Watch D.C.

By Andrew Metcalf @AJwatchDC

Stratfor vs. Anonymous

When I first heard that Anonymous had infiltrated the servers of a private intelligence-gathering firm, I thought it happened because it was easy to obtain. Low-hanging fruit if you will.

Anonymous’ anonymous Twitter spokesperson @YourAnonNews tweeted after obtaining the data, “Happy LulzXmas @STRATFOR | Thanks for storing your customers’ CC/CCV #s in cleartext, w/corresponding addresses. Y u no bother encrypting?”

I’ve always thought of Anonymous as knee-jerking graffiti artist rebels. They respond to a situation, come together and DDOS a website until it goes down. Afterwards, the victimized organization cleans up, like painting away the graffiti, and Anonymous moves on to the next spot.

But this Stratfor thing is different.

I found it shocking that a firm with ties to the Department of Defense, Israeli Defense Forces and Fortune 500 companies had failed to encrypt their data. After a cursory look at their website and history, I believed the company was just an aggregator of news from around the world compiled specifically for paying clients. Turns out they were also collecting their own intelligence by using sources culled from the media, military forces, governments and corporations.

And now Anonymous has partnered with Wikileaks to make a splash with the over 5 million internal Stratfor emails collected from their hacking operation. Previously, most of the hacker group’s finds would be released on Pastebin, an early web site that looks more like HTML code than a word processor. By going through Wikileaks, Anonymous has found a partner that is capable of marketing the vast trove of emails to news sources who can synthesize the newsworthy information.

This marks a turn for the hacking collective that has remained relatively embedded in niche internet communities like IRC and 4chan. It shows a realization that their work, which has been maligned as vandalism, has a broader value than them just flexing their muscles. 

Emboldened by the Occupy Wall Street movement, which Anonymous helped organize and publicize, the collective is becoming far more politically active. They have set their sites on the intersection of big corporations, government agencies and the media. Stratfor represents the perversion of those three groups. Stratfor works for big companies by acting like an international media organization. But they shun the ethics of standard journalism by paying sources and giving them significant cover. Not to mention their employees think they’re spies.

Emails are coming out hourly at this point showing the scope of their investigations. They investigated PETA for Coca-Cola before the Vancouver Olympics. They tracked Bhopal activists for the Dow Chemical company who were angered over the company’s handling of the Bhopal gas disaster in India that has been related to over 25,000 deaths in the city. The company even had an idea to partner with Goldman Sachs to start a “captive strategic investment fund.”

"What StratCap will do is use our Stratfor’s intelligence and analysis to trade in a range of geopolitical instruments, particularly government bonds, currencies and the like" Wrote Stratfor CEO George Friedman in an August 2011 email.

These details are just a small taste of what may be a trove of data related to this “Intelligence” company. It also represents a significant development in journalism. It shows how tech savvy activists can become revolutionary news-gatherers.

But this case also highlights a perversion of the form. Journalism used to be about making things public. It was about confirming and fact-checking, being right, being truthful and investigating the rich and powerful at every opportunity. What we have with Stratfor is a quasi media company specializing in serving powerful interests for money.

And yet, they’re trying to make Anonymous look bad. Here’s what they wrote in their press release shortly after the announcement of the release of the emails on Feb. 27:

In December, thieves compromised Stratfor’s data systems and stole a large number of company emails, along with other private information of Stratfor readers, subscribers and employees. Those stolen emails apparently will be published by Wikileaks. This is a deplorable, unfortunate — and illegal — breach of privacy.

Some of the emails may be forged or altered to include inaccuracies; some may be authentic. We will not validate either. Nor will we explain the thinking that went into them. Having had our property stolen, we will not be victimized twice by submitting to questioning about them.

They are claiming that their own internal communications may have been forged or altered, although “some may be authentic.” They refuse to answer questions about them or explain their reasoning behind them. They claim to be the victim.

They refuse to ask themselves whether they were breaching people’s privacy by investigating activists for large corporations. They don’t consider their ideas of profiting off insider information with Goldman Sachs ethically questionable. In fact, because they have been investigated, they now believe they are being victimized.

We are currently living in a security state where even the most mundane operations of our government are considered confidential. Any journalist that has attempted a FOIA knows how difficult and time-consuming the process is to obtain information that should be publicly available. It’s this kind of culture that allows a company like Stratfor to profit and that’s scary.

This may not be the big breaking story that Wikileaks needed to rescue its reputation after not leaking anything significant since the diplomatic files, but it’s a big step for Anonymous. It shows a hacking collective developing from a group of light-hearted vandal lulzers to a politically oriented investigative organization.

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