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A war in cyberspace: CableGate

01 Jan 2011

A raging national security row between whistleblowing website WikiLeaks and the United States government continues to dominate headlines in all corners of the globe this month as a now-irate community of "hacktivists”, otherwise known as Anonymous, comes to WikiLeaks’ defence with botnet DDoS attacks on the US government and some of the world’s biggest corporate heavyweights. It’s an act of rebellion in response to calls for the site’s prosecution, with legal action branded an attempt at political censorship.Hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic cables between the US State Department and its diplomatic missions around the world were leaked to WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Julian Assange and his team in October, by a source whose identity remains anonymous. Cables, dating back as far as 2004, were then shared with influential media outlets including The New York Times, Britain’s The Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel, leading to a spate of investigative articles into controversial statements.It was the third in a five-month-long spate of "attacks” by WikiLeaks, designed to put ethnically, politically and historically significant information into the public domain, this time divulging the US’s candid views on other countries’ leaders, together with sensitive information on terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Secret documents leaked prior to this related to the Afghan and Iraq Wars. The viral nature of the "out of context” information sharing attracted severe condemnation from politicians and diplomats outraged at the potential of this new breed of cyber terrorism to destabilise governments.Statements made within the cables suggested Saudi King Abdullah "frequently exhorted the US to attack Iran to put an end to its nuclear weapons programme”, while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was described as "Hitler”, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as playing "Robin to [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin’s Batman”.China’s Politburo is also alleged to have directed an intrusion into Google’s computer systems, which was part of a broader coordinated campaign of computer sabotage carried out by government operatives, private security experts and internet outlaws, reported The Times.New Zealand’s US Embassy in Wellington is implicated, with Prime Minister John Key concerned about embarrassment and potentially the risk to life that might arise as a result of private talks between Washington and Wellington being made public via 1500 of the 250,000 cables. Other sensitive data is believed to include emails, credit card details and personal information relating to former NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark.The ensuing rescue mission by the embarrassed Obama administration, in particular by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has seen government officials contacted and offered grovelling apologies in countries including China, Germany and Britain, in advance of corruption allegations and character assessments being made public."US officials have for 50 years trotted out this line when they are afraid the public is going to see how they really behave,” said Assange when asked if he believes the cable leaks endanger the lives of US government sources. "I’m a combative person, so I like crushing bastards. It is personally deeply satisfying to me.”Prominent US Republican Sarah Palin has slammed Assange, likening him to an al-Qaida operative and others have followed suit, calling for Assange to be charged under the US espionage act, and requesting for the law to be changed to allow prosecution of WikiLeaks. Highly public threats of violence relayed fears about WikiLeaks’ influence, with US Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee calling for Assange’s execution.Working in secrecy, Assange hides the location of numerous computer servers to ward off cyber attack, but one location is known – the Pionen data centre, 30 metres below ground in a former Cold War nuclear bunker, drilled into granite under the Vita Berg Park in Sweden. It’s secure enough to withstand a nuclear attack and uses German U-boat engines as backup generators. Assange has turned to Sweden because the country’s laws are some of the best in the world for protecting the work of freedom of speech campaigners. Under Swedish law, WikiLeaks cannot be prosecuted and neither can the people who pass it information.Financial supporters of the website’s freedom of information work are believed to have stopped providing donations, for fear of being arrested for funding terrorism. Service providers are also disassociating themselves with what they’ve been cautioned are illegal activities. WikiLeaks was kicked off its backup hosting service, Amazon’s EC2 Cloud, for terms of service violations, just days after upping its server capacity to cater for surges in site traffic following release of the cables.EveryDNS, its DNS provider, shut WikiLeaks out a few days later, refusing to supply a valid IP address to queries for wikileaks.org. PayPal suspended its donation-collecting account, hindering the site’s ability to fund its operations and MasterCard blocked credit card payments to WikiLeaks, after reported pressure was imposed by the US government.Trying to target and control Julian Assange is not likely to be an effective response to these leaks, in either the short or long term. Operation Payback hit back alongside offshoot Operation Avenge Assange, both operating under the Anonymous umbrella, vowing to "punish” the institutions that had axed links with the website under pressure from the US authorities. Visa, Mastercard and Paypal websites were brought down, together with that of the Swedish government.WikiLeaks says it has another 250,000 cables it plans to gradually release over coming months, taking the precaution of posting a 1.4-gigabyte file titled "insurance.aes256”, encrypted with a 256-digit key said to be unbreakable, to combat the US’s anticipated attempts to block the leak. Once the encryption key is supplied, the file’s contents would be available to those who downloaded it from torrent-feeding sites such as ThePirateBay.org.Assange warns that any government that tries to curtail his activities risks triggering a new deluge of state and commercial secrets. The military papers on Guantanamo Bay, yet to be published, have been supplied by US Army soldier Bradley Manning, Assange’s primary source until his arrest in May. Other documents that Assange is confirmed to possess include an aerial video of a US airstrike in Afghanistan that killed civilians, BP files, and Bank of America documents.Attempts to bulldoze WikiLeaks off the net have so far failed. Removing its hosting servers has increased WikiLeaks’ ability to stay online and some 1300 "mirror” sites, including the French newspaper Libération, have already surfaced to voluntarily store the classified cables. Some would say WikiLeaks has never been safer, as within days the WikiLeaks web content had spread across so many enclaves of the internet, it was immune to attack by any single legal authority.