Mary Dejevsky: The power balance is shifting, for better and for worse

The last word might still rest with the authorities. But the “outlaws” have acquired a certain capacity to wreck. The stakes arenot nearly as unequal as they were
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The Independent Online

Straws in the wind; ciphers in space... There is suddenly more to the Wiki-Leaks saga than once it seemed. What began as a wearying tour of US diplomacy is still that – a macho parading of openness for openness's sake. But what has now ensued offers a glimpse into the future, and holds out both a warning and a promise.

When the weird Australian Julian Assange published hundreds of thousands of documents on his website, it was hard to tell wheat from chaff. There were telling details – China's possible acquiescence in a unified Korea; the Gulf states' greater fear of Iran than of Israel. There were impressions that rang true: Kevin Rudd's nerdish inexperience of government; Berlusconi's sense of Putin as a kindred spirit. And there were moments of pure theatre: the US envoy watching Sarkozy trying to catch his son's rabbit as it scampered around his office. Mostly, though, there was confirmation for what had long been known, assumed or suspected – and a whole lot of embarrassment for Washington.

There followed the standard WikiLeaks sequel: a lively debate on the public's right to know, with a subsection on whether diplomacy would ever be the same again. And opinion was as polarised as ever between those who argued that government could not be conducted without secrets and those who saw knowledge as power and secrecy as inherently malign. Again, it was all very conventional.

Now, though, we are in a new dimension. The principled argument has turned practical; the virtual has become reality. Informed by the US authorities that dealings with WikiLeaks could be illegal, major companies severed their ties. A succession of internet servers stopped hosting Assange's website; Mastercard, PayPal and others refused to be the intermediaries for funds. WikiLeaks could not communicate its information and it could not raise funds. It was cut off.

At least that is what was supposed to happen. But the many internet-savvy friends of Wiki-Leaks resisted. Substitute servers popped up to replace those that had barred Assange's operation, while PayPal and others found their sites hacked in revenge. Sweden's state prosecutor was similarly targeted in response to an extradition warrant accusing Assange of sex offences. This pro-WikiLeaks campaign called itself Operation Payback and used social networking sites to co-ordinate its assaults. A collective of "hacktivists", styled Anonymous, claimed the credit.

The last word might still rest with the state authorities. With the US State Department and such giants as Amazon, Visa and the like all ranged on the same side, how could it not? But the "outlaws" have acquired a certain capacity to wreck. This is a conflict in which the stakes are not nearly as unequal as they were before.

It is not just that secret material, once released, can never usefully be classified again. That has always been so, even if the internet has increased the audience for "leaks" many times over. It is rather that the capacity of a government or corporation to restrict the circulation of that material and punish the violators has been curbed. When websites are hacked, professional reputations and profits are at risk. You could say that PayPal, to name just one, is caught between two fears: the fear of US lawsuits if it continues to deal with an operation such as WikiLeaks, and the fear of citizen- and consumer-power, spearheaded by computer-adept activists.

It has been clear for some time that cyber-power lends itself to being harnessed by states, groups and individuals in pursuit of a cause. Three years ago, the small Baltic state of Estonia was effectively immobilised by a cyber-attack which was seen as a sign of Russian displeasure. Directly state-sponsored or not, the assault on Estonia's computers showed how relatively simple it could be to wage war by electronic means – and the more technologically sophisticated the state, the more devastating the attack. As a pioneer in computerising the functions of state, Estonia was especially vulnerable.

Since then, suspected cyber-attacks have only become more frequent. The governments of the United States, South Korea, Japan and Georgia are among those who suspect their computers have been attacked. As for Britain, hundreds of malicious emails are said to be aimed at government computer networks each month.

The Coalition's National Security Strategy, presented in October, identified "hostile computer attacks on UK cyber-space" at the head of a list of threats to be addressed. The fear is of vital infrastructure and defence installations being rendered inoperable by an assault on the computers that make them function. Air traffic control networks, power stations, banks and food distribution systems could all be disabled.

Cyber-warfare conjures up the spectre of a weapon that is the reverse of the neutron bomb that gained brief notoriety in the 1960s and 1970s for its capacity to kill people, while leaving buildings intact. A hostile state, or individual, could now hold a government to ransom by knocking out, or commandeering, its computers. Every aspect of the state would cease to work.

But it is not just the capacity to negate the power of the state that makes cyber-warfare such a threat. It is that, even more effectively than in conventional terrorism, it has the potential to cancel out disparities in size and power.

Governments have long feared asymmetric threats, by which they usually mean some form of terrorism. Yet the egalitarian effects of cyberspace are also where its greatest promise lies. From consumer complaints about rogue suppliers or poor service, posted on the internet, up to Operation Payback in support of WikiLeaks, the power of big concerns to get their way always and in everything is being challenged. The balance – between state and citizen, corporation and consumer, big and small – is shifting, for better as well as for worse.

By no means everyone will accept that a single driven individual has the right to publish someone else's secrets to the world. If the US brings a judicial case against Assange, the arguments on both sides will be fascinating to follow. But the past week's tussle in cyberspace demonstrates how far and fast power has shifted, and raises the question of how far that shift still has to go.