on-line home to French-speaking militant Islamists, went dark. A week after the attack, when Charlie Hobdo again published a cartoon with the image of a weeping prophet, France reported no fewer than 19,000 retaliatory hacks. Game on.
All too soon the Internet has become a hacker’s battleground for political causes, protest, extortion, and vengeance; a place where liberty increasingly bumps up against retribution. It remains a tool of infinite uses, some brave and admirable, others shameful and cowardly. But stripped of context, it is merely reflective of an increasingly complex and angry world.
One of the more interesting revelations of the Sony hack, was that Mark Zuckerberg really, really hated The Social Network and tried to kill it before its release. The Koreans should note that it didn’t work out real well for Mark either. I just hope Zuckerberg isn’t planning a retaliatory strike against Social Network‘s creator Aaron Sorkin. I would very much like to see another season of Newsroom.