The Internet, today, is being widely touted as one of those technological breakthroughs which is destined to revolutionize society. There is no doubt that it has already set into motion major changes in the way we work, communicate, connect, and utilize our time; it has, like many of the great inventions of history - the power loom, the railroad, the steamship, the automobile, the airplane, the telephone, the radio, and the computer, of which it is a great enabler - unleashed massive possibilities for enriching and empowering the way we live. The benefits of the Internet are so obvious, and have been so abundantly documented and experienced, that there is little need, here, to reinforce that point. Likewise, the most blatant drawbacks of the Internet, especially as it may affect unprotected and vulnerable minors exposed to its overwhelming and sometimes inappropriate and dangerous potential, have already been amply described. The theme which I wish to address here, today, is the utopian potential of the new technology, as it is envisioned by many well-meaning social progressives, in the context of the extreme fragility of the technology. The genie is powerful, but it also has feet of clay.

For many social progressives, the Internet is the technology that will change the world. It will allow concerned citizens, gathering together in new electronic forms of democracy, to bypass the institutions and organizations which traditionally respond to the influence and interests of big money, and which therefore channel, corrupt, mold, and ultimately control the political process in America. These progressives believe that, by means of the Internet and the alternative sources of information which it brings into reach and the large-scale "town meetings" which it is able to facilitate, new, more aware and more direct forms of political participation will be created. Organizing outside of the traditional institutions which are constructed to stifle and to contain genuine forces of change, a mass political movement will be able to take shape, a true "citizens’ movement"; and then launched to either recapture and purify corrupted institutions (such as the political parties), or else to develop counter-institutions of its own capable of spearheading the transformation of the country. These social progressives also see the Internet as a tool for breaking down the mental barriers which accompany borders, which lock nations into vulnerable states of ignorance which are preyed upon by those who would divide them. They see the Internet as a potential breeding ground for international understanding, allowing populations deceived about the rest of the world to reach out to one another from behind the official myths and misrepresentations which have turned them into enemies. "Escaping" from the propaganda and agendas of their own governments, the people of the world can mingle, form friendships, and build bridges in the "free space" of cyberspace; once they have beat swords into ploughshares in their minds, slowly, they will drag their nations behind them towards brotherhood.

Although this utopian agenda is definitely undermined by some intrinsic aspects of naiveté [1], there is no doubt that there is a great deal of potential inherent in its sweeping vision. However, it is my contention that social progressives, at the same time that they seek to develop this potential, must not lose sight of its limits, and that they must simultaneously seek to develop parallel, non-cyber means of sustaining their movements, to back up their activities on the Internet .

This is because the Internet is not only a tool of extraordinary capability but also one of extraordinary vulnerability. The massive antivirus and firewall shields which must be installed, and constantly updated, by practically anyone who uses the Internet in order to beat back the predation of cyber-vandals and more disciplined versions of hackers, is proof enough of the dangers that lurk within our new opportunity. But, of course, this frustrating and sometimes highly damaging challenge to our freedom of action – this constant low-level threat of disruption and sabotage which must just as constantly be warded off by protective software - is only the tip of the iceberg of the malicious potential. If teenage computer prodigies bent on giving play to their dark side and proving their existence through impacting others, and if independently-operated rings of criminal hackers searching for financial records and identities to steal, can cause so many problems on the Internet, what of well-financed terrorist organizations, or the governments and militaries of nations?

As technology progresses, the survival instinct of nations, sometimes fine-tuned to reality and sometimes leaning towards paranoia (or even drowning in it), moves in to explore the security risks and opportunities provided by that technology. The steam engine was promptly harnessed by soldiers to revolutionize combat through improved logistics and increased velocity of movement; man’s ability to fly was quickly utilized to extend the scope of our wars into another dimension; brilliant breakthroughs in atomic physics, and the equipment which was conceived of and invented during its study, led to the development of nuclear weapons. Satellites, invented for communication, are today an essential component of military surveillance, global networking and "command and control." Lasers, so useful in medicine and industry, are used to assist in the precision guidance of missiles and bombs. In each case, as a new technology blossoms, offering intellectual satisfaction, and potentially huge economic and humanitarian benefits as well, military thinkers, backed by the economic resources of nations, step in to consider the possible applications of this new technology to their own agendas. Whether their ideas are self-generated, or pressed upon them by the research-and-development wings of businesses linked to them, the effect is the same. A "military perspective" is injected into the new technical territory, and as peacetime applications are developed for the civilian population, military uses are simultaneously developed for the national security infrastructure. This is not, by any means, necessarily wrong. In a world marked by competition which frequently turns to violence - in a world marred by ambition and plagued by fear, which can both lead to aggression - it is natural to struggle to maintain an up-to-date defense, by incorporating the latest elements of technology. New technological ground must be covered, to deny potential enemies an overwhelming advantage in the future if they should develop it alone; or else to compensate for one’s own lack of manpower or martial spirit (high-tech options can, to some degree, overcome "battlefield mass" with quality).

Naturally, with the advent of computers and global computer networks, military thought has been drawn into yet one more realm of exploration and development. Today, the concept of cyberwarfare is commonplace. It is taken for granted that the major nations of the world have developed powerful abilities to both attack other countries over the Internet, as well as to defend themselves from such attacks. Some of the many forms which cyber attacks could take include: the attempt to breach electronic security, and break into the computers of the enemy, in order to tap into their communications and data systems, steal their secrets, learn their plans, break their codes, infiltrate false directives into their command networks, and paralyze or take over computer-run defense-systems, creating dangerous blind spots and gaps in their security. As the modern army becomes more sophisticated and hooked into high-tech systems, it also becomes more vulnerable to cyberwarfare, and other means of technology-crashing (such as electromagnetic pulse warfare), although, in theory, breakdown strategies and tactics exist to weather such crises through the controlled primitivization of military structures. On a broader level, since warfare is now, not at all, a mere matter of one military striking another, but even more a matter of one nation hitting the economic base which sustains the military capacity of the other, cyberwarfare can also be seen to apply to civilian targets, such as banks, electric power grids, and transportation and communications systems, which, if seriously disrupted or (God forbid) collapsed, could wreak havoc on the affected society. Financial transactions could be slowed down, or even stopped, freezing up the economic lifeblood of a nation and triggering waves of panic, sure to deepen the crisis; devastatingly disruptive power failures could be promoted, train systems and airports shut down, hospitals and schools incapacitated; civil records could be erased or stolen, leading to a massive eradication of the identification and verification processes necessary for the normal functioning of many aspects of society. Some of these targets, which are presumably less well-defended against cyberwarfare than, say, military computer systems linked to the firing of intercontinental ballistic missiles, could be considered to be more accessible quarry for the cyberwarriors, or even "soft targets." They would likely be victims of any serious cyberwar.

Of course, the same governments involved in exploring the possibilities of taking down their opponents by these means are also involved in the development of countermeasures to prevent others from inflicting this kind of damage on them. Advanced firewalls, recovery systems, archives of up-to-date and constantly evolving anticipatory-security-patches, independent parallel systems, and emergency response procedures, drawing on impressive, high-paid pools of top computer experts linked to seasoned military planners and civil and business leaders, are sure to be a part of today’s cyberwarfare defense package. But how far along this package really is, and how it will hold up should real crisis conditions develop, cannot be known at this time. One thing that is certain, however, is that the cyberdefense package of our nation, in particular, is not only geared towards protecting us from the electronic arsenals of other nations, but also from the possible predation of cyberterrorists, who would like nothing better than to wreak long-distance havoc on our economy and infrastructure by means of malicious viruses aimed at us over the Internet. For the moment, it is most likely that these terrorist organizations have not been able to acquire (buy) the intellectual resources needed to overcome the networks of experts which the major nations and corporations of the world have been able to acquire by means of their considerably larger budgets.

How does all this tie back into the vulnerability of the social progressives? In theory, as long as the US Constitution functions properly, in defense of the rights of its citizens to assemble, to dissent, and to work together for peaceful change, it should not. However, in the context of a government which is either openly or secretly in violation of the Constitution, and which is determined to impede the rights of the people to effectively challenge its political direction, the connection is obvious. Military-grade capabilities of harnessing the Internet as a tool for surveillance have been developed, and potent methods for infecting targeted computers and computer networks with viruses capable of crippling or even capturing them have, likewise, been developed. The government, under the Bush administration, has already proved its willingness to engage in a massive, unconstitutional program of domestic spying, utilizing its spectacular technical capabilities to tap into the Internet activity of its citizenry, in an act which seems less aimed at legitimately prosecuting the war on terror than at using the war on terror as an aperture for gaining access into the inner thoughts of Americans for future reference; that is to say, it has blurred the line between foreign terrorist and citizen dissenter, or even "citizen with a lively mind", and seems, to some concerned citizens, to be laying the groundwork for a time of repression to come, in which all who do not adhere to the "party line" will be suspect, and targeted for "neutralization." [2]

By means of its spy net, those elements of the government acting outside of their legitimate authority, in the manner of the Bush administration, have the capability and probably the will to tap into the correspondence of many activist sites, to determine who is associated with what activist group, and to construct long lists of citizens, thereby tagged, to be further monitored. The astonishing information-gathering and storage capacity of modern-day computers makes this work, for the first time, feasible on a massive scale.

Of course, as long as we are able to preserve our democratic system and its civil liberties intact, the mere fact that we are being monitored and falsely categorized by an adversarial, politically backward government cannot really harm us. However, the act of violating the Constitution tends to be self-reinforcing; politicians who get away with it once, in pursuit of one goal, are more likely to try to get away with it again, in pursuit of other goals. Every time our rights are successfully violated, the limits of what can be done against us are stretched, till one day, it may be possible for a government to put to use the files a previous government could only gather, but not yet act upon. It is not wise to be complacent in the face of clear political transgressions, whether they have teeth in our generation or not. We must not acculturate our leaders to omnipotence. The Founding Fathers were not innocent "babes in the woods" when it came to the dangers of human ambition linked to unrestrained power, and we shouldn’t be either. There is nothing more patriotic than to defend and uphold the system they created to prevent unscrupulous men from misleading and dominating us. Loyalty is not proved by placing oneself in a state of helplessness; and it is owed to a vision of freedom and justice, not to men who would betray that vision. Our leaders are meant to serve us, not vice versa.

Spying, of course, is only one activity which a morally-flawed government, or maverick government agency, can use to impede the growth of oppositional activism. With an extensive repertoire of viruses already under the command of its cyberwarfare experts, such a government or agency also possesses the means to discomfit, harass, and even bring down activist web sites. Whereas the sites of major activist groups may be protected by formidable security teams, linked to legal and investigative resources which would make such cyberattacks politically risky, many less well-endowed sites are far more vulnerable to such attacks. More than this, even when the sites, themselves, are well protected, the "soft underbelly" of the activist website is constituted by the thousands of individual PCs that have a relationship with it. These PCs are not endowed with the same professional quality security systems, and many of their users are not backed up by the substantial financial resources that could enable them to weather the crippling or outright destruction of their computers. Using spy technology to determine relationships between individual PCs and activist websites, transgressor governments or rogue agencies could direct virus attacks against large and strategically important swaths of this soft underbelly.

Not being a technical expert, myself, my understanding of the tactics and methods of this potential harassment are limited. However, I do feel that the following methods are already being employed on a limited basis: Some activist sites are booby-trapped. They may have been hacked and infiltrated with malicious code which, in turn, infects the computers of those who visit them; or they may merely be monitored, and a virus platform linked to spyware fires off attacks at computers which have been observed visiting them. There may also be fake activist web sites, which are deliberate lures and cyber minefields, meant to attract general target groups and to destroy their computers. The attack systems may, in cases, be rigged to only target multiple-users – that is, to hit repeat visitors or profiled activists who have already generated a "cyber record", so that casual surfers and accidental visitors do not get caught in the trap. These surmises are not well-documented, and may, in part, be fantasies born of anxiety; however, I am familiar with some experiences which vividly suggest that something of this nature is, in fact, taking place on the Internet. It may not be occurring on a massive scale, but it is real, and it is hurting people, and causing many thousands of dollars worth of damage. While major activist groups do not yet seem to be affected, smaller and more radical ones, which sometimes provide new energy and perspectives for better established groups, thereby enriching the evolution of the activist process, may, in cases, be taking a harder hit. Even beyond the damage done to their sites, and to their networks of supporters scattered across the World Wide Web, there is the creation of a new lore of persecution which stunts the growth of their movements (and the blossoming of activism in general) by inhibiting individuals from getting involved, for fear of being spied on, placed in an intelligence file in some shadowy government agency which could be a proto-Gestapo, or having their computer saturated with spyware, or ruined and trashed by viruses. Part urban legend, part reality, the idea of being somehow threatened because of one’s associations on the Internet leads many to opt to "play it safe" by staying away from radical sites which challenge the status quo. As a rule of thumb, anything that "could make Dick Cheney angry" is to be avoided. This includes not only sites dedicated to promoting political action, but even informational sites which offer alternative explanations and worldviews, which could become the foundation for a shift in political consciousness down the road. Not only is our right to challenge the direction of our government being denied, but also our right to be "informed citizens." Our decisions are to be based only upon official knowledge.

This inhibitive lore, which discourages cyberactivism, is dangerous, and I am aware that I am, in fact, helping to spread it by means of this article. Therefore, I must balance out what I have just said with an exhortation to citizens to seek the information they need to become more knowledgeable about the world, no matter where it comes from; and to pursue whatever legal activist goals they choose, which they feel will make the world a better place, without fear or inhibition. The persecution I have just described is not constitutional, it can be challenged and it can be contained; and it is, also, not yet omnipresent. It is far more limited and selective, as far as I can tell, geared to making some "surgical cyber strikes", without ringing too many alarm bells. Out of the constant background pattern of mindless cyber-hooliganism, and apolitical crime, these political attacks come and go virtually unnoticed by society at large.

In the future, however, it is my belief, that unless we are able to reel our government back to the limits of the Constitution, we will see an increase in the volume and impact of this domestic cyberwar, aimed at controlling our minds and "breaking up" unwanted assemblies on the Internet. We will be ambushed as we lift our head out of the designated perceptual foxhole, and punished for our unconventional choices. To avoid the obvious blame generated by circumstantial evidence, the offending government or agency will probably resort to the fiction, so common in South American countries, in which paramilitary organizations supposedly unconnected to the government and even pursued by its police, actually perpetrate crimes on behalf of the government, with its support. In our own country, supposedly independent right-wing groups – electronic paramilitaries, who would, in fact, be aided by the government’s cyberwarfare department – could be utilized to smash activist structures on the Internet, without obviously involving the government.

At the same time, other threats perpetrated over the Internet - self-generated, Pearl-Harbor-style, or genuinely foreign-based – could be used to create the political support for greater government control of the Internet, which could be used to cramp the operating space of the cyberactivists. In this case, the government’s control of off-line America could be especially effective in shaping the cyberbehavior of the nation. Spyware would register violations of mandated Internet traffic rules, and standard legal and police channels would be used to enforce compliance. As in most cases, the vigorous prosecution of a few would have a dampening effect upon the many.

Of course, if a full-fledged dictatorship ever takes root in America, oppositional activists of any kind – cyber, or otherwise – are not going to be in a very good position, which reminds us all that our number one priority at this point in time must be simply this: to preserve the democratic free space we need to work in, as we seek to transform and uplift our nation according to new visions of strength linked to justice.

My advice for worthy activist groups in the light of all this: Utilize the enormous potential of the Internet to reach out to people, and to build powerful new avenues of communication and platforms of activism which can help to generate movements capable of raising us to the next level of our national and human development. But as you accept the incredible offer of the Internet, do not, at the same time, lose sight of its fragility. Do not assume that your opponents, whoever they are and wherever they may be, will play fair; and therefore prepare yourself for attacks against this extraordinary yet very vulnerable tool of yours in the future. Explore strategies of cyberdefense, now, focusing on your diverse points of weakness; and also consider forming "parallel structures", off-line, which will enable the effective continuation of your organization even in the face of a cyber meltdown.

Although my warning may be alarmist, to some degree, it is not the product of a pure act of the imagination. There are some concrete experiences I am aware of which have suggested these scenarios to me. Be prepared, be brave, and fight to keep the Constitution respected and alive; that in the end, more than any technological measure you can take, will do the most to ensure the survival of your political dream.

-JRS, July 2007.


[1] It too lightly glosses over humanity’s deep psychological attachment to aggression as it may be manifested through ethnicity, nationalism, race, and religion, and does not emphasize the fact that the new technology may empower social backwardness (through the use of disinformation, and the promotion of right-wing groups) as easily as it empowers progressivism. It also underestimates the repressive potential of governments once they are challenged – which is the principal theme of this article.

[2] See my article on the NSA and "Domestic Spying"(December 2005) in "Current Events Sound-Off" in "Rainsnow Thought" (the "Rainsnow Project.")


Rainsnow Thought Contents  

Site Contents