As Anonymous go to Wikileaks with a new trove of secret emails, could this be the new tactic for the rag-tag army of hacktivists? And why are Stratfor interested in Assange? Channel 4 News explores.
For some, the most surprising aspect of the latest Anonymous trove is not the information contained within the emails sent between the staff of US-based private intelligence company Stratfor, but the apparent change in strategy by the hacker group.
When WikiLeaks started, it too was a deliberately inconspicuous organisation simply devoted to distributing information.
Interest in WikiLeaks grew with the release of a video of US soldiers shooting at civilians. And then the publication of confidential Afghan and Iraq war logs were followed by a cache of 250,000 confidential US embassy cables, released to media around the world.
Now, says Dr Tim Jordan, of King’s College London, Anonymous finds itself in a similar position.
He told Channel 4 News: “From chat about this from people associated with, or on the fringes, of Anonymous, it seems that mass dumping was not having an effect.
“The problem is that they were cracking into, and then downloading, a bunch of stuff, but then didn’t know what to do with it.
“The same problem happened with WikiLeaks. It’s possible that between the two organisations, there was some kind of feeling they could help each other.”
Yet the battle, said Dr Jordan, remains ideological. He said: “They are caught between an ethic of information freedom, and then being politically effective. None of the leaks that Anonymous have produced have brought anyone down, but they have produced difficulties for organisations’ security.”
Indeed, the group’s latest “security breach” will prove to be a tremendous headache for the US private intelligence company dubbed the “shadow CIA”, due to its apparent links to the US government’s intelligence agents.
Since 1996, Strategic Forecasting Inc, known commonly as Stratfor, has made vast sums of cash – the details of which are difficult to ascertain – from trading non-classified information about individuals, groups or regions considered by their clients to be a potential security risk.
The company has even been referred to as a kind of glorified ‘news clipping’ agency.
“This is going to be their biggest problem,” said Dr Mils Hills, a senior lecturer in global strategy at Coventry Business School. “There is going to be a complete loss of trust. I can’t believe a company that helps people make decisions to keep themselves safe has information like this which is readily available to a group of committed hackers.”
The information released, according to those who have years of experience in dealing with such matters, is not as explosive as one would expect from a company known as a parallel US intelligence agency.
Particularly not from one which appears to be working hard to maintain such an aura of mystique – perhaps for commercial reasons, and to assist potential clients in thinking they will be discreet when investigating their target.
“What does Stratfor exactly do? Where do they get their information from? How active are they?” asked investigative journalist and Brunel University lecturer, Paul Lashmar. “There are a whole load of questions to do with transparency.”
While WikiLeaks has not yet published all of the emails, first glances suggest the information is not as explosive as one would have expected. Having been laid bare, the company has even been referred to as a kind of glorified “news clipping” agency, indicating that their intelligence is as much based on mainstream news as anywhere else.
But for Mr Lashmar, a more pertinent question is why, according to Julian Assange, Stratfor has trained its targets on WikiLeaks?
While further details remain to be disclosed, WikiLeaks said in a press release: “The material contains privileged information about the US government’s attacks against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and Stratfor’s own attempts to subvert WikiLeaks. There are more than 4,000 emails mentioning WikiLeaks or Julian Assange.”
“It’s the fact they seem to have been active against Assange and WikiLeaks which raises bigger questions,” he said. “Is some other agency outsourcing [the search for] information? Was it for a spooky US outfit? Why them?”
If the agency is so closely linked, as WikiLeaks suggests, with US government agencies, the question would be as to why they would want to use them when they have their own staff at their disposal.
“Well, it gets around the whole issue of Freedom of Information, which is strong in America, and it makes things less accountable as the company are external contractors,” Mr Lashmar said.
Dr Jordan pointed out that Mr Assange is seen by some in the US as a terrorist, the alleged mastermind behind the biggest leak of military secrets in US history.
On the other hand, he said, any company investigating security, would at some stage, he suggested, need to inform their clients that a group such as WikiLeaks exists, as a potential security risk.
The question most analysts are agreed on, however, is that Stratfor, the group at the centre of the latest tussle, are a group about whom very little is known. Other than that their headquarters are in Austin, Texas, and their CEO is a man named George Friedman.
That may now be about to change.