Tracey Barnett

Tracey Barnett is a Herald columnist

Tracey Barnett: Virtual battles shaping our future

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Operation Aurora will go down in the history books as the day our airy information age crashed headlong into the real-world political arena. Photo / Dean Purcell
Operation Aurora will go down in the history books as the day our airy information age crashed headlong into the real-world political arena. Photo / Dean Purcell

The biggest story you've never heard of in the last decade had nothing to do with September 11, 2001 or the War on Terror. It is a story that will have more ramifications to your life than Al Qaeda ever will, yet you probably have no idea what Operation Aurora, Titan Rain, or GhostNet is.

They are the opening salvos to a war we never see. This isn't just one story. It is many.

Most we won't hear of until years after the fact. It was only this November that mainstream media reported what Jim Lewis, Director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called America's "electronic Pearl Harbor" in 2007, according to 60 Minutes.

"Some unknown foreign power ... broke into the Department of defence, to the Department of State, the Department of Commerce, probably the Department of Energy, probably Nasa. They broke into all of the high tech agencies, all of the military agencies and downloaded terabytes of information," said Lewis.

This isn't just America's pulp fiction tale either. Russia allegedly swarmed the computers of most major facets of Estonian life in 2007, hitting banks, newspapers, broadcasters, telephones and Parliament, allegedly in anger over Estonia's plans to relocate a bronze soldier.

It is still disputed whether Brazil, a nation with reputedly the highest number of cyber criminals in the world, was hit with a cyber attack that blacked out the electrical grid north of Rio in 2005 and 2007. A bigger blackout this November plunged half the nation into darkness.

This past year University of Toronto researchers were called in to help the Dalai Lama's infiltrated network. They uncovered what has now been dubbed GhostNet, a huge spy network based in China that has infiltrated embassies, foreign ministries and media in 103 countries. The malware even has the ability to turn on a computer's camera and microphone to record a user's conversations in the room.

Indeed, in a survey done at this year's World Economic Forum by McAfee, 54 per cent of IT security executives report their systems had already been attacked, almost two-thirds of them believe by foreign governments. Power and fuel companies were hit hardest.

Who do they believe are the two most likely threats? The United States [36 per cent] and China [33 per cent].

But it was last month's Operation Aurora that I believe will go down in the history books as the day our airy information age crashed headlong into the real-world political arena.

You might know Operation Aurora more familiarly as the breach that triggered Google to threaten to pull out of China. Google found its servers being used to target Chinese dissidents and 34 US companies, from Adobe to Dow Chemical.

Why should this story be any different from any of the others that have come before?

Simply put, how it was played. Not only did we find out about this attack quickly, but Google and the US Government gave it to us on a plate, standing like twin countries on the world stage.

Hillary Clinton shook her finger directly at China. Instead of hiding the breach for years until consumers could hear it was safely fixed, one of the world's most powerful corporations very publicly used the attack to try to leverage another nation's international policy.

While US reports mused over lost market share, Ernest J. Wilson, Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism wrote in the Huffington Post, "They ignored what may be the biggest really important story, which is Google's impact on the future of US international relations in the coming decades."

Governments spent the last century fighting to defend the open dissemination of the building blocks of our industrial age, from steel to cars. While we were distracted with talk of terrorism at the turn of this new millennium, the first significant battles of the information age were raging when we weren't looking.

Google's spin that this is about human rights is a red herring. This is about the age-old battle for access to open markets. The difference today is that nearly the entire value of Google's product is the free worldwide access itself.

In a game of chicken, Google is playing as if they were any other nation state. I'll face-shame you to every potential foreign investor if you don't play by our rules, Google has threatened.

The irony is that China is rightly making the exact same argument but with real, not virtual, muscle to back it up. Google's timing couldn't be worse.

This week China is now spitting tacks at the news of America's sale of arms to Taiwan. That won't bode well for the Chinese seeing Google as a pawn, not a player.

I believe Google will lose this battle, and badly. The bigger question is who will be the new political players in a new world order that will, by necessity, fight for control of what is now the world's most valuable currency - information.

www.traceybarnett.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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