Non-state actors 2.0: WikiLeaks between hacker ethics and state authority, por Daniel Oppermann

When it comes to public attention, the year 2010 has undoubtedly been the most successful for the online platform WikiLeaks since its launch in 2006. Former publications of documents concerning the US-prison in Guantanamo Bay (2007), member lists of the British National Party (2008) or background information on a nuclear accident in Iran (allegedly caused by cyber attacks in 2009) had already put the project in the spotlight of global attention.

However, there is a clear increase in attention when it comes to WikiLeaks’ activities in 2010. The release of a video showing US-soldiers killing civilians and journalists in Baghdad was followed by more than 450.000 documents concerning the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and culminated in the announced publication of another 250.000 documents revealing mainly foreign policy communications between members of several U.S. embassies and the U.S. Department of State in Washington D.C. This so called cablegate affair caused strong criticism by representatives of the U.S. government, especially Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But also European and Asian governments, mentioned in the documents, showed themselves dissatisfied.

There are several reasons for these reactions. The strongest and most general among them is the fact that the autonomous publication of illegitimately abstracted government correspondence (especially in the dimension of the cablegate papers) is seen as an interference with national sovereignty. Even though the content of the majority of the papers will not cause serious damage to international diplomacy due to its political irrelevance. The condemnation of WikiLeaks can therefore be classified as a principal reaction of a nation state.

However, the uncontrolled publication of certain internal communications also puts political processes at risk. In this case one example is the situation in the Middle East, after WikiLeaks published requests by Saudi Arabian statesmen to bomb Iran. Furthermore the Chinese government sees itself threatened by documents revealing its responsibility for several cyber attacks, including the one against Google in January 2010. These accusations were disapproved by WikiLeaks referring to the necessity of global transparency.

A third point, mentioned especially by US and European but also Afghan government representatives is the accusation WikiLeaks’ practices would endanger freedom, health and life of human beings (e.g. informants and Western soldiers). This aspect needs to be looked upon carefully. So far, the most famous case of an alleged informant being arrested is the one of Bradley Manning, accused of having passed classified U.S. military documents (including the before mentioned Baghdad video) to WikiLeaks. Bradley was arrested by U.S. authorities in May 2010. There is no information about similar cases in other countries although several documents included names of informants, for example in Afghanistan. The publication of names caused strong controversies also among representatives of civil society. In August 2010 Reporters Without Borders (RWB) criticized WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange for the lack of protection of informants (RWB 2010b) but not without stating its support for the organization’s work in general (RWB 2010a). However, when it comes to credibility there is a difference between the criticism articulated by an organization advocating free press and a government being involved in torture and killing of innocents by itself. Furthermore it could be discussed if transparency and the publication of certain information like the Baghdad video contribute to a debate to protect civilians in countries occupied by foreign military for strategic or economic reasons.

Besides official governmental statements there are also other reactions on WikiLeaks’ recent activities. As mentioned above, Reporter Without Borders confirmed their support for WikiLeaks although having critical standpoints towards their information processing in the past. Also other supporters like Amnesty International and the British organization Index of Censorship keep on referring to information published by WikiLeaks. In the past two years both organizations have awarded the online project for its work on transparency and information on human rights violation. The biggest support though comes from thousands of more or less unorganized Internet users supporting WikiLeaks’ transparency policy based on hacker ethics. These ethics are often said to go back to journalist and early Internet activist Steven Levy. But in fact they are rooted in the idea of the early creators of the Internet itself, to permit anyone access to any information available.

In the 1960s and 1970s many Internet engineers as well as the first generation of hackers (a term originally used for innovative programmers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) were influenced by the political tensions, inter alia intensified by secret intelligence policies of the former big powers in the East and in the West. This situation caused by the Great Powers during the Cold War strengthened the desire among Internet engineers to create transparency where possible, as a reaction to the foreign policy of their own government, which they considered a threat to global security. Ironically it must be stated that the ideology rooted in the hacker movement, which WikiLeaks is part of and which the U.S. and many other states are trying to silence now, was a reaction on U.S. foreign policy itself.

Technically spoken, WikiLeaks is the perfection of what the early programmers and Internet founders had in mind when they started connecting the first computers in the 1960s. This becomes clear when looking at the recent developments after the publication of the cablegate documents. Shortly after WikiLeaks published the controversial documents its website suffered massive distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDOS). This common form of cyber attack is conducted by botnets, networks of illegitimately connected computers. This way a single person can control thousands of computers to attack a single server that as a consequence of the attack goes down. The persons responsible for DDOS attacks are hard to identify. However, being the main victim of recent publications, there is a good chance that U.S. authorities are behind it. Also the Chinese government could be responsible after WikiLeaks had published their participation in former online attacks. Besides that, ordinary cyber criminals could have been hired by individuals to conduct the attacks.

Shortly after publishing the first cablegate documents, several service providers WikiLeaks was using, refused further service to the organization. Among them the online payment system PayPal, the web provider Amazon (which besides e-commerce is also active in several other kinds of web services), the DNS provider EveryDNS (which also suffered DDOS attacks), the French hosting provider OVH and others. OVH CEO Octava Klaba confirmed that political pressure had been made on him to refuse his service to the organization (KIRK 2010).

Due to the technical structure of the Internet, WikiLeaks kept on being available through their IP addresses http://213.251.145.96/ andhttp://88.80.13.160. Besides that, supporters installed more than 70 mirrors of the site in several countries, making it impossible for governmental authorities to bring it down. Also an encrypted torrent file of the WikiLeaks documents (including the ones not published so far) has been uploaded to the Internet together with the announcement that in a worst-case-scenario of ongoing pressure on WikiLeaks (including physical harm of its leading members) the key could be published giving innumerous users worldwide access to the complete collection of 250.000 U.S. diplomatic cables. Furthermore special search engines like Cablesearch.org were created to facilitate the access to the WikiLeaks documents. Former WikiLeaks associate Daniel Domscheit-Berg announced the development of a new web project similar to WikiLeaks to permit the publication of documents in the future.

Recent developments regarding WikiLeaks have shown how a new kind of non-state actor can influence world politics. It has also made clear the incapacity or helplessness of national governments to react in a given situation as the cablegate affair. Online protagonists like WikiLeaks depend only to a certain degree on physical space. Their functionality, based on the collaboration of Internet activists spread over several countries, makes them less vulnerable than a traditional, institutionalized organization. By putting pressure on WikiLeaks and its service providers, governmental authorities tried to silence and criminalize the organization’s activities. They obviously did not reconsider what consequences their course of action might have. In fact, few days after WikiLeaks had started to publish the first revised documents, the complete collection of documents has now been downloaded on thousands of computers worldwide. Whenever the key to the encrypted file gets published, the U.S. government and possibly also its informants will have a much bigger problem than they would have imagined before. Foreign Policy magazine’s collaborator Evgeny Morozov furthermore described another possible scenario: in case WikiLeaks founder Assange would be arrested or even killed, an army of radicalized hackers could actively turn against the U.S. government (and others) causing serious damage to the economy and diplomatic sphere (HOUNSHELL 2010).

It will be hard for the U.S. administration or any other government to leave this dispute with a head held high. If their real intention was to reduce damage caused by the WikiLeaks documents they already lost the battle. Instead of trying to negotiate, their restrictive reactions caused an irreversible situation bringing up thousands of Internet activists against them that are now in possession of the cablegate documents. So far, they just lack the key to open them.

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Daniel Oppermann is a PhD student at the Institute of International Relations, University of Brasilia (UnB) (dan.oppermann@gmail.com)

 

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