Its harder to explain away the substance of many other e-mail messages which have emerged in reporting by Ars Technica as well as others. They show a company executives like HBGary Federal CEO Aaron Barr mining social networks for data to “scare the s***” out of potential customers, in theory to win their business. While “scare ’em and snare ’em” may be business as usual in the IT security industry, other HBGary Federal skunk works projects clearly crossed a line: a proposal for a major U.S. bank, allegedly Bank of America, to launch offensive cyber attacks on the servers that host the whistle blower site Wikileaks. HBGary was part of a triumvirate of firms that also included Palantir Inc and Berico Technologies, that was working with the law firm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to develop plans to target progressive groups, labor unions and other left-leaning non profits who the Chamber opposed with a campaign of false information and entrapment. Other leaked e-mail messages reveal work with General Dynamics and a host of other firms to develop custom, stealth malware and collaborations with other firms selling offensive cyber capabilities including knowledge of previously undiscovered (“zero day”) vulnerabilities.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with private firms helping Uncle Sam to develop cyber offensive capabilities. In an age of sophisticated and wholesale cyber espionage by nation states opposed to the U.S., the U.S. government clearly needs to be able to fight fire with fire. Besides, everybody already knew that Greg Hoglund was writing rootkits for the DoD, so is it right to say we’re “shocked! shocked!” to read his e-mail and find out that what we all suspected was true? I don’t think so.
What’s more disturbing is the way that the folks at HBGary – mostly Aaron Barr, but others as well – came to view the infowar tactics they were pitching to the military and its contractors as applicable in the civilian context, as well. How effortlessly and seamlessly the focus on “advanced persistent threats” shifted from government backed hackers in China and Russia to encompass political foes like ThinkProgress or the columnist Glenn Greenwald. Anonymous may have committed crimes that demand punishment – but its up to the FBI to handle that, not “a large U.S. bank” or its attorneys.