Saturday, December 04, 2010

The War on Wikileaks

This week Wikileaks, the whistle blowing website, began to release the first of 251,287 secret messages sent by US diplomatic staff. The US have condemned the publication of the documents and some American politicians have called for the website to be labelled a terrorist organisation. There have been several attempts to prevent the publication of files too. The Wikileaks website has suffered hacking attempts, in the form of DDoS [Distributed Denial of Service] attacks, and Internet Service Providers have been pressured to stop hosting the site. 

Nonetheless, several hundred documents have been released as Wikileaks plays a cat and mouse game with authorities, moving from one server to another. The US authorities are fighting a losing war as information is also being published by several media organisations. The New York Times in the United States, The Guardian in Britain, El Pais in Spain, Le Monde in France and Der Spiegel in Germany have exclusive access to the files and have been publishing daily reports. And as each dispatch is published media organisations around the world have republished the information.


Before the first documents were released, Wikileaks said its site was being hit by DDoS attacks preventing anyone from accessing the website. It was initially unclear where the attacks originated. Early Sunday WikiLeaks posted a Twitter message in which it said its website was "under a mass distributed denial of service attack" but promised that El Pais, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, The Guardian and The New York Times would still publish the US embassy cables "even if WikiLeaks goes down." Later an American "hacktivist," who calls himself "th3j35t3r" (The Jester) and said he normally targets radical Islamic sites, claimed he had targeted WikiLeaks "for attempting to endanger the lives of our troops, 'other assets' & foreign relations." [CNN / CBS]

Wikileaks moved its site to another address, though these too have been affected. The scale of the DDoS attacks seemed to indicate that it was the work of more than one individual, and may well have used botnets, a method whereby secretly planted programs on millions of individual computers around the world are launched to initiate attacks. The identity of the perpetrator is unclear, but there have been suggestions ranging from Russia to the United States.

In an attempt to thwart these attacks, Wikileaks began to use Amazon Web Services. But Amazon soon dumped WikiLeaks from its servers after staffers from Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman's office called the California Internet company to inquire about its relationship with WikiLeaks. Amazon claimed Wikipedia had violated their terms of service, but the dropping of the site has spawned a backlash from some Internet users such as long time supporter Daniel Ellsberg calling for a boycott of the online retailer. Paypal has also followed suit and disabled Wikileaks' account [El Pais in Spanish]. In a statement on the company's blog, PayPal said, "PayPal has permanently restricted the account used by WikiLeaks due to a violation of the PayPal Acceptable Use Policy, which states that our payment service cannot be used for any activities that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity. We've notified the account holder of this action."

In China the Wikileaks website has been blocked for several years, but there too authorities were having to make adjustments to the Great Firewall of China as the website changed its location from one server to another.

Censorship fails

The blocks, DDoS and cyberattacks have effectively failed as the information has been published in five major publications. While there have been no blocks on their respective websites to date, such action would likely fail given the revelations are making it to print and sold around the world. While media organisations such as Sky News were careful to check with lawyers before reporting the leaked cables, much of the detail contained has entered the public domain. 

In countries where media is carefully controlled by the state, the information flow was somewhat restricted. News organisations in China have been told not to report on any findings in the released documents that refer to China. Though there are daily reports on the English language site most pertain only to the reaction to the information leaks rather than the information itself.

There has of course been no mention in Chinese media of the cables which assert China though North Korea was behaving like a "spoilt child" and that it was open to the idea of a reunited Korea governed by the south [Guardian]. Another cable which seemed to back Google's claim that China was responsible for a concerted cyberattack on its servers has not been mentioned either. 

On Sunday The New York Times stated that one cable said "The Google hacking was part of a coordinated campaign of computer sabotage carried out by government operatives, private security experts and Internet outlaws recruited by the Chinese government. They have broken into American government computers and those of Western allies, the Dalai Lama and American businesses since 2002"

According to the New York Times a Chinese contact told the American Embassy in Beijing in January that China's Politburo had directed the intrusion into Google's computer systems and issued the order to initiate a concerted cyberattack on other Western interests. This small nugget of information is widely accepted as proof that China is engaged in an ongoing cyberwar. However some have dismissed this unsubstantiated China bashing. Steve Ragan writing for the Tech Herald asserts that the Wikileaks cable is not confirmation that China attacked Google. The information in the cable "appears to be more hearsay than a smoking gun", Ragan says. However Operation Aurora, the label applied to a series of cyberattacks that appear to have originated in China, are too specific and widespread to be more than a series of individual hackers. 

China has consistently denied any involvement in such attacks though a Foreign ministry spokesperson refused to answer questions over the latest revelations. But in a coincidental move authorities in the country announced it had arrested 460 computer hackers this year and closed a number of hacker-training websites. It appears to be an effort to show that China does not condone such attacks. The announcement on the arrests of hackers only discussed the domestic Chinese situation and not attacks on international targets [Telegraph]. Chinese media has not mentioned the allegations though there was a post on the People's Daily web forum.

Wikileaks reveal little

So far much of the information contained in the cables has revealed little if anything not already known, or not already suspected. Cables have shown there has been strong links between North Korea and Iran, that many Arab nations hold a distrust of Iran's nuclear ambitions and that Russia is rife with corruption. But while the cables perhaps confirm this, it is hardly a revelation. China's involvement in concerted cyberattacks is something many have long suspected. The most recent revelations concerning the opinions of some US military personnel over British deployments in Afghanistan, while inflammatory and condescending, are perhaps unsurprising. Indeed many of the opinions expressed in the cables would likely be found in cables of their allies and counterparts.

The biggest concern is that the candid and defamatory remarks contained in the cables may make diplomacy that much more difficult in the future, not only for US ambassadors but also for their foreign counterparts. Discussions will be greatly stifled, at least in the short term, as those discussing sensitive issues may not be so forthcoming. The 'source' that informed US Embassy officials of China's cyberattack, may well be concerned over his or her safety. Other contacts may shy of providing information in the future. Even if China wants to distance itself from North Korea, the release of cables which appear to confirm this will put China in a difficult position with its neighbour.

Wikileaks has, in the past, provided information which could be considered to be in the public interest. The whistle blowing site has released documents showing the true body count following the wars in in Afghanistan and Iraq. The site has highlighted corruption by the family of the former Kenyan leader Daniel arap Moi, procedures employed at Guantánamo Bay, an oil scandal in Peru, Toxic dumping in Africa and the infamous Climategate emails.

The latest leak may prove to be Wikileaks undoing as the power of the state targets not only the website but also its founder Julian Assange. WikiLeaks and its members have complained about continuing harassment and surveillance by law enforcement and intelligence organizations, including extended detention, seizure of computers, veiled threats, "covert following and hidden photography." Following what has been referred to as Cablegate, Assange has received death threats and also faces arrest for what he says are trumped up charges of rape. A "red notice" was issued by Interpol pertaining to the alleged sex crime and Assange has gone into hiding. 

Assange's lawyer said that he was in the UK but she hadn't received a warrant by Friday afternoon. Meanwhile, Assange said that his arrest would do nothing to halt the flow of American diplomatic cables being released by his group and newspapers in several countries. Hundreds have been published in redacted form this week and Assange said he had a backup plan in place in the event something happened to him.

Media coverage

Without the role of the media, few people would have even heard of Wikileaks nor become aware of the content of the latest leaks. Since the publication of cables began on Sunday there has been daily discussion on radio, television and in newspapers concerning the information released, this despite the British government issuing a D-Notice. Speaking on the BBC discussion programme Dateline London, Gavin Esler asked the question, "Is anyone really surprised by all this?" The Guardian's Simon Jenkins said, "I think we learnt more by the reaction than by the Wiikileaks." Of the content he said, "We knew it, but not quite in this form." However he added that it did show a sense of "disfunctionality" [sic] by US embassy officials and of the US foreign policy. But such leaks were "totally un-new" [sic] he said, referring to an article in the International Herald Tribune. In fact even US Defence Secretary Robert Gate has been seemingly unconcerned by the leaks. Speaking earlier this week he told journalists, "Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve, and it has for a long time." [NYT] Greg Katz, from the Associated Press, agreed that "there have been leaks in the past," but the recent publication by Wikileaks was on a different scale. "This level of information leaked is unprecedented," Katz said. It was an "interesting view of real politics but nothing earth shaking." Thomas Kielinger, a UK based correspondent working for Die Welt, described the Cablegate leaks as "not game changing" but did suggest some nations may hold back in providing information. "I'm worried over [the effect] the revelations concerning China will have," Kielinger said.

Leaks are nothing new as some have observed [Sioux City Journal]. Some are game-changing, such as the infamous Watergate scandal in the US and the published MP expenses scandal in Britain which led to politicians being ousted from office and some facing prosecution. But there is also a counter reaction. Governments will tighten their security measures and there may be increased censorship. Just as individuals complain about their own privacy being under threat or breached on social network sites such as Facebook, governments and organisations are also very sensitive to having more information revealed than they would like. Information published by Wikileaks and other sites may be in the public interest, but authorities will increasingly use such leaks as an excuse to impose more draconian laws. The danger is that government may become less open than it is already, even in western democracies.

Further information: Wikipedia / BBC / Guardian / NYT / El Pais [Spanish] / Der Spiegel / Le Monde [French] / CBS / AP / Cablegate WikileaksWikileakslist of mirror sites

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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