Ex Machina

‘Exfiltrating documents from political organisations is a legitimate form of intelligence work. The US and European countries do it as well. But digitally exfiltrating and then publishing possibly manipulated documents disguised as freewheeling hacktivism is crossing a big red line and setting a dangerous precedent: an authoritarian country directly yet covertly trying to sabotage an American election.’


One totalitarian theocracy. One communist super power. One bastion of democracy. Three nations grappling to put the information genie back in its bottle.


July has been a month of stark ironies in the battle field of free speech. On the extreme right, the burning of 100,000 satellite dishes – the source of ‘divorce, addiction and insecurity’ – signalled Iran’s most recent morality crackdown; while China’s internet regulator has now banned original internet reporting by the country’s biggest online news platforms – the latest step by President Xi Jinping on an apparent path to Maoist media control.


Meanwhile, in the loose-lipped West, we have another battle on our hands. With soaring levels of digital espionage, hacktivism, and ‘accidental’ leaks the inevitable sticky print of smart-phone politics, there is no denying that our social, political and economic realities are now shaped by a seemingly unstoppable flood of hacked material.


Far more disturbing, as Thomas Rid of Kings College observes in this fascinating feature, is the high profile hack of the DNC by what looks to be Russian operatives seeking to destabilise the Democratic presidential campaign: a dangerous new frontier of this information war, pioneered by one of its most proficient students. As the New York Times speculates this week, more attacks are likely, and remain ‘beyond the reach or enforcement of most laws, and outside the scope of the norms that limit states’ interference in one another’s affairs. And because effective defense is so difficult, it is hard to predict what the limits — or the consequences — of that might be’.


This is a critical new phase for democracy, which, already embroiled in the ongoing negotiation between individual privacy and collective safety, must now pick its way through the minefield of weaponised information without losing limbs.