The Stand Alone Complex:
"An accidental collectivism made up of detached individuals, resembling a highly organized conspiracy and lacking a deliberate origin." From: Urban Dictionary
For some time now I have been fascinated with the idea of the "Stand Alone Complex" that was first put out there by the Ghost In The Shell anime by Shiro Masamune. Within the story line a series of events is taken to be a larger conspiracy online and off by "Section 9", a paramilitary police and espionage agency in a futuristic Japan. The arc of one season to this show centered on someone called "The Laughing Man", an expert hacker who seemed to have returned from years of silence with a series of hacks and attacks against companies that amounted to extortion. While many thought that the acts taking place in the story line were in fact the laughing man, it turned out that they were in fact laughing "men" and it was a collective effort, albeit one that was not on concert.
This idea of accidental collectivism has me interested because I feel as many others do today that Anonymous is in fact a "Stand Alone Complex" in and of itself. However I think there is more to be plumbed here in the stories of Anonymous and the likes of Mr. Katayama than just what's on the surface. I think that there is a trend afoot and it stems from the empowering nature of the internet and the darker arts of hacking as well as the collective unconscious. We are reaching a tipping point socially as well as technologically, in fact it is the technology now as ever that is driving the social aspects of humanity more rapidly than ever before. In effect the internet has allowed for not only the rapid coalescing of ideas and actions that comprise a Stand Alone Complex (hereon SAC) but also their rapid genesis due to the speed of media and connectivity between individuals and groups within cyberspace.
Whether the aegis be a reaction against some corruption or something as innocuous as a LOLCAT image, the idea of SAC has come to the fore mostly because the anime of G.I.T.S. is so popular and seems to have maybe infected the collective unconscious of net denizens. In other instances it is a self propagating viral idea or image that makes its way throughout the populace by word of mouth or, more to the point today, the tweet. If an idea has that certain viral nature it can spread fast and take root deeply within the collective and in fact often spawns other like ideas or images. However, only some really catch on and stand the crucible of the internet. These though might be more considered meme's than anything else, but I would hasten to add that mimetic ideas are the core element of any SAC.
A core idea such as that expounded by Wikileaks, that the governments of the world are corrupt has in fact been a touchstone for many and in the end a force that shaped certain factions of Anonymous just as Scientology and the war against it did at the beginning of the Anonymous collective. Much like the plot line of the G.I.TS. SAC there seems to be some sort of real life mirroring of the sentiment on corruption and the ability to act against it within the confines of the internet due to the precepts of asymmetric warfare. It is far easier for one man to wage a lone war on the internet because of the force multiplier of hacking. Additionally it is much easier to get your grievances out to the world now that the world really consists of interconnected systems online that you can post your manifestos on and garner great amounts of traffic.
Currently there are two cases from our real world that have gotten me thinking much more about all of this. The first is the case of Mr. Katayama, the hacker in Tokyo that I have dubbed a modern day "Laughing Man" and now the LAPD officer on the lamb and shooting former compatriots. Both of these people posted manifestos of sorts online (Dorner on Facebook, and Katayama on numerous bulletin boards via trojan'd computers) In fact, in the case of the Katayama case I would also like to point out the riddles and the use of a cat as a carrier of digital data in the form of riddles as a means of getting his thoughts our rather creatively. Both of these individuals are using the internet in a form of asymmetric warfare that is becoming a new standard for those seeking redress for whatever issues they perceive they have. Granted these are only two cases of individuals, but we are beginning to see a movement toward this type of activity more often since its inception by Anonymous with video manifestos as well as site defacement's, or pastebin posts.
Online Asymmetric Warfare: The Great Equalizer
So it is that we are seeing the uptick in asymmetric warfare tactics taken up not by nation states or terrorist groups but also by the individual as collective action. Online this type of warfare is fairly easy to carry out as we have seen from the antics of groups like LulzSec and factions of Anon. Point and click hacking with Metasploit is easy as is posting the dumps online to name and shame those who have been perceived as malefactors. It is because it is so easy to carry out and its ability to be far reaching within the online community and now the media that people are carrying these attacks out in hopes of effecting their personal or collective goals.
As things become more integrated and connected we can only expect that this type of activity will grow. The next extension of this will be the use of proxies (like China now) to carry out these asymmetric attacks leaving manifestos as disinformation fodder for the hidden attacks that occur during the signal to noise attacks. This too is also a common tactic that the Chinese use in spear-phishing attacks, they flood the target with bogus phishing emails and slip in a few very targeted emails for the whales that they have in mind to exploit. Once they have exploited that signal to noise cognitive failure on the part of the end user, they are in and able to gain foothold for more attacks. Now extend this idea to the collectives out there like Anonymous or others to come when they learn these tactics and employ them.
Think on that a bit.. Imagine these collectives, loosely based or individuals portraying themselves as one, using these techniques and others to effect their goals. Truly we live in an interesting time and I suspect things are going to get even more interesting as work moves on concerning the manipulation of social media with tool sets. Perception management software to manipulate the minds of the populace as well as tools to exploit them through phishing and other social engineering exploits while leveraging technical vulnerabilities. Truly if there is such a thing as cyber-war, this may well be the untapped potential that no one is really talking about. Forget about nation states, think upon the collective or the singular individual who may spawn one with their actions online. All one really need do is look to the Anonymous idea or others to see how viral it can be and how daunting dealing with it may be.
Tipping Points In Warfare Dynamics:
We are seeing the tipping point today in online warfare as well as the use of the internet as a fulcrum for action by individuals and collectives. Whether they be in the form of an SAC or a nation state manipulating the perception that there is one at work. The use of computing, the internet, malware, and the media therein has changed the dynamic to warfare altogether. In fact, I think we need new terms for types of warfare because now it's not just nation state or non state actors but every day people taking up arms with things like the LOIC to make a statement or to outright attack that which they see as being corrupt or attacked them in some way.
Ideas are the basis of this, meme's are the vector of infection and the results can be anywhere from nothing at all to larger failures within an organization (i.e. HB Gary Federal) As we tie more and more of our lives to the online world, not to the point of physical death like what we see in G.I.T.S. the collateral damage from attacks by groups and individuals can vary greatly. The fear of course today is the rubric that the grid will be taken down by someone and devastation will ensue. While this is not overly likely it does make a sexy headline and thus people are often making hay of it. On the macroscopic it may not be devastating but certainly on the microscopic level it sure can feel like the end has come for someone who's life has been hacked.
Clearly there are things to ponder here concerning our connected world and how easily it can be attacked. Core to this I think are the motivations of the groups or individuals out there doing the attacking. Why are they doing it? What motives do they have and how are they emoting the reasons for their actions. Just as in G.I.T.S. Major Kusanagi is seeking to find out if the Laughing Man is indeed one man or in fact a group of individuals so too must we consider this when we talk about cyber-warfare or any other kind of online warfare. By understanding our adversary we can defend against them.