Ploughshares to Swords: The Weaponization of the Internet

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The increasing militarization and weaponization of the Internet is traced succinctly from its origins at DARPA.

Patrick Lichty

One irony of technology is that it tends to subvert itself. McLuhan was a harbinger of this. He declared that as something is created, something is lost, and something reactivates. Since its development as ARPANet in the 1960’s, the Internet has undergone wide changes in its social morphology. In this essay, the arc of the Internet as defensive tool, a contestational conduit, to that of viral and invasive cyberwarzone, is traced.

The weaponization of a defensive tool over fifty years, more or less, problematizes the Heideggerian notion that technology is inherently neutral, pointing to the fact that the Internet itself is an outgrowth of the Military-Industrial Complex. It is evident that it is still a military product, however, and even though it is thought to be co-opted by capital, its early foundations are very much in place and can be flipped with a few lines of code. As we progress through the birth of ARPANet until 2014-15, it should be noted that many of the actions described may/are happen(ing) concurrently, and this discussion is aimed at examining a progression of social conditions.

Defense: ARPANet

The origins of the concept of a distributed computer network began in 1963 by computer scientist J. C. Licklider, who at the time was a part of Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) consultant Bolt, Beranek and Newman (part of Raytheon). Licklider was shortly thereafter appointed head of the Behavioral Sciences and Command and Control at ARPA. Licklider would enlist Ivan Sutherland and Bob Taylor as part of the program before his departure from ARPA, and Taylor would continue to advance the idea of a distributed computer network to the creation of the ARPANet in 1969-70.

Before going any further, it should be noted that while the ARPANet itself was not initially seen as a defense infrastructure able to withstand a nuclear attack, research in the 1960’s by entities such as the RAND Corporation were suggesting such an application. If one combines the context of the Rand Corporation study in the early 1960’s with the 1968 contracting of what would become the ARPANet by Taylor, we can imply that the Net had its roots in defense research. It is this writer’s belief that the actual purpose of a seminal network communications infrastructure project has been conflated with the popular mythology of its foundation as a defensive system to the point that its purpose versus its perception makes its historical context problematic. In order not to let the historical aspect of this essay overshadow its overall thrust, it is noted that the network grew into a number of entities such as the NSFNet and academic networks where one would use tools and protocols like Kermit, Bitnet and the USENET messaging system in the early 80’s. Soon after followed its expansion to the World Wide Web in 1993-4 with the creation of the HTTP Internet protocol. Although our historical journey may meander slightly, it establishes the context of the origins of the Internet from a Defense culture to its expansion into an international communications infrastructure.

Contestational Conduit

With the coming of the World Wide Web via Berners-Lee’s invention of the Web Protocol in 93-94, the Internet would emerge as a global commons, and non-institutional communications would consolidate from private nets like AOL Compuserve and Delphi. It would take a few years to place much of the world’s communications on a roughly contiguous network (barring easily circumvented firewalls in parts of Asia and the Middle East). This achievement was followed shortly by contestational actions that would take place long before the so-called “Arab Spring”. Before discussing those actions, two online interventions are submitted for the reader’s consideration; the CyberZapatista DoS attack against Mexican financial institutions’ websites in 1998, and the channeling of online communications by RTMark in 1999 during the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. Further examples of online resistance can be found in the essay, “Grasping @ Bits” in my first book, "Variant Analyses". But for our purposes here, I will focus on these two interventions that dealt with the funneling and distribution of dissent through online channels before discussing the events in North Africa.

In 1998, an online group called the Electronic Disturbance Theater supported a cyber “sit-in” against the websites of five Mexican financial institutions in 1998. This action was an exploration of Electronic Civil Disobedience as proposed by Steve Kurtz and the Critical Art Ensemble. That year, the Italian group, Anonymous Digital Coalition, proposed a digital sit-in by manually reloading the home pages of targeted web sites in order to blockade them. This would become an action called Flood Net which, on April 10, 1998, would use a Java applet to use an automated reload every seven seconds on Mexican President Zedillo’s web site. Statistics propose that over 8,000 individuals participated intermittently blocking access to the website. Another action on May 10, on the White House website, was not as effective primarily due to the much larger infrastructure of that site’s servers.

The next action under examination is that of the 1999 actions of Adbusters and during the 1999 WTO summit in Seattle, Washington. On November 20, 1999, ten days before the summit, RTMark launched, which would become the pinion for their next incarnation, The Yes Men. GATT, standing for the Global Agreement for Tariffs and Trade, is the foundation on which the World Trade organization is based, and consisted of a mock WTO website. Upon entering, visitors would be confronted with a doppelganger of the WTO site where each link would take them to critical media satirizing the NGO. It was launched ten days before the summit but was not discovered by the WTO until just before the meeting. Secondly, its metatags also jammed search engines for individuals seeking the actual website and served as a conduit for protestor communications during the summit. In addition, Adbusters bought space on three billboards during the summit featuring an image with the text, "System Error - Type 2000 (progress)” to challenge the WTO’s agendas. These two interventions symbolize one of the early uses of the Internet as a contestational conduit. These actions took place as stand-alone entities, not actions done through social media. Social media, as such, did not exist at the time.

But with the creation of imageboards like the –chans and social media such as Friendster and Myspace, which would give rise to Facebook, Twitter, and all the various social platforms emerging after 2005, other forms of dissent blossomed through these channels. While interventions by amorphous “groups” like Anonymous and figures like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are important in the matters of Electronic Civil Disobedience (ECD), their actions are somewhat more spurious than those of activists in the Arab League following the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in 2010 in Tunisia (the “Arab Spring”). From this writer’s vantage point through available media in the US and through discussions with Egyptian activists visiting Chicago, social media including Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter had become, essentially, the toolbox of dissent. Exit routes (in case of military retaliation in Tahrir Square were shared socially), and tweets signaled events as they transpired. This fluid use of networks would cause government shutdowns of web and cell nets in Egypt, Syria, and Libya during their uprisings, and even a 2011 cell shutdown on the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit to avert a protest. While the Arab shutdowns were expected, the San Francisco action was surprising because it called into question whether the First Amendment applies to social media in the US, or not. What was evident is that the power of social media as social conduit became fully recognized by governments in the First World as well as the Third. And this is the crux of the matter of freedom of speech in countries that espouse it – preemptive network shutdowns might be seen to constitute a Minority Report-like intervention of protest in terms of “precrime” in terms of the State. But as proposed here, the “conduiting” of dissent through networked systems constitutes activism, not insurgence, sabotage, or covert operations. Therefore, I have described the context of the defensive structure of the net, then its use as a conduit for activism, and now we will look at the global network as site of warfare.

Cyberwar/Viral Ideologies

For the sake of brevity, I limit my discussion of cyberwar. This particular aspect of networked confrontation can include surveillance (NSA/PRISM), international corporate espionage, the 2013 US/Israeli Stuxnet virus attack on the Iranian nuclear reactor, Deep Web illicit transactions, and viral media interventions. Only in 2014 did the Obama administration admit that the online world is a war zone. For this writer, the conflict expresses itself through many modes. First, there is the leverage of the Internet by what I call “atomic” or physical-world power, such as the US/Israeli creation of the 2010 Stuxnet virus to attack the Natanz nuclear complex in Iran. This is an example of conventional, symmetric use of the infostructure for state-to-state warfare, but to attack seats of infopower in its informational infrastructure. Similar to this, there is government-to-corporate infiltration or corporate-to-corporate or corporate-to-government infiltration. Purportedly practiced most by countries like Russia, Iran and China, and likely the US, this is again a brick-and-mortar intervention merely using the Net as a way to get at information. While this is relatively new, in this writer’s opinion, it isn’t necessarily innovative, and the response is similar to the militarization of space in the 1960’s.

The Anonymous attacks on various elements, most notably the Church of Scientology, and then on various institutional infostructures, represents the early stirrings of second generation Electronic Civil Disobedience. There have been a number of artistic interventions, but the use of the Net, in particular, to produce asymmetric power relations and larger countercultural communities like the Deep Web, reflects a rise in Infopower and the Infostate as an amorphous, asymmetrical social stratum.

A word should be said (before proceeding)about differences between resistance and oppression. Although they use similar taxonomies, their ends are very different. One liberates and defends, and one often claims to liberate, only to subjugate when it becomes the hegemonic power center. They also tend to vary in scope, as the latter tends to be much larger. This is the difference between interventionist tactics and insurgencies like ISIS/ISIL, which I have called I/I in Serpentine Magazine. As mentioned before, it seems ironic that al-Qaeda did not use viral video; sending its messages out on VHS tapes. Conversely, as I/I is an entity that, while attempting to claim and govern the land it conquers, also employs infopower through the use of viral beheading videos. In a way, this is the antithesis of the funny cat video, but it has the same reach. And this is why I call I/I more of an ideological state as much as a physical one, as part of its mission is to plant seeds of insurgence virally everywhere the Net reaches; not just in the Iraq/Syria region. This is a group that is more dangerous than al-Qaeda (which is part of the reason why they are fighting I/I). They are an asymmetric war machine with American hardware, money, and a media production group. I think it is the media production angle and the proliferation via use of infopower that I/I may constitute a larger threat to the West than al-Qaeda. This begs the question that, while there are moderators to take down the worst of social media, why do we not see Facebook completely shut down during a global moment of crisis? The answer is that it is not a public entity.

The Gears of the Market

This is the crux of many of these conflicts: it takes Atomic power to block Infopower. Facebook is a market-driven system. Every moment it shuts down is one minute its revenue shuts off. And, despite the ugliness on the social media sites, this is the crux of the matter. The allowance of dissent to channel through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like has nothing to do with the 1st Amendment, which would be an argument since most of the social media platforms are based in California. The operation of these sites under crisis, forcing governments to shut down access to infopower is all about the market, and not disrupting the consumer experience, whether it is cat videos, beheadings or live feeds from Tahrir Square. The gears of the market must not stop. The selfies of protestors and decapitators and clueless teens must continue to flow. The lulz must not be denied. That last statement, while provocative and rather offhand, still alludes to a partial truth. In some ways, I/I are global trolls with a corporate media department.

Conclusion: The Arc

And that leaves us with fifty years of networked culture in which I argue that with Edward Snowden’s revelations of ubiquitous NSA spying, info-savvy insurgents and international cyberwars happening as we live our everyday lives, perhaps the terminal scenario is more dangerous than the initial nuclear one envisioned in the 1960’s. That mise en scene proposed a relatively orderly chain of events rather than the cyberpunk info-battles and transmissions from the ether calling for uprisings. The use of the Net as a political space of contestation has certainly oscillated and is often not homogeneous at all with respect to the political gestures its users are creating. But it appears what began as an information sharing system with defensive intentions, seems to have become an arena of conflict, emerging from inside the Net to one between nations. This is what I mean by the idea that the ploughshares have been made into swords.

Patrick Lichty is a techno-artist, writer, curator, animator for The Yes Men, and Executive Editor of Intelligent Agent Magazine. His artwork deals with the social relations between us and media and he has exhibited with the Whitney & Turin Biennials, Maribor Triennial, Performa Performance Biennial, Ars Electronica, the International Symposium on the Electronic Arts (ISEA), in the virtual environment of Second Life, and in performance with his group, Second Front. Lichty is currently Assistant Professor of Interactive Arts & Media at Columbia College Chicago.


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