Three Lessons from WikiLeaks: How the Internet Is Changing Information Warfare

WikiLeaks illustrates how the Internet is changing cyber warfare: Independent groups can get information out as easily as governments.
WikiLeaks illustrates how the Internet is changing cyber warfare: Independent groups can get information out as easily as governments.

There's no doubt about it: The WikiLeaks story has gripped the international community. Hacker Julian Assange and his nonprofit have divulged a flurry of fascinating secret diplomatic cables that have been recounted in dozens of news stories in recent weeks.

After all, it's one thing to hear an off-the-cuff comment from a diplomat about what he or she really thinks is happening in a global hotspot, but entirely another to read record after record showing systematic analyses offering viewpoints diametrically opposed to vigorously stated government positions.

Despite rigorous attempts to stamp it out, WikiLeaks lives on, leaving a tabla of lessons to be culled from what could well be seen as a historical event. Here are five lessons from this incident:

1) Independent groups can successfully compete with governments in the cyber realm: This has been something that information warfare theorists have argued for some time, but Wikileaks has truly driven the point home. The world's inability to completely shut down WikiLeaks servers illustrates that a small but determined cyberwarfare team can compete with the best information-warfare machines on the globe. What's more, the built-in characteristics of the Internet that make it so resilient also make it impossible for a single entity to truly control information.

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2) It's easier for independent players to gain mainstream-media attention than ever before: WikiLeaks has spoonfed its files to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Der Spiegel, among other top-notch publications. Those publications were cautious in what they published and careful to vet the articles. But whether Julian Assange needed them to get his message out more than they needed him to generate page views is a completely open question. Scoops are more important than ever in an era of slice-and-dice consumption of bits and bytes by empowered consumers. So a story as newsworthy as these from WikiLeaks, more than ever before, will find an audience. What's more, the time to deliberate whether to cover a story or not has shrunk tremendously from the Watergate era.

3) It will be increasingly difficult to undermine financial support for these types of independent players: One of the Bush Administration's biggest successes in its efforts to combat so-called rogue states was a financial strategy: It froze key North Korean leaders' bank accounts, making it difficult for them to access hard currency or move their money. But it's far harder to do that with an organization as nebulous as WikiLeaks. In the last few days, PayPal finally shut down the donation account for the site. But the move amounts to window dressing. PayPal makes it easy to collect money with any random email address, but other online payment services also offer this opportunity -- and new social payment systems, such as those emerging in video games, are rapidly evolving. Like the Internet itself, these systems make it easier to conduct transactions and harder to track their origin and terminus. Mobile payment systems will soon add yet another layer of complexity by making it harder to track the location of transactions.

Independent -- or nongovernmental -- groups, of course, a widely varied and can be a force for good or for evil. WikiLeaks has merely crystalized the potent possibilities that the Internet and the New Era of Ubiquitous Connectivity has made available to these groups, for better or for worse.