By David Kravets Email Author
December 27, 2010 |
It was a year without parallel. Threat Level’s bread-and-butter themes of censorship, hacking, security, privacy, copyright and cyberwar were all represented in tug-of-war struggles with unprecedented outcomes.
Google defeated China’s censors, but caved to corporate censorship in the United States. The largest computer-crime case ever prosecuted ended in the nation’s longest prison term. A small-time Xbox modder who advertised his services online beat the federal rap. And a mysterious computer virus called Stuxnet finally put proof to decades of warnings that malware will eventually be used to kinetic effect in the real world.
A myriad of court decisions seemed to be a boon for online rights, while others clearly were a step backward. The year 2010 saw the rise of the newspaper copyright troll, and judges pushed back on absurd jury verdicts for music file sharing and outdated electronic spying rules.
And a secret-spilling website flirting with insolvency and dissolution suddenly burst onto the world stage. WikiLeaks was without a doubt the biggest 2010 development in Threat Level’s world.
WikiLeaks Takes On World Powers
As the year began, the project appeared to be on its last legs — just another cypherpunk fever dream destined for the same dustbin as digital cash and assassination politics. Site founder Julian Assange had abandoned the wiki portion of the concept, after crowds of volunteer analysts failed to congeal around WikiLeaks’ impressive, but not yet explosive, trove.
Assange also experimented with auctioning early access to leaks for news outlets, without immediate success. By January, the site had hit financial bankruptcy, and its homepage and archive were replaced by a public plea for donations.
Then came Bradley Manning, a disaffected 22-year-old Army intelligence officer who wanted “people to see the truth.” With one disturbing video and nearly a million leaked U.S. documents later, WikiLeaks had raised more than $1.2 million, and ignited a battle over the meaning of journalism, national security and censorship.
The WikiLeaks saga began in earnest with the April release of the “Collateral Murder” video showing more than a dozen people in Iraq being killed in three U.S. Apache helicopter attacks.
Victims included two Reuters employees, one carrying a camera that was apparently mistaken for a weapon. The partial release of 92,000 reports from the war in Afghanistan followed in July. Then came 400,000 Iraq war reports in October, and finally the slow, steady disclosure of 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables that kicked off just after Thanksgiving.
Along the way, Manning was arrested and locked away in a Marine brig. A war broke out within WikiLeaks’ ranks. And Assange became the subject of a U.S. grand jury investigation that may have broad ramifications for the First Amendment.
The State Department said Assange’s publication of U.S. diplomatic cables was “illegal.” But Assange bills WikiLeaks as a media organization, and no media outlet has ever been prosecuted for publishing classified information in the United States.
WikiLeaks and the Future
Yet more is at stake than Assange’s freedom and the future of WikiLeaks. The site has shown us that the right to maintain a presence on the internet regularly runs counter to the net’s gatekeepers that often are motivated by profit.
As the New Year approached, WikiLeaks was caught scrambling to maintain its online presence and financial pipeline. Amazon cut off its web hosting, and PayPal, Visa, MasterCard and Bank of America blocked donations to the organization. Apple even banned an iPhone app designed to facilitate access to Wikileaks’ cache of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables.
“A lot of really important stuff happened this year that forces us to begin to think about that there are so many people who depend on private companies to enjoy the fruits of technology,” said Cindy Cohn, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s legal director. “If the private company stands up for us we have rights, and if it doesn’t, we don’t.”
Springing to WikiLeaks’ defense were the pranksters and activists known as Anonymous, who overwhelmed the websites of WikiLeaks’ enemies — real and perceived — with junk internet traffic in coordinated attacks dubbed Operation Payback. A more constructive protest grew from the grassroots, with supporters volunteering their own websites to host mirrors of WikiLeaks’ “Cablegate” page, ensuring it can never be removed from the web.
More than anything, the online protests exposed a generational struggle for the heart and soul of the net. It’s a high-stakes conflict between corporations that have grown fat and powerful off the web over nearly two decades and the first generation to grow up with the modern internet as a daily element in their lives.
Both sides believe the internet belongs to them. If history is a guide, it would be unwise to bet against the kids over the establishment.
Stuxnet: Code Creates Havoc
If WikiLeaks showed that the most powerful government on Earth can be brought to tears by stateless freedom-of-information rebels, the Stuxnet virus proved the most despotic governments can be similarly harmed by well-written code.
The virus hit Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, prompting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to suggest in November the malicious computer code was launched by “enemies” of the state. He said it had sabotaged centrifuges used in Iran’s nuclear-enrichment program. Although not proven, those “enemies” could be Israel.
“Stuxnet. It is in my book the most important development of the year. It is when things started changing,” said F-Secure’s Chief Research Officer Mikko Hyppönen, in a telephone interview from Helsinki. “It is the first real example of cybersabotage being done with malware.”
Google at Home and Abroad
A different government is likely behind the other giant hacking news of 2010.
Google went public in January with the startling disclosure that its systems had been deeply penetrated by sophisticated foreign attackers who had targeted e-mail accounts of human-rights activists. Since then, it has emerged that at least 33 companies have been similarly targeted.
Google didn’t explicitly blame the Chinese government, but it didn’t have to: Google’s response was to take the unprecedented step of halting its government-mandated censorship of web searches in China through a series of technological and legal dodges. Amazingly, China didn’t boot Google out of the country, despite repeated threats.
In the United States, Google was looking less heroic after it ceded ground in the crucial fight for net neutrality. The company joined with Verizon in August to announce a congressional plan that abandons the idea of network neutrality for wireless spectrum. The plan meant wireless carriers could discriminate against content providers, big and small, by selling carriage rights or by refusing to carry at all.
Net Neutrality on Life Support
The proposal was in response to an April federal appeals court decision that said the Federal Communications Commission had no power to enforce its principles of net neutrality, absent congressional authority. The ruling, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, came after Comcast appealed an FCC reprimand for having sabotaged its customers’ BitTorrent traffic.
So, Google and Verizon suggested a compromise to get the ball rolling: Mandate net neutrality for wireline internet, but not for wireless. Days before Christmas, the FCC adopted a plan similar to that proposal, a move likely to reach the courts again.
Still, Google was responsible for winning perhaps one of the most important internet-freedom civil lawsuits, Viacom’s copyright action lawsuit against Google-owned YouTube.
U.S. District Judge Louis L. Stanton dismissed the long-running litigation, ruling in June that internet companies, even if they know they are hosting infringing material posted by third parties, are immune from copyright liability if they promptly remove works at a rights holder’s request — under what is known as a “takedown notice” authorized by the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Viacom has appealed, arguing the ruling will “completely destroy copyright.” When the entertainment industry speaks of a legal development in such apocalyptic terms, it’s a good indicator that the development marks a modest advance.
Cyberthieves and Copyright Shenanigans
Between Stuxnet and the Google attacks, one could almost forget that private, profit-oriented hackers can still hold their own in terms of impact. Reminding us of that was Albert “Soupnazi” Gonzalez. The 29-year-old Secret Service informant led a gang of cyberthieves who stole more than 90 million credit and debit card numbers from TJX and other major retailers.
Gonzalez was sentenced in March to 20 years in prison — a record for a U.S. hacking case. He’s now at the low-security federal prison in Milan, Michigan, sporting the kind of Buck Rogers release date once reserved for drug kingpins: October 11, 2025.
In other prosecutions, the government was less successful. The feds launched a first-of-its-kind jury trial of a Southern California man on allegations of modding Xboxes to play pirated games — a violation of the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions. Defendant Matthew Crippen faced five years for each of two DMCA counts. The case collapsed in December from an excess of prosecutorial bungling.
Copyright law has better served America’s first newspaper copyright troll, Righthaven. The Las Vegas litigation factory has lodged more than 190 infringement suits against bloggers on behalf of print conglomerates Stephens Media and MediaNews Group.
Many of the cases targeted websites that had posted modest excerpts of newspaper stories without permission, and some involved content posted by users of a website, instead of the operators. Nonetheless, dozens of the cases were settled out of court for undisclosed terms. By year’s end, Righthaven had shifted its litigation strategy to go after sites that crib newspaper images.
Meanwhile, a federal judge in January reduced a record $1.92 million file sharing verdict to $54,000 after concluding the award against infamous file sharer Jammie Thomas-Rasset for infringing 24 songs was “shocking.”
And Limewire, the popular file sharing service with some 50 million monthly users, shuttered in October after a federal judge sided with the Recording Industry Association of America, and found the New York company liable for a “substantial amount of copyright infringement.”
The U.S. government went on an unprecedented copyright-and-trademark offensive, closing down 82 websites across the globe linked to the sale or distribution of faked goods or file sharing. The November domain name seizures represented a substantial escalation of law enforcement activity from “Operation Our Sites” announced in June, when the Justice Department seized nine domains because they allegedly allowed users to stream first-run movies over the internet.
Your Right to E-Mail Privacy
Most important, the year 2010 witnessed a major milestone in a long-simmering fight for e-mail privacy.
The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared that the Fourth Amendment, regardless of what the 1986 Stored Communications Act said, protected Americans’ e-mail. It was one, all-too-rare case of rebuking the cliché that the law does not keep up with technology.
The Stored Communications Act, a relic from an age where CompuServe was king, allows the government to obtain a suspect’s e-mail from an internet service provider or webmail service without a probable-cause warrant once the messages have been stored for at least 180 days. It was enacted at a time when e-mail generally wasn’t stored on servers for a long time, but instead held there briefly on their way to a recipient’s inbox.
The Barack Obama administration fought against the ruling. The decision, if it withstands Supreme Court scrutiny, means the authorities need a court warrant to access e-mail from mail providers.
“The Fourth Amendment,” the appeals court ruled in December, “must keep pace with the inexorable march of technological progress, or its guarantees will wither and perish.”
Happy New Year.