Let the Cyber-Wars Begin!
Gar Smith

The eternal war between the Marketplace and the Commons (the same struggle that pits Capital against Labor and the World Trade Organization against just about every body) has moved into cyberspace.

The Internet is ablaze with brushfire battles pitting the Dot-coms against the Dot-orgs. Predictably, the White House has elected to side with big business moguls of the Internet instead of the average American clicking-stiff.

Last November, the White House sent a 19-year-old hacker named Eric Burns to prison for 15 months and ordered him to pay $36,240 in restitution. Hanson's crime? He hacked into the White House web page and added the message: "Stop all the war."

The Oval Office is circling its wagons. On January 7, President Clinton proposed a $2 billion package to fight computer hackers. Characterizing hacking as a new form of "global terrorism," Clinton noted that someone sitting at a computer can "hack into a computer system and potentially paralyze a company, a city or a government."

A few weeks later, as if to answer the President's challenge, a mysterious and unprecedented electronic assault shut down some of the Internet's best-known websites--Amazon.com, CNN.com, Yahoo.com, Ebay.com and Buy.com.

Despite the hullabaloo in the corporate media, the average citizen's life was not fundamentally disrupted by this world-class cyber-prank. To the contrary, most Americans were probably amused by the cheeky nature of the stunt. It was electronic David against the dot-com Goliaths.

The political and media trendsetters are busily peppering the airways with buzzwords like "cyber terrorists" and "digital vandals," but let's assess what really happened.

These websites were targeted for a reason. The FBI has been quick to characterize the Yahoo hackers as criminals but remains tight-lipped when it comes to actually quoting them. One news report claims that the initial data packets contained "anti-commerce messages, as well as a digital call to arms for social reform."

As Douglas Rushkoff observed in a New York Times essay, "the hackers didn't attack schools, charities or communities. They attacked commerce. Why?"

The Internet was originally created as a research tool for government scientists and academics. In the 1980s, when it was opened up to the public, it quickly established itself as an exhilaratingly anarchic, free-form "commons of the ether."

In those days, "businesses weren't even allowed on the Net," Rushkofft recalls. "It was a level playing field, where the size of your computer and the contents of your wallet meant nothing. The Internet changed the way people thought about media and power."

That changed when the government "privatized" the system. "Corporate behemoths ignored the indigenous Net population as they colonized our space," Rushkoff writes. "The look and feel of the Internet changed as users were converted into consumers."

The February attacks may be seen as an electronic version of the Boston Tea Party, reminder that, in Rushkoff's words, "the online universe was developed with public funds and [that] Corporate America has been getting a free ride on a civic highway. They are guests, not landlords."

The government's response is to create new levels of security--the militarization of cyber space. Part of Clinton's strategy to combat anti-corporate hackers is to offer college scholarships to computer-savvy kids who agree to join a government Federal Cyber Service. The FCS would be modeled on the ROTC program that trains college students t become military officers.

A Federal Intrusion Detection Network (Fidnet) was originally proposed to permit the FBI to monitor government and business computer communications. When civil libertarians protested, Fidnet was handed over to the General Services Administration and limited to government-only snooping.

Clinton's attempt to stir up fear over the threat of foreign cyber-terrorists armed with electronic codes that could immobilize our airports, banks, and powerplants are a bit disingenuous.

When it comes to designing cyber weaponry, the Pentagon has long been in the forefront. According to the Washington Post, the Pentagon's geeks-in-khaki have developed extensive scenarios that envision "soldiers at computer terminals silently invading foreign networks to shut down electrical facilities, interrupt phone service, crash trains and disrupt financial systems."

All of the infrastructure disruptions that could have been triggered by the much-ballyhooed Y2K computer glitch, now has been enlisted in the Pentagon's growing arsenal of electron weapons. Pentagon hackers now have the power to open the floodgates on an enemy's dams or cause oil refineries to explode. Cyber-soldiers with their trigger-fingers flying over computer keyboards have the potential power to shut down--or meltdown--nuclear powerplants thousands of miles away.

The problem with such cyber assaults is that they can have unforeseen ramifications: They could easily ricochet back on the US or damage innocent third parties.

The Pentagon was actually on the verge of hacking into Serbia's computer infrastructure in hopes of destroying military and civilian services during the Kosovo War. (Unbeknownst to NATO, President Clinton authorized US-backed agents to hack into Serbian leader Slobodan Milosovic's bank accounts and siphon his money into US banks to use as "a bargaining tool.")

The only thing that prevented a full-fledged US cyber-blitz was a warning from Defense Department lawyers that such an attack could expose the US to war crimes charges.

"The full extent of the US computer arsenal is among the most tightly held national security secrets," the Post reported. It is known that US military planners are experimenting with computer viruses, "logic bombs," electronic disinformation, and "the morphing of video images onto foreign television stations to deceive."

Clearly, if the White House is concerned about the spread cyber terrorism, it should first put its own house in order.

© Earth Island Journal, summer 2000 issue