by Urizenus Sklar on 04/09/13 at 1:55 pm
Last week I was on the Herald Yacht, steaming towards the Herald retirement villa in the Turks and Caicos islands, when the emergency phone rang in the ready room. Helmut, my trusty cabin boy summoned me. Barrett Brown was calling.
Mr. Brown, for those of you who don’t know, is currently in federal custody looking at charges that could put him away for 105 years for linking to the cache from a hack of the private intelligence firm Strategic Forecasting. He was also an alumnus of the notorious Second Life griefer group The Patriotic Nigras and a second group called illuminati/i/illuminati. “Uri baby,” he implored, “you have to come out of retirement, the fate of the free world hangs in the balance!”
For those of you who don’t know it, the story of Barrett Brown is an interesting one. After his years as a Second Life griefer, Barrett graduated to being a rather gifted writer, penning many essays for Vanity Fair, The Skeptical Inquirer, True/Slant, The Guardian, and the Huffington Post. True to his roots, he mercilessly trolled conservative pundits like Thomas Friedman, Michelle Malkin, Charles Krauthammer, and Sara Palin biographer Robert Stacy McCain.
In 2010 Brown was working on a book on right wing political pundits, when some of the actions of Anonymous caught his attention and he penned a defense in support of one of their anti-censorship operations in Australia. This brought him to the attention of Gregg Housh (the Anon who bought a Guy Fawkes mask and, with a crack team of fellow Anons, made the first video for Operation Chanology) and Housh subsequently brought Brown into the orbit of Anonymous. Brown eventually became a frequent spokesperson for Anonymous during the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. (Brown’s role did not involving computer hacking – he couldn’t hack his way out of a box of tissues.) His interview with Michael Issikoff in those heady days remains legendary.
In February, 2011, against the background of the Anonymous actions in the Arab Spring, Aaron Barr, the CEO of a private information security company called HBGary boasted that he had identified leadership of Anonymous. This boast provoked an epic hack of HBGary by a hacktivist group called Intenet Feds (subsequently called LulzSec). That hack, which was splashy enough to garner the attention of The Colbert Report, resulted in every form of pwnage known to mankind, including the defacing and destruction of the servers and websites of HBGary. Along the way 70,000 e-mails were downloaded and posted online. One terabyte of data from HBGary’s backup servers were wiped, and as a final insult to injury the contents of its CEO Aaron Barr’s iPad were remotely wiped.
The HBGary hack was motivated by the desire to humiliate HBGary, but it had the side effect of dropping a gold mine into the lap of Mr. Brown. One of the first things discovered was a power point presentation that developed a strategy for undermining the credibility of the journalist Glenn Greenwald and thereby neutralize his defense of WikiLeaks. But there was more. There was a conspiracy of government agencies, lobbying and cybersecurity firms to carry out a disinformation campaign against critics of the Chamber of Commerce. There were also plans for data mining and disinformation campaigns targeting social organizations and advocacy groups.
The plot was already thick, but then it thickened more. By June, the FBI had the goods on the leader of LulzSec, one Hector Xavier Monsegur, who was known to his associates in LulzSec as Sabu. The FBI arrested Sabu on June 7, 2011 and (according to court documents) turned him into an informant the following day. Six months later (Dec. 24, 2011) under the control of the FBI and possibly the FBI’s direction, Sabu appears to have directed some of his LulzSec crew (now called AntiSec) to hack the website of a private security company known as Strategic Forecasting, yielding a trove of approximately five million emails. The FBI may have controlled Sabu and hence the Stratfor hack, but they lost control of the five million emails in the Stratfor database, which quickly made their way onto the Internet and then to WikiLeaks.
When the contents of the Stratfor leak became available, Barrett Brown (who again played no role in the hacking and had no relation to LulzSec or Sabu) determined that his ProjectPM should have a look at it. To direct the project participants to the Stratfor data dump, he pasted a URL into a chat channel. This ultimately would be the principle “crime” for which he is facing 105 years in jail.
It is worth noting that the contents of the Stratfor hack were even more outrageous than those of the HBGary hack. This time the emails ranged from proposals for renditions to surveillance on the Yes Men on behalf of Dow Chemical. One remarkable exchange revealed that the Coca-Cola company was asking Stratfor for intelligence on dealing with PETA, and the Stratfor Vice President for Intelligence remarked in a leaked email that “The FBI has a classified investigation on PETA operatives. I'll see what I can uncover.” Suggesting, of course, that not only did Stratfor have access to the classified material, but that it would be provided to Coca-Cola. The FBI had been turned into a private dick for corporate America.
The FBI, arguably itself responsible for the information being released, needed to get the toothpaste back into the tube, decided that one way to staunch the distribution of the Stratfor data would be to stomp on Brown and his Project PM. A warrant was issued for Brown’s laptop, presumably on the assumption that incriminating information would be found there.
When the FBI went to serve the warrant on Brown he was not home but at his mother’s house, and he sensibly decided to stay there. The FBI returned with a warrant to search his mother’s house, retrieved his laptop, and found exactly nothing incriminating. Deciding they needed a way to turn up the heat on Brown, they initiated charges against his mother for obstruction of justice.
At the time Brown was experiencing the difficult side effects of the medication he was taking to ameliorate the effects of his heroin addiction while also dealing with the harassment of his mother by the FBI, and he snapped, uploading a video to YouTube that vaguely threatened the FBI agent that was harassing his mother.
“I know what’s legal, I know what’s been done to me… And if it’s legal when it’s done to me, it’s going to be legal when it’s done to FBI Agent Robert Smith—who is a criminal.”
“That’s why [FBI special agent] Robert Smith’s life is over. And when I say his life is over, I’m not saying I’m going to kill him, but I am going to ruin his life and look into his fucking kids… How do you like them apples?”
Because threatening an agent would only put Barrett away for a few years, the charges that could lock him up permanently had to be found elsewhere. In this instance, the DoJ took advantage of the fact that the Stratfor data had a number of unencrypted credit card numbers and validation codes. This would be the pretext for charging Brown with Traffic in Stolen Authentication Features, Access Device Fraud, Aggravated Identity Theft. Add to this an Obstruction of Justice charge and the charges relating to the threat against the FBI agent, and Brown is looking century of jail time. He has been denied bail.
When Brown went to jail, work on ProjectPM ground to a halt. Even worse, the DoJ now took an interest in everyone else who had participated in ProjectPM. On April 2, the DOJ served the domain hosting service CloudFlare with a subpoena for all records on the ProjectPM website, and in particular asked for the IP addresses of everyone who had accessed and contributed to ProjectPM, claiming it was a criminal enterprise. The message was clear: Anyone else who looks into this matter does so at their grave peril.
Here we are. Barrett Brown sits in prison and many activists are afraid to go near the Stratfor files; worse, the mainstream media appears to be completely uninterested in their contents.
While the media and much of the world have been understandably outraged by the revelation of the NSA’s spying program, Barrett Brown’s work was pointing towards much deeper problems. First, he showed that this wasn’t merely a problem of private intelligence firms spying on us – it was worse than that. These firms are trying to manufacture a false reality for us. They are engaged in PSYOPS against a civilian population on behalf of their corporate clients.
But even this tells only half the story. One might have thought that private intelligence agencies were simply doing outsourced intelligence work for the US Government. But unfortunately it seems that the tail has begun to wag the dog – it appears that in many respects the US Government and in particular the Department of Justice is now working for private intelligence firms. This is evident when, for example, Stratfor asks for FBI classified files on PETA or the Department of Justice is used to try and punish journalists for probing into these private intelligence companies.
But I disgress. I began with Barrett’s call to the Herald hotline. So what did Barrett want? He put it this way: “Uri baby, in the hall of mirrors that is the Internets, you can only trust the Herald to get the story right. You and Pix have got to come back. The game is bigger now.”
And well, yes, the game is bigger now. Former Herald staffer Prokofy Neva saw this too, in her delightfully positive and chirpy essay on her blog Wired State.
The entire thing makes me think of The Wrong Hands and the Justice League -- a story in Second Life that prefigured many of our woes in real life today…
… It's like the story of WikiLeaks and the story of the NSA, today. It is one of the many thing I feel were prototyped in Second Life where it was really easy to prototype -- a hostage community of people online that you could easily affect like dropping a rock in a pond, endless capacity for virtual harassment, endless edge-casing and lawfaring capacity with a troop of coders and developers of the same hacker tribe who are the managers of Second Life at Linden Lab.
Actually, I don’t know what that means and neither do you, but what I think Prok is trying to say is that reality is beginning to imitate the virtual reality of 2006, and those of us who honed our skills trying to sort through the spy-vs-spy mindfuck games of Second Life are particularly well equipped to navigate house of mirrors created for us by the NSA, FBI, private intelligence companies etc.
So now that the so-called Real World has begun to imitate Second Life, the Herald is returning to its mission of helping its dedicated readers find their way through the house of mirrors. There is a war on reality happening. The Herald is going to cover it. For Barrett Brown. For our readers. And for the lulz.