The following was in the San Fransisco Chronicle, on May 1
Why the U.S. should but won’t partner with hactivists Anonymous
For a barbaric movement grounded in early Islamic apocalyptic prophecies, what is perhaps most striking about the rapid rise of the Islamic State has been its use of modern technology. Leveraging the open nature and global reach of platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Islamic State has used social media to recruit young would-be jihadis, to build a global network of sympathetic followers, and to intimidate Western audiences with its brutality.
The scale of this digital propaganda network is vast. A recent study by the Brookings Institution found that in late 2014 there were at least 46,000 Twitter accounts used by Islamic State supporters, with an average of 1,000 followers each.
But why has the United States, which has at its disposal vast cyberwar capabilities, an ever-expanding surveillance state and significant leverage over, and goodwill of, the American companies that are hosting this content, proved unable to quiet the online reach of this network of insurgents?
One answer is that the open nature of the Internet, combined with the constraints that democratic states face engaging effectively within it, has limited the capability of the United States to fight back. And this tells us a tremendous amount about the shifting nature of power in the digital age.
In the absence of effective state action against the Islamic State online, Anonymous has taken up the digital war. Already this ad hoc network of hackers and activists has downed scores of Web pages and hacked into dozens of Twitter accounts that allegedly belong to Islamic State members. Much like in the early days of the Arab Spring, where hackers provided online assistance and offered protection to activists, Anonymous is stepping in where the state has limited capacity.
This has recently led to calls for the United States to partner with Anonymous to launch cyberattacks against the Islamic State, and even paying hactivists in bitcoin. This sounds audacious, but plausible. Western governments have long collaborated with unsavory actors with the aim of larger strategic goals — as it is said, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
In theory, such a partnership could allow the Defense and State departments to overcome the constraints of their slow-moving, hierarchical, command-and-control systems. It could allow them to act more like a nimble startup than a legacy industrial corporation.
And it could be effective — we know that Anonymous hackers have been successful taking on a wide range of both established and emerging powers. In practice, however, there is substantial risk. As the failure of the clandestine USAID program to build a fake version of Twitter in Cuba to foster dissent demonstrates, states often stumble when they step into the murky world of online power.
But I would suggest there are other, more fundamental reasons, why the U.S. will never partner with Anonymous. This is because, at its core, Anonymous is different than the other perceived bad actors that government is more than willing to collaborate with. Anonymous represents a new form of decentralized power that challenges the very foundations of the state system.
First, the power structures that Anonymous embodies represent a fundamental threat to state dominance in the international system. The challenges that the state system were designed to solve — a lack of structure, instability, decentralized governance, loose and evolving ties — are precisely what makes groups like Anonymous powerful.
Legitimizing the type of decentralized, collaborative and anonymous power that Anonymous represents, therefore poses a threat to the hierarchical and state-led international system that the nation state depends on. This new form of power scares governments — so much so that they are willing to exert significant control over the network itself. As was revealed in the Snowden National Security Agency documents, the government wanted to collect it all, process it all, exploit it all, partner it all, sniff it all, know it all.
Second, over the course of modern history, we have placed tremendous power in the state. Whether it be through the justice system, the social welfare state or the military, government has been the primary enabler of collective action in our society. In exchange, we have put in place systems of accountability and laws to hold this power to account. For states seeking to fight new online powers, these norms of behavior make functioning effectively online at best difficult, and at worst counter to the expectations and laws governing their activities.
Third, the state is ultimately faced with a paradox — that the very attributes of the Internet that enable the Islamic State also enable the free enterprise and expression that make it arguably the most liberating technology in human history. The very real risk governments face is that in seeking to stop perceived nefarious actors online, they will also shut down the positive ones. Efforts by the NSA to break encryption, for example, won’t just help it fight illegal crypto-currencies, or Islamic State fighters using secure networking tools, but would also threaten the security of the online commerce sector. These efforts risk breaking the Internet.
For the U.S. government, partnering with Anonymous and legitimizing its structure is simply a bridge too far. And this limitation represents a crisis for state power in the digital age: One that curtails its ability to fight the online propaganda of a barbaric jihadist movement taking to Twitter to build its caliphate.