The radical left needs to be wary of the growing paramilitarization of cyber-space

I recently did a crash-course in recent Colombian history, with specific focus on class struggle and imperialism in the country.  One of the major takeaways was the concept of paramilitarism and its relationship with capitalism.  Paramilitarism is a term that is generally used to refer to armed groups that operate in conjunction with the state and the military, but have a certain degree of autonomy.  In the case of Colombia, paramilitarism developed as a response to the state’s inability to protect rural elites (a category that included everybody from drug cartel leaders to oil multinational executives to wealthy ranchers) from attacks and extortion by communist guerrillas in the ’70s and ’80s.  As such various sectors of the Colombian bourgeoisie founded and funded their own private militias, with assistance from military elites.  These outfits, ostensibly for self-defense, quickly mutated into offensive armies that helped elites expand their land holdings, assassinate political opponents, repress labor and peasant movements, and generally increase rate of capital accumulation.

The first phase of this pattern–the creation of autonomous and ostensibly defensive armed capabilities, with links to the military–is currently underway in the realm of cyber-space, with a growing global market for cyber-weapons, private cyber-security, surveillance technologies, and so on.  Details of this dynamic can be read about in Chapter 6 of Shane Harris’ @War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex (2014).

One example of this is the success of Endgame, a leading cyber-security firm that at one point specialized in selling offensive cyber-weapons and analysis on vulnerable computers and networks worldwide; their biggest customers have typically been government agencies like the NSA and the CIA, but in the past few years major firms like Google have become major clients (Harris 2014: 103-104, 108).  Another, more interesting example is the case of Team Themis, a partnership between several cyber-security companies–Palantir Technologies, HBGary Feeral, and Berico Technologies–and a law firm–Hunton & Williams–to investigate and undermine opponents of the US Chamber of Commerce (notably, WikiLeaks) through online surveillance, data-mining, and analysis.  After an attack on HBGary Federal’s servers by Anonymous, it was revealed that the CEO, Aaaron Barr, was advocating and planning for a campaign of surveillance and intimidation against supporters of WikiLeaks, such as the journalist Glenn Greenwald (Harris 2014: 114-115).

These kinds of shady, offensive capabilities appear to be widespread.  From New York Times article on the issue (emphasis added):

Jonathan E. Turner, who runs a Tennessee-based business that gathers intelligence for corporate clients, said that companies nationwide relied on investigators to gather potentially damaging information on possible business partners or rivals. “Information is power,” said Mr. Turner, former chairman of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.

He estimated that the “competitive intelligence” industry had 9,700 companies offering these services, with an annual market of more than $2 billion, but said there were limits to what tactics should be used.

And of course, the real question is how far companies will be willing to go in terms of cyber-warfare when it concerns “enemies” in the form of protesters, activists, and community organizers (let alone actual revolutionaries).  And according to Mark Weatherford, the former head of cyber security at the Department of Homeland Security, “We’ve already got the cyber equivalent of the Pinkerton Guards“.


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