Most Recent Column, Op-Ed, Opinion, World — March 30, 2011 at 12:16 pm

The Wizard of DoS

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The Anonymous raid on HB Gary acted as a dam buster. It revealed that the institutions we place high on moral pedestals are working in the dark to conduct clandestine operations that violate federal law. Government agencies have encouraged private entities to commit felonies by launching cyber-attacks on other private organizations like WikiLeaks. In addition, the files Anonymous sequestered from HB Gary included correspondences with consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton that mentioned the development of software that has the capability to manipulate social media networks. Anonymous dubbed this software Metal Gear since the correspondences did not provide a name for the alleged project.

The capabilities of this software include the ability to spy on political opponents by identifying and matching social media profiles to email accounts, other users’ network profiles and other relevant data sets located on the Internet. Even more disconcerting, the software has the ability to manufacture large-scale “consent” on social networking sites through the mass generation or mass manipulation of social network profiles. In other words, the software allows one person to manipulate an undisclosed number of profiles, possibly in the hundreds, on social networks to give the illusion that the public at-large either approves or disapproves of any given issue depending on the political necessity of its wielder.

Taken together, these revelations should trigger a seismic shift in our perceptions concerning interactions on the Internet. Government agencies and private entities are increasingly showing disregard for federal communication laws. If they use them to suppress political opponents while simultaneously manipulating public consensus on social networking sites then we have a serious problem. This growing trend warrants a critical evaluation of laws and norms surrounding interaction on the Internet.
There must be an attempt to outline what constitutes public and private space on the Internet. The information made public by the HB Gary hack shows us that, contrary to the current electronic communication laws, the government and their cyber-security contractors like HB Gary, Berico, Palantir and Booz Allen Hamilton view the entire Internet as public space. The actions of these entities suggest that they believe private space in the virtual world only exists in closed networks. If hardware is connected to the Internet, then it is part of the public domain and subsequently, all the information retained on it is part of public space as well.

We’ve only started to pull back the curtain surrounding questions of privacy and security on the Internet. Can copyrights and trademarks be invoked on the Internet? More importantly, are distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, website defacements and hacks that are conducted to retrieve information really illegal since the “property” being targeted does not have an owner? The answers to these questions have the potential to change public opinion over so-called piracy and cyber attacks. However, we must also take into consideration the creation of software like Metal Gear.

How does the emergence of increasingly sophisticated—even intelligent—software affect the concept of private property on the Internet? Computers are generally thought of a private property. This is starting to change with the advent of software like Metal Gear and supercomputers like Wilson. Software is beginning to provide a ghost for the machine. Computers are considered non-sentient, but as time progresses these instruments will grow exponentially more powerful, and thus more intelligent and capable of mimicking human behavior. In the not-so-distant future, civilizations will have to reconcile these two dissonant issues. When this discussion takes place, it will further complicate matters such as copyrights, trademarks, DDoS attacks, website defacements and acquisition of information from operating systems. Nevertheless, every generation has to grapple with the problems it faces. The task for our generation is to forcefully call out the hypocrisy of those we trust to maintain law and order. When their actions conflict with the rule of law and contribute to social disorder, we must work to ensure that our laws reinforce the values that we hold dear—democracy and freedom of information. The more the public reflects upon these issues—the more likely social norms regarding Internet communication will shift to more accommodating laws for our time.

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