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WikiLeaks proxy war takes its toll on brands’ integrity

It hasn’t taken long for the proxy cyber war being waged between WikiLeaks, the whistleblowing site, and the US state department to spill over into the world of brands.

Yesterday, Operation Payback – manned by a bunch of freelance cyber hackers who have taken up the cudgels on WikiLeaks’ behalf – managed to shut down the website operations of Mastercard: not only http://www.mastercard.com but some of its SecureCode operations as well. It was a serious piece of hacking that felled the international credit card operator at a highly vulnerable time – on one of the key shopping days before Christmas.

Other household names are likely to experience similar trauma. Visa has fought off a guerilla attack, but more may follow. Amazon is in the firing line. Paypal is already experiencing grief. And Twitter will probably follow.

Their offence? According to Anonymous, the nom de guerre of the aforementioned cyber warriors, they have stepped out of commerce and into politics by colluding with a politically inspired campaign to close down the WikiLeaks site and must be prepared to take the consequences. In the rougher language of the hackers: “We will fire at anything, or anyone, that tries to censor WikiLeaks, including multi-billion dollar companies such as PayPal…Twitter, you’re next for censoring WikiLeaks discussion. The major shitstorm has begun.” Twitter’s offence, which it denies, is to have pushed the WikiLeaks affair down the “trending” algorithm, effectively denying it the oxygen of publicity.

Whether these cyber attacks will in themselves do lasting damage is to be doubted. Far more corrosive is the bad publicity for the brands involved. They are seen to have taken sides, and acted not on behalf of the consumer but on behalf of the US state department. Under pressure, they are forced to admit that they have suspended operations with WikiLeaks because these operations are now deemed illegal. By whom? By the US state department, invoking not the jurisdiction of international law, but its own. In other words, the brands involved are yielding to a form of blackmail, for fear of reprisals in their single biggest market.

It is no surprise to find the US administration acting vindictively. No state likes to lose face in public – and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has certainly made a mockery of the USA’s much vaunted cyber-protection systems (or at least, the Pentagon version of them). Moreover, we’ve seen this sort of behaviour in the past. Philip Agee, the renegade CIA agent, was hounded for many years by a vengeful state department. More recently the US has pursued with a vigour bordering on persecution an extradition order against UK citizen Gary McKinnon, who is accused of hacking into Pentagon secrets (why is it always Pentagon systems that are so insecure?). UFO-fancier McKinnon faces up to 70 years imprisonment if the order eventually succeeds.

In the case of brands, however, the damage is subtler and collateral. For all their pretensions to globalism, they have found themselves manipulated by a national government – which just happens to be the most powerful in the world. If all this had taken place in China – as it did when the Chinese state began to shut down Google’s operations – the outrage would be international. But when the USA does the same thing, reaction is muted. The implied impediment to free e-trade is taking time to sink in.

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