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Web Watch: Only skirmishes so far in the global information war

Jasper Hamill

It’s being described as the first global info war – and Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s just been shot.

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Supporters of WikilLeaks massed online last week to fight a battle against governments and organisations they see as enemies of Julian Assange and his radical cause.

John Perry Barlow, the founder of a freedom of speech group called the Electronic Frontier Foundation, marked the beginning of the offensive by tweeting: “The first serious info war is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are troops.”

PayPal, Mastercard and Visa all suffered so-called distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS), which stop websites functioning properly. The hackers were angry that those organisations had stopped processing payments to WikiLeaks. Sarah Palin, who has called for Assange to be hunted down, was also attacked, as well as the Swedish government, who want him extradited from Britain.

Just as happens in a real-life protest, the groups occasionally flailed at an unintended target. Twitter itself drifted into the crosshairs after a false rumour spread that it had blocked the trends #cablegate and #wikileaks, which were used to discuss the leaked wires as they progressed, although the hackers quickly called off their attacks. The cyber army then threatened to strike right at the heart of British society, with some calling for action to take on the shopping sites people rely on to buy their Christmas presents.

As befits this uncharismatic bunch of angry young men, the group responsible calls itself Anonymous. The hackers who make up the many heads of this online Hydra rarely identify themselves, preferring to give the impression of democratic unity. They see WikiLeaks as the vanguard of a battle to keep the internet free and are as passionate about their right to share copyrighted music over filesharing sites as they are about leaked cables.

Using the Twitter account @AnonOperation, they were able to direct attacks. When this account was taken down, another one sprung up to say things like “keep firing at PayPal”.

Hackers and the DDoS attacks they use can seem a little disconnected from the real world, but it’s important to remember the extent to which the economy now depends on the net. When a financial website goes down, the owner loses money. If a government site goes down, important communiques like those informing of school closures during snowy weather would go unheard.

But despite the apocalyptic rhetoric employed by the hackers, they can only do so much. The real threat is from state-sponsored hackers, like the ones who some suspect of having used a virus to infect the computers than run Iranian nuclear facilities. This virus is, as a blogger for American Thinker puts it, “a cyber warhead that represents an evolution even more profound than the introduction of ironclads in the Civil War or aircraft in WWI”. If another Cold War kicks off, it would happen online, he suggested. If that happens, will we even remember the Battle of WikiL eaks?

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