2010 was the year that removed all doubt that cybersecurity is now a geopolitical problem.
We learned from diplomatic cables exposed by WikiLeaks that from Europe to the Middle East to China and beyond, Washington is having an even tougher time than we thought getting what it wants. The leaks themselves have only made matters more delicate, not just by embarrassing some of America’s friends, but by fueling conspiracy theories that Washington was somehow behind the leaks.
Yet WikiLeaks was far from the only big cyberstory in 2010. Google’s public spat with China, the fight over BlackBerry devices in India and the Persian Gulf, and the sudden appearance in July of a virus called Stuxnet that appears to have targeted and degraded Iran’s nuclear facilities made news, as well.
We also learned that cyberattacks are no longer simply a weapon for petty criminals and teenagers. They are now a full-fledged part of national arsenals. In fact, WikiLeaks showed that a cyber-villain can prove just as elusive and decentralized as Al Qaeda. Indeed, as with Al Qaeda, the WikiLeaks problem will be with us for years. This could be just a hint of what is to come.
Osama bin Laden will probably never be taken alive, but unfortunately for U.S. diplomacy, the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, will probably have many days in court. If he is prosecuted in the United States, some will cast him as the world’s first cybermartyr. Unlike bin Laden, many Americans will treat him primarily as a curiosity or even as a hero of free speech. His confederates — but also legions of WikiLeaks-inspired hackers — will defend that freedom with more acts of cyberrevenge. They could make common cause.
In other words, up until now Washington has worried that terrorists will become hackers. Perhaps we all should worry that hackers will become terrorists.
In addition, the WikiLeaked information about U.S. foreign policy will have consequences for international relations.
Pakistan was probably behind the outing of the C.I.A. station chief in Islamabad, who was immediately brought home. More worrisome, given its traditional ties with Israel, the Argentine government’s decision to join Brazil in recognizing an independent Palestinian state was likely a response, at least in part, to a leaked cable in which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton questioned the mental health of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The damage to U.S.-Argentine relations is likely to be lasting.
Then there are the risks that WikiLeaks poses for corporations. When U.S.-based multinationals MasterCard and PayPal agreed to U.S. government demands to block WikiLeaks financial transactions, they quickly suffered denial-of-service attacks from hackers sympathetic to WikiLeaks’ case. As a result, these companies and others like them will become ever more reliant on governments for information on (and protection from) such attacks. In the past, corporate willingness to provide the U.S. government with sensitive data hasn’t been hugely consequential for these firms, because they didn’t yet face a powerful cyberenemy capable of launching sophisticated attacks. But “Anonymous,” the organization that retaliated against threats to Mr. Assange, appears much more capable.
The implications of this problem for multinational companies could be new limitations on globalization itself. If firms begin to seek safe-haven by building gated online communities that are well removed from the information superhighway, a move toward secure Intranets, information will be tougher to come by. And as technology companies more often seek the protective embrace of government security agencies, global sales and expansion plans will become ever more dependent on the rules that govern national security.
So far, WikiLeaks hasn’t divulged significant industrial secrets, but given the focus on U.S. diplomatic cables, that fact simply reminds us that American embassies play a comparably small role in promoting U.S. commerce. If a similar tranche of cables were leaked from Japanese or French governments, the commercial fallout would be far greater. That’s why it may not be long before we see a set of leaks — stolen from governments or companies — that panic markets, sink stock prices, and even undermine a cartel like OPEC. As the continuing drama around Julian Assange demonstrates, governments will struggle to manage these sorts of problems. But for a corporation, even a wealthy one, the challenges will be far greater.
In 2010, WikiLeaks pushed freedom of information to a whole new level. We can only imagine the implications we’ll see in 2011.