If Edward Snowden magically disappears from Russia and reappears in an American prison, the U.S. could face reprisals from hacktivists around the globe, America's former spy chief speculated Tuesday morning.
"If, and when, our government grabs Edward Snowden and brings him back her to the United States for trial, what does this group do?" asked ex CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden rhetorically about groups such as Anonymous during an Aug. 6 speech in Washington. "They may not go after the U.S. government because frankly, the dot mil stuff is one of the hardest targets in the United States. If they can't go after dot mil, who are they going after? Who, for them, are the [digital] World Trade Centers?"
That's right. The former head of the CIA just compared Anonymous - a group best-known for defacing some websites - to the world's most notorious terrorists. And that's not the only insult he hurled. Hayden also labeled such groups as "nihilists, anarchists, activists, Lulzsec, Anonymous, twentysomethings who haven't talked to the opposite sex in five or six years."
Hayden was speaking to a group of representatives from the electrical power industry, a business sector many have warned is too vulnerable to a catastrophic cyber attack.
He admitted that his comments are "purely speculative" but pointed out that Snowden has large backings around the globe among the hacker community.
"Certainly, Mr. Snowden has created quite a stir among those folks who are committed to transparency and global transparency and the global web ungoverned and free," said Hayden. "I don't know that there's a logic behind trying to punish America or American institutions for his arrest, but I hold open the possibility."
Now, positing that some information-freedom-loving collective will retaliate if Edward Snowden is snatched by the CIA is stating the obvious.
Anonymous and the affiliated group LulzSec have defaced or taken down plenty of websites and released private information on thousands of people in the past as retaliation for the U.S. government's treatment of Bradley Manning, the Army Private convicted of leaking mountains of classified government documents to Wikileaks. (Their most serious attacks -- on the databases of AT&T and the Arizona Department of Public Safety -- were done while one of their leaders was secretly serving as an FBI informant.)
Still, it's incredibly unlikely that hacktivist groups would execute lethal cyber attacks roughly equivalent to the digital 9/11 that Hayden referred to.
While the high-end hacking ability of non-state actors is growing every day -- made easier by the black market in digital weapons -- it's worth pointing out that a truly devastating cyber attack on the U.S. would probably backfire against the group that did it.
If American institutions do face reprisals, they're likely to be more of an inconvenience -- albeit a possibly costly one in terms of dollars -- rather than a catastrophe. Think websites being defaced and taken offline or personal information leaked; not the energy grid going down for weeks or trains flying off the tracks. That's the stuff groups like al Qaeda or rogue nations are interested in. Call me old fashioned, but the information freedom hacking groups I'm familiar with may love causing chaos and breaking laws in the name of vigilante justice, but they don't seem too interested in killing lots of people.