Stratfor hack demonstrates new strain of censorship

Hacking technology has become so accessible, and social network-based rabble rousing so prevalent, that hacktivists espousing confused motives can lash out indiscriminately — and cause crushing damage.

That’s the upshot of the Christmas Eve Stratfor.com escapade widely attributed to members of the Anonymous hacking collective. The online global affairs publication relaunched its website today, three weeks after hacktivists posted sensitive data for 50,000 Stratfor subscribers, then shut out the lights. The company has had to hire teams of forensics experts and security consultants to restore operations, including moving its entire e-commerce process to a third-party system, and eliminating the storing of credit information.

Stratfor CEO George Friedman acknowledged that the company had not encrypted customer information. “This was our failure,” Friedman said in a statement. “I take responsibility. I deeply regret that this occurred and created hardship for our customers and friends.”

Friedman believes the attack serves notice about a troublesome new strain of unpredictable censorship arising on the Internet. He elaborates on that notion in this exclusive LastWatchdog interview:

Friedman

LW: What exactly happened?

Friedman: What happened to us was the credit card information was stolen earlier. We knew about that from the FBI. What they did on the 24th was nuked our servers. . . they went into the servers and rooted them, which meant that they destroyed the file structure, which normally means you can’t reover the information. They did that  not only to our primary data bases, they did that to our backups too. They were trying to make it impossible for us to re-emerge.

LW: Why did you become a target?

Friedman: If we’re to believe (the hackers), the reason was that we were the hub of a government-corporate complex, getting information from these people and, I gather, propogandizing. They had built a fantasy image of us as being part of a very powerful group. From our mailing list  they selected all the corporate subscribers, and created this image of us as being an incredibly connected, powerful entity, and that was their justification.

LW: How valid is that profile of you?

Friedman: Not very valid at all. We certainly know people in Washington and all over the world. We have sources. That’s our job. But we have no access to classified or corporate information. That’s simply not what we do. We’re a publishing company.

LW: You’ve been doing this a while.

Friedman: We started Stratfor as a consultancy in 1996. After the Kosovo War we started moving into publishing because we found there was an appetite for international news. At this point, we’re almost entirely a publishing company. There is an audience that wants to understand international affairs more deeply from a non-ideological standpoint, and that’s who we serve. We’re careful and militant about not having an ideology, nor recommending any policy.

LW: What’s a recent representative article?

Friedman: A recent story predicted that there would be a major crisis in U.S. – Iranian relationships because of the vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawing from Iraq and how Iran was in the process of filling the vacuum. . .The point is we do pretty complex stories. We try to do the play-by-play of global affairs without rooting for any team.

LW: Bradley Manning allegedly  leaked a specific set of documents, presumably for deeply-held reasons of conscience. How was this leak any different?

Friedman: It was an attempt to undermine our capacity to do our work. And it has a technical basis, they destroyed our servers and our back ups. One part is the (leaked) credit card information, which were very sorry about because it affected our customers. Another part is the (leaked) e-mails, which will not show much. But the most serious thing is the attempt to destroy our digital capacities.

Individuals now have the ability, with full anonymity, to decide who they like and dislike, and if they dislike them, use their technology to destroy them. We’re lucky in that we have the financial and staff resources to recover. But there are other organizations that can be completely silenced, and never know who silenced them or why they did it.

LW: So we’ve turned a corner?

Friedman: If you want the definition of a new fascism it is faceless people, setting the rules, not forgetting, not forgiving and promising that they’re coming. That’s really a frightening vision of what’s going on. Imagine if this becomes a general activity.

We are entering a very dangerous space now. Anyone can have the skill and knowledge to do this. Any ideology can to it. It’s not as if this is a particular threat from the left or from Wall Street. It can come from anywhere, and anyone who disapproves of you can wreak havoc.

LW: Was spear phishing a contributing factor in the initial breach?

Friedman: I actually can’t talk about that because of the FBI investigation. As soon the lid is off this, I’d love to talk to you about it.

LW: You were offline for three weeks. To what degree have you been able recover?

Friedman: With a great deal of effort we have managed to recover enough to go live today, but without the entire archives. We’re functioning, and the archives will be built back in over the coming weeks. We’re spending a substantial amount of money both on our customer support and recovery. I can’t give you the number because we don’t know what it’s going to be. We’ve got three or four sets of consultants in here. It is going to cost us.

LW: Have many of your subscribers lost faith in you?

Friedman: When I looked at the e-mails we’ve received, and even looking at Twitter today, there was overwhelming support from our subscribers. In one narrative, we’re the saps for letting this happen. In the other, we’re the victims. And it’s interesting that our subscribers are the ones who regard us as the victims. My sense is we have the same relationship with our readers as we had before, regardless.

LW: Anything else you’d like to add?

Friedman: Implicit in the First Amendment is the idea that we all owe each other the right to be heard, and what Anonymous has done is to try to deny us that ability. There used to be a village commons , where everybody gathered to do business and talk. Everyone knew each other. There was no anonymity.

Now we have this global commons. And in the global commons, there is this element of anonymity, which I support. I think it’s a good thing. But it carries with it a responsibility, without which, there’s no accountability.

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