The investigation into the stolen emails from climate scientists in 2009 has suddenly gotten quite serious. It shuffled along under the guidance of a small UK police force for two years. Now Scotland Yard and the U.S. Department of Justice have joined the hunt for cyber criminals.
In 2009 thousands of email from one of the most prestigious universities conducting global-warming science was hacked by criminals. I say criminals because stealing emails is a crime — a cybercrime. The Hadley Climate Research Unit (HadCRU) and East Anglia University server’s firewalls were breached. The target was apparently a scientist named Dr. Phillip Jones. Because he communicated by email with scientists all over the world, dozens of other scientists’ emails were stolen in the heist. Then, the hackers released most of the emails to the public.
No one is exactly clear why it was done. There are theories. One suggests that opponents of the science, unable to disprove the findings, set out to embarrass the scientists themselves. Another theory suggests that fossil-fuel interests orchestrated the hack and timed the release of the emails to injure the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit.
They are just theories. There are no facts to support them. Until last week, the investigation limped along conducted by the Norwich Constabulary, a small department. It is about to get exciting.
The press called it “climategate.” Led by pro-fossil fuel and denialist bloggers as well as public-relations types working for industry supported think-tanks and foundations, the hungry scoop-crazy media reported the emails showed the climate scientists involved in criminal fraud, knowingly manipulating data and joining forces to keep contrarian science out of the major peer-reviewed journals.
A half-dozen investigations were launched into the claims. All of them exonerated the scientists, all of them found no manipulation of the science. When the comments were put back into their proper context, the media did little to correct the impression it had created. So doubt about the science and the scientists lingers. The criminals won the battle. But the war is yet to be decided. Fresh troops have just taken the field. I expect the criminals have broken a sweat.
This year another batch of emails (likely from the same theft, but held back) were dropped. Much of the mainstream media had learned lessons from their rush to judgment in 2009. Coverage was much more circumspect. They had learned apparently that reporting out-of-context chatter from stolen emails leaves scoop journalists with ice cream on their faces.
Agents in Great Britain have executed search warrants and seized equipment from anti-science bloggers who helped spread the stolen emails. The U.S. Department of Justice has sent letters to internet service providers and websites in the United States also involved in spreading the stolen emails. They are all being asked to maintain all evidence of any emails received from a shadowy source known as “FOIA.” “FOIA” was the chief distributor of the stolen emails. Norwich has called in the big dogs.
One of the world’s most famous climate scientists, Dr. Michael Mann at the University of Pennsylvania, communicated often with Dr. Jones at East Anglia. In the original reporting, Mann was often quoted, misquoted and taken out of context. Though the investigations have found he did nothing wrong, climategate has nevertheless hurt him.
Mann told me that the people who can’t abide the idea of global warming being true “have no legitimate scientific leg to stand on. So, they have turned to criminal acts in an attempt to distract the public and policymakers.” Dr. Mann is convinced that the criminal act shows the work of “industry-funded front groups and the individuals who do their bidding.”
The question is whether this can be characterized as a simple cybercrime — or are there elements of cyber-terrorism involved? Bombing a building is an act of terrorism, but it is not the goal. The goal, according to experts, is to terrorize, immobilize and destroy one’s sense of security.
So I turned to one of the most respected cyber-terrorism experts in the country, Bruce Schneier. Schneier has been called to testify before Congress. He is the author of eight books on the subjects of cryptography, warfare, crime and terrorism committed by cyber-criminals.
Schneier told me: “What I’ve been thinking about is whether the hack was intended to intimidate, threaten or bully. Then the crime becomes an effort to stop people from doing legitimate research. So, it is not just a data theft, but has a goal of creating a chilling effect, a threat, an intimidation.”
Schneier understands the cyber world, but also the law of unintended consequences. “We are moving into a world in which everything we do is persistent,” said Schneier. By persistent, Schneier means it just doesn’t go away. “A phone conversation is actually archaic,” he said. “Today the conversation is by email or social media and those conversations are persistent.”
If everything we say never goes away, it can be brought back and used to harm us. “Gotcha politics is a good example,” Schneier says. “Record everything a politician says and find the two sentences he or she uttered to destroy them.”
He quotes Cardinal Richelieu, “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”
I asked Schneier if “persistence” makes us less willing to communicate. “As we move in a world of persistent conversations, the ephemera disappears,” he said.
The ephemera he is talking about is the way we used to communicate — talking with one another. The conversation is gone — it is ephemeral. “A lot of our privacy was incidental to the ephemeral nature of our conversations,” he told me. “Two million emails were subpoenaed in the Microsoft trial. Not long ago those conversations would have been ephemeral. They would have been a chat in someone’s office.”
Dr. Mann has long believed that intimidation was one goal of the cyber criminals. “They want to intimidate, stymie, harass scientists who are out in front on the risks of climate change, and they want to serve notice to other scientists of what will be in store for them if they speak out.”
Schneier said: “How open would you be in conversation if you thought your words would be on the front page of the newspaper the next day?” It is a trend. We have moved, he said, into a new world where we are losing the natural privacy we once enjoyed.
Not only are our communications on the internet persistent, but so is memory. Dr. John Abraham, thermal scientist at the University of St. Thomas, told me: “Those crimes were used to fabricate lies about world-class scientists — lies that are still being repeated today.”
Mark Twain said, “A lie can travel half-way around the world while the truth is still getting its shoes on.”
I’m hoping the shoes Scotland Yard and the FBI are lacing up are track shoes.