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Bull Session

Cyberwar

November 26, 2015          

Episode Summary

On The Digital Life this week, we chat about Anonymous, in the wake of their declaring war on the terrorist group, ISIS.

This conflict represents something entirely new in 21st century warfare, and is strongly related to the transformation of power in the digital age. Both of these groups are new types of organizations — nimble, distributed, and asynchronous — they present their adversaries with few primary targets. They both rely heavily on digital tools to inspire others to join a movement.

Will Anonymous’ war on ISIS ultimately be harmful or helpful? While stopping the ISIS propaganda machine would be of great benefit, removing terrorists from Twitter and other social networks will make it more difficult for national intelligence agencies and security firms to track them. And, in response to the campaign by Anonymous, ISIS will no doubt change its online tactics to defend itself.

As we watch this cyberwar unfold, we can only imagine how it is a precursor to future conflicts where the boundaries blur between the digital and physical worlds.

Resources
Anonymous Takes on IS
Cyber War: What Can Anonymous Really Do to ISIS?
Is Anonymous’ War on ISIS Doing More Harm Than Good?

Jon:
Welcome to episode 131 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Hey Jon, you’re just back from TEDMED, that must have been pretty exciting.

Jon:
Yeah. I enjoyed the spot. It was in the La Quinta resort, which is legendary for being a haven for writers of films and it’s a beautiful location in the desert, out by Palm Springs in California. The knowledge imparted by the speakers was top-notch and folks who are influential in all kinds of cutting edge synthetic biology and genomics techniques and some really interesting innovators who are doing everything from generating the food of tomorrow. Vegetable based proteins that actually taste like meat, very interesting. To doing things like potentially creating biologic drugs that you can generate within your home. Perhaps home based insulin generation might be a thing in the future, as opposed to going out to your pharmacy to get it.

Dirk:
Very cool.

Jon:
Overall, really wonderful conference. Look forward to potentially going back next year and enjoyed the folks that maped there this time around. Look forward to doing it again.

Dirk:
I’m glad you had such a nice time.

Jon:
Yeah, it was good, and now I’m ready to be back in Boston and focus on the next things on my plate.

Dirk:
Perfect.

Jon:
This week, we’re going to discuss two organizations at war. I’m referring to Anonymous versus ISIS, the terrorist Islamic State. It’s interesting, this is interesting from a number of angles, a number of lenses. I’d say that the first element that interests me quite a bit is the digital nature of this battleground. It may not be the first digital war of the 21st Century, but it’s certainly a high profile one, to say the least. The battleground is laptops and servers, cyberspace, etc. To be honest, when I first read about cyber warfare in science fiction books by William Gibson and the like, it seemed a bit far-fetched. After seeing this take place combined with some of the emerging technologies that we discuss regularly on the show, it really seems to be coming home. Which is fascinating to watch that happen and maybe a little disturbing. I’ve a number of items that I want to get to on this list for our discussion, but what are your impressions of this cyber war and how are you taking it?

Dirk:
My impression of the cyber war is that ISIS made a mistake by doing something to piss off Anonymous. You know Anonymous is, I will go so far as to say Anonymous, I think this the most interesting organization out there today. It’s in itself, is really a terror organization, but it’s one that picks it’s targets with a very fickle end and potentially volatile personality. You’re never quite sure who’s going to be in the cross-hairs of Anonymous, but you know that they’re going to get virtually nuked, so to speak. I think it’s very interesting how Anonymous is really operating outside the bounds of law. That they can take justice into their own hands in a way that goes beyond any criminal court, whether it be international or national or whatever. Governments haven’t been able to shut down enough. Governments haven’t been able to subvert it.

In the world of cyberspace, Anonymous is, perhaps, the most powerful player. Probably the Chinese government’s more powerful, probably the US government, but Anonymous is on that level. They can’t be contained by the other superpowers, and they’re doing it as a network. They’re doing it as people who are pinned together by, dare I say, anarchy. I think Anonymous is absolutely fascinating. I don’t think I’ve been happier, I can’t remember any recent time that I was happier than when Anonymous declared was on ISIS. I was just delighted. If people were around, I would have been slapping high-fives, and been really pumped up. Anonymous is going to hurt them in ways that the governments really haven’t and aren’t.

Jon:
Some of the news coverage, that I’ve seen, has been somewhat counter to the narrative you just described as far as there’s one factor that is making the Anonymous war on ISIS, perhaps, less idealized as this powerful hacking organization. In that there are a lot of splinter groups that many not be as skilled as whoever the main core group is. The strike to take down the Twitter accounts, and other websites that ISIS is using for propaganda, also makes it more difficult for intelligence agencies and white-hat folks who are monitoring ISIS to gather that intelligence. Now there are lots of folks who are actively trying to take these accounts down. The coverage I’ve seen, at least over the last 48 hours, has been more along the lines of, hey, is this good or is this bad? Considering that the potential to do harm to the ISIS infrastructure is there. Also the potential to drive them underground into the dark net where they are harder to find is there as well.

Dirk:
Don’t kid yourself, ISIS is on the dark net far more probably than governments. I mean, if I was wanting to pick what entity was most expert in the dark net, I would start with Anonymous itself.

Jon:
Sure. I think that brings me to the second aspect of this conflict that I wanted to explore with you today. That is the idea of these powerful organizations, both Anonymous and ISIS are quite powerful organizations, that are molded really in this 21st century network that was, up til now, sort of unheard of. You have organizations are nimble that are distributed. They can operate a-synchronously, and they’re not centralized, so they are perhaps cell based, or they operate in small groups. This is indicative of a general type of power shift that is away from centralized powers of the 21st Century, which were your governments, your churches, your unions, whatever. Towards these groups that have a manifesto, a general operating a deal, then they operate sort of independently and they use technology to the greatest advantage.

What I see playing out here, with this cyber war between ISIS and Anonymous, is that two of these groups that have some similar structural elements. ISIS has a lot of other pieces to it as well, namely the physical armaments and territory. It’s interesting to watch in that there are, at least when you glance at it, structurally they have some similarities too.

Dirk:
That’s true. That’s true. There’s a lot of truth in what you said, but I want to actually poke at one thing that you said, that I think you just said as a happenstance. You called it cyber war. I don’t think it is cyber war, I think it’s cyber terror. Anonymous used the word war in what they’re doing to ISIS, but ISIS isn’t countering Anonymous. ISIS isn’t, it’s not my hackers against your hackers. It’s Anonymous scorched Earth coming after ISIS, and ISIS just trying to cover their genitals and keep using their digital footprint to whatever effect that they can. The cyber world allows that, where one organization can attack another. Defending yourself is very different from the old physical world you were talking about, of holding onto your land and fighting back.

I’m sure ISIS is fighting back to whatever degree they can. They’re not interested, they’re not in the business of controlling cyberspace. They’re in the business of trying to take land in the Middle East and to terrorize physical aspects Globally. They’re just suffering. They’re just taking the terror that is brought to them by Anonymous.

Jon:
To be more specific, their propaganda operations, recruiting, and general messaging, of course, is all online. Which means, those are critical aspects of the ISIS infrastructure. I guess one of the fears is that a certain amount of cyber attacks on ISIS will force them to get better at all of those things. They do the media part of propaganda quite well already. The “Artistic” elements of it are well staged, well crafted. It seems like they have media training and hearkens back to World War II Germany for that kind of fascist propaganda, that’s so powerful and attractive to sick minds. When you’re talking about, those are key areas where they want to distribute. That Anonymous is pushing at them in those areas, is going to force them to potentially get better at defending themselves, or changing and adapting.

Dirk:
Maybe, but they are taking damage at the same time. That’s true of any attack. When you attack someone or something, they learn from that attack. They learn how to defend themselves better, or they themselves learn how to attack back. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attack back, right? In the process, as they are being terrorized themselves, they’re losing the opportunity to get new recruits for a period of time. They’re having their operations undermined for a period of time. Yeah, maybe they’ll get smarter, maybe they’ll get harder to figure out. It’s not like Anonymous or the US government, and now Russia, China, now everybody is turning on ISIS, at this point. It’s not like there’s a lot of dummies in those organizations either.

The other thing to think about is ISIS is generally preying on disaffected people. They’re not recruiting the best minds, and the most successful people. A lot of the people they are recruiting are people who are bored or shiftless or looking to belong to something beyond what they have in their life. Gee, ISIS seems like a good opportunity for them. They’re not getting those people on the dark-net. They’re getting those people on Facebook or Twitter. Those opportunities are being chopped more and more. It is nuanced. I’m sort of taking a counter point to what you’re saying just for the sake of putting forward the positives in the perspective that I’m advocating.

Certainly, you’re correct. There’s some give and take in this whole thing. It’s not totally black and white. I would rather have Anonymous terrorizing ISIS than not.

Jon:
Oh, yeah.

Dirk:
That’s better for us, at the end of the day, than it isn’t.

Jon:
The whole thing is completely fascinating and something that I can’t say that we’ve seen before. At least, if it’s happened, I am not knowledgeable of anything like this. This is going to be part of the history books. This is a significant clash.

Dirk:
You think so?

Jon:
Yeah, I think, whether it’s a pure sort of cyberwarfare battleground or not, it certainly touches on that in ways that are open in public, much different from the US attacking servers of some enemy combatants. In a way that will never surface. This is on the evening news kind of stuff. I think whether the outcome is understanding this kind of war in a new way. The implications are somewhat frightening, right? Because you’re talking about war that comes on a system level. When it’s attacking these media outlets and things like that, like Twitter or Facebook, the social media. That’s removed by one degree. You and I both know there are plenty of other systems to attack too. The way this plays out, I think, is going to be important and I think is the first shot in what’s going to be a larger cyber battleground for our future.

Dirk:
That sounds ominous.

Jon:
It is. We’ll keep an eye on it, and be forced to live with it, I’m afraid.

Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things we’re mentioning here in real-time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. It’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward, if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.

If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett, that’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T . And of course, the whole show is brought to you buy Involution Studio’s, which you can check out at goinvo.com, G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R or email me at dirk@goinvo.com.

Jon:
That’s it for episode 131, of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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