Streetwise Professor

February 10, 2012

The Nashi Hack

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:16 am

A group claiming to be the Russian branch of Anonymous has hacked into Nashi emails, and announced the hack with this rather amusing video:

The Guardian has some details on the hack:

Apparently sent between November 2010 and December 2011, the emails appear to confirm critics’ longstanding suspicions that the group uses sinister methods, funded by the Kremlin, to attack perceived enemies and pay for favourable reports while claiming that Putin’s popularity is unassailable.

They provide particular insight into the group’s strategy to boost pro-Putin coverage on the internet, which in contrast to television is seen as being ruled by the opposition. Several emails sent from activists to Potupchik include price lists for pro-Putin bloggers and commenters, indicating that some are paid as much as 600,000 roubles (£12,694) for leaving hundreds of comments on negative press articles on the internet.

Re the comments part. Makes me wonder . . .

But moving right along. This is a classical example of the frequent tension between means and ends. I have been extremely critical of Anonymous, and Wikileaks/Assange, Appelbaum, etc. That criticism is based on methods, lack of accountability, the dangers of self-appointed judges (many of whom are, quite frankly, sociopaths) not subject to any checks or balances violating laws and privacy, and the serious risks to innocent individuals and to individuals working for or cooperating with legitimate law enforcement or security agencies.*

The Olympian we-are-judge-and-jury-and-executioner mindset is quite evident in the video above, as it is in this video in which Anonymous announces its threat to dox Black Bloc types who Anonymous claims are discrediting the Occupy movement (h/t R):

Which means that even when I find the target of these attacks loathsome (as is the case with Nashi and Black Bloc), I cannot condone the means. I really don’t need Anonymous to tell me that Nashi is a cretinous, thuggish organization of Putin puppets. That is quite evident from information readily obtained without engaging in the cyber equivalent of breaking and entering. The problem of unaccountable individuals deciding who should be targeted, and what information should be released, remains. Even if those unaccountable individuals sometimes choose truly unsavory targets, giving them the discretion to choose whom to target is likely to lead to more harm than good.

Although the means are technologically novel, the fundamental problem is an old one: vigilantism. This presents very thorny challenges, most notably the legitimacy of the use of private force. I readily agree that an absolute bar again such use is unjustifiable. In circumstances of systematic repression–such as in Syria at present–or the substantial failure of the government to protect lives and property, the use of private force is legitimate and often beneficial.

Thus, it is incorrect, in my view, to make categorical judgments about vigilantism as always wrong or never justified. As with virtually anything in life, there are trade-offs. But given the very great potential for egregious abuse, the bar that any justification of vigilantism must clear should be set very high. Very high.

Some specific cases help clarify the issue. For instance, Assad is engaged in indiscriminate killing in Syria, using artillery to attack those resisting his regime–and killing many innocents in the bargain. His regime has no legitimacy under any theory except that of might makes right. There are virtually no alternatives to affect change other than violent opposition.

Given this set of facts, some acts of vigilantism–including the recent hack of some of his communications–clear the bar. Indeed, most acts of private violence directed against his regime are legitimate: my concern is what happens if the vigilantes prevail (witness Libya).

Other acts do not clear the bar. Again, as much as I dislike Nashi and the regime that it serves, its true nature is readily observable. Indeed, the group is almost exhibitionist in its methods. Information about it and opposition to it can be generated without resorting to hacking.

To an economist, to whom it is second nature to think about trade offs, the key issues are: Even if a given goal has some value, what is the most efficient way to achieve it? What do you have to give up to obtain it?

With respect to politically-related hacking, the answer to these questions very much depends on the polity in question. Such actions are more likely to be justifiable in polities with little public accountability, more constraints on information, and fewer checks and balances on the powerful. Even though Russia fares very poorly by comparison to the US and Europe on all of those dimensions, in my opinion the hack of Nashi doesn’t clear the bar–though it comes close. The dangers inherent in validating the actions of self-appointed, unaccountable “guardians” (i.e., vigilantes) far exceed the value of any information produced, or the effect of this information on politics and civil society in Russia. As Putin sometimes says, “the dog barks, but the caravan moves on.” The Putin/Nashi caravan will move on, regardless of whatever sordid details that Anonymous releases. Nashi are hacks, and we all know that: hacking them won’t have any effect, and condoning this conduct could lead to far more deleterious consequences.

Indeed, most of these efforts have not had the intended effect. Bradley Manning and Wikileaks mildly embarrassed the US government, but almost certainly had no lasting impact on US policy, certainly not the impact Assange and Manning were hoping to have. The only real effect they likely had was to endanger some people named in the cables. Similarly, it’s not like the release of the Assad material has stopped him from shelling Homs or killing indiscriminately elsewhere.

Among the deleterious consequences is that these things descend into a retaliatory spiral. This appears to be what is happening in Russia. Navalny was the victim of a hack. Nashi was United Russia’s website was hacked. A cycle of hacking is apparently well underway. This is not a good thing. It is the cyber equivalent of street fights between rival party (e.g., Communists vs. Nazi SA) gangs in Weimar Germany. These are destructive in and of themselves, but also provide the perfect pretext for the authorities to crack down hard–and stifle everybody’s freedom even more. That’s especially true in a place like Russia, and the opposition will suffer most.

If anything goes, likely everything will. As much as I loath Putin and Nashi, this is the wrong way to go about it. It is unlikely to hurt them seriously. It will invite a crackdown. It is not conducive to the strengthening of civil society, as it is really just a tactic in a civil war. It can easily get out of control because the perpetrators are not accountable–on either side. Although a stronger case for anti-government hacking can be made in Russia than the US, even there I worry that it is likely to bring about more bad than good.

* Not to mention that they don’t seem all that bright or knowledgeable. Assange comes off as incoherent in most interviews. Appelbaum appears to be an idiot savant, quite expert in internet technology (and pornography) but only capable of regurgitating prog pablum on any other issue. See my earlier post for a discussion of his clueless disquisitions on IP legal matters. The thought of people such as this taking law and politics into their own hands, with no mechanism of accountability, is quite chilling.

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  1. As Putin sometimes says, “the dog barks, but the caravan moves on.”

    As did Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind!

    Comment by Tim Newman — February 11, 2012 @ 12:23 am

  2. Putin, Rhett Butler–I always get them confused!

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 11, 2012 @ 7:25 am

  3. SWP,you are just emphasizing a point we have been making for many years, a point recently made by a true Russian patriot named Chirkova: The problem with Russia is the people of Russia.,0

    Not until the people of Russia are confronted and forced to change their evil ways will their country have any hope for the future.

    Comment by La Russophobe — February 11, 2012 @ 9:31 am

  4. Prof, I bow to your principled position. I am considerably less principled on this issue.

    I absolutely share your dislike of the vigilantes Assange and Anonymous who are judge, jury and executioner. I was strongly against the publication of embassy cables. On the other hand, I rather applaud the old-time civil disobedience approach of Ellsberg, who thought the “pentagon papers” should be known and – here’s the key distinguishing feature – knew it was against the law and was ready to go to jail for breaking it.

    I see your point about ends and means, the possibility of a spiralling hacker’s war… and yet. I was really glad those Potupchik emails saw the light of day. Yeah, people suspected it. Some knew. Of course they knew. But they didn’t know the extent of it. They didn’t know the huge amounts of tax-payer money used for it. They didn’t know exactly how they manipulated the voting on call-in shows. There is a huge difference between thinking “the gov’t is corrupt” and knowing “the gov’t just paid some idiot blogger $600,000 to post defenses of Putin and Putinism on websites.”

    I may eat crow on this. I generally do believe that using the wrong means to an end always comes back to bite you in the ass. I’m willing to entertain the notion that I’m hypocritical or utterly wrong. But right now I’m glad it happened.

    Comment by mossy — February 12, 2012 @ 3:28 am

  5. @Mossy-I struggled with that post precisely because of the things that you mention in your comment. Like I said, the Nashi thing is a close call. In large part because Russia is so lacking in more traditional means for exposing and punishing political malfeasance–not least because the most important traditional means (journalism) is stifled in Russia, not least by the mortal peril that faces journalists who delve too deeply. Perhaps if I was confident it could be contained to such environments, I would have fewer trepidations. But the incredible arrogance of the Anonymous types means that is unlikely to happen. They can always provide some justification for their actions. Like yesterday’s post mentioned, they feel completely justified for releasing the private information of 45K people in Alabama just because the state passed a law Anonymous–or maybe just a couple of people in it, or just a couple of wannabes hijacking its name to draw attention–didn’t like. Once you admit that this is a legitimate means of political action, you open a Pandora’s Box.

    In the end, despite my also taking some satisfaction at the revelation of the compromising information about Nashi, it came down to my belief that it will be almost impossible to confine this to deserving targets like Nashi or Assad. Indeed, the most likely victims are innocent ones, and this is likely to spin out of control. So, I would be unconditionally glad it happened to Nashi if I thought this were the end of it, or that it were not just another loop in the spiral down to Cyber Weimar. But I’m not, so I can’t be.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 12, 2012 @ 8:27 am

  6. Well, here is another angle to it. The Nashi persons whose e-mail accounts have been hacked, claim that the published messages were not only those stored in the mailboxes but also those that had been previously deleted. Which, if true, means that it is not that the hackers just gained access to the login credentials – they gained access to the mail servers on site. Or simply bought the information from the ever-corrupt people with access to SORM (

    So the rumor is, it was no Anonymous and no some private citizens – it was the work of some FSB types acting on behalf of the outgoing President Medvedev willing to embarass Nashi. Yes, yes, conspiracy, conspiracy…

    Comment by LL — February 12, 2012 @ 10:06 am

  7. I can’t argue with you. You’re absolutely right.
    Are we sure it’s really Anonymous? Couldn’t it be some hackers using their schtick? (Not that it makes so much difference; hacking is just plain wrong. I know that.)
    It’s just that it feels like FINALLY. Score one for our side.

    Comment by mossy — February 12, 2012 @ 11:35 am

  8. @LL-very interesting. Precisely why it’s so depressing to walk down these halls of mirrors.

    @Mossy-No, we can’t be sure. Yes, it could be copycats. That’s all a piece with the lack of any mechanism for accountability. And I share your sentiments. But I fear that in this game, the score is likely to be very lopsided in the wrong direction.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 12, 2012 @ 11:48 am

  9. @S/O-As I said in response to your comment on an earlier post: Here’s my answer to your 3 questions, but you haven’t responded in over 48 hours. Still working on it?

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 12, 2012 @ 9:36 pm

  10. @Mossy, – I hope you’re equally happy that we know Nemtsov and Co. receive foreign money thanks to hacking.

    @SWP, – I read it. What can I say? It seems to be an internally consistent position, and thus respectable, albeit one I disagree with. But we already knew that.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — February 13, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

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