Wikileaks: How 'Anonymous' subverted the most powerful governments

Summary:ZDNet's Wikileaks series: This post will look into anonymity on the web, and the connection between Wikileaks and online 'hactivist' group, Anonymous.

This week-long serialisation forms the vast part of my undergraduate dissertation: "An empirical analysis of Wikileaks, pre- and post- the 2010 diplomatic cables release". Media organisation or terrorist group; revolutionaries or journalistic evolutionists? This post will look into the air of anonymity on the web, and the connection between Wikileaks and online 'hactivist' group, Anonymous.

Wikileaks, through thick and thin, has had one group covering its back. The group known as 'Anonymous' is an online ‘hacktivist' network of users, which traces its roots back to the popular website 4chan.

Decentralised in nature, the group is unknown in size, scale or collective intelligence, acts in more of a way of an ideological purpose to mitigate attacks on civil and web freedoms of speech and expression.

Describing itself as a "leaderless collective", Anonymous members come and go, but is "disorganised" and led by community-worthy operatives with kudos points granted by their level of hacking capability and enforceability.

However, the Guardian found that Anonymous, though decentralised in nature -- similarly to that of Wikileaks' subsidiary units across the globe -- has more of a hierarchy than first believed.

Anonymous often hits out at private companies and governments who restrict the freedoms they believe in, such as those which restrict web access to Wikileaks. But the seemingly clandestine relationship between Wikileaks and Anonymous may not work in symbiosis, but Anonymous is a significantly powerful unofficial 'enforcement' unit for the Wikileaks organisation.

Though Wikileaks insists it has no connection to Anonymous, there are members of both organisations who contribute equally to campaigns of free speech through volunteering to Wikileaks, whilst defending the work in an enforcement capacity with Anonymous.

By means of enforcement, Anonymous has in over the past twelve months conducted a series of cyber-attacks against major players in the technology and e-commerce sector by way of denial-of-service attacks. Such huge industry names like PayPal, MasterCard and Visa -- financiers who held funds on behalf of Wikileaks which then rescinded their accounts after the 2010 diplomatic cables were leaked, were some of those affected.

Similarities emerge between the two groups, though the relationship is all but entirely one sided with Anonymous 'supporting' Wikileaks through its actions, by way of media releases and restricted identities to maintain organisational effectiveness.

As a constant target for intelligence agencies and law enforcement, both Wikileaks and Anonymous act independently from other members and have only a small 'cabal' of top-level collaborators.

Though Wikileaks deny the connection or affiliation to Anonymous, more cyber-attacks materialised against those who 'threatened the security' of Wikileaks and Assange himself. The website of the Swedish prosecutors was brought down the same day Assange was in court facing them over sexual assault charges.

Other 'enemies' of Wikileaks and 'dedicated hackers' in general, such as the Gawker Media Group was hacked in spectacular fashion, with many other media outlets capitalising upon the cyber-raid in their own publications.

Yet, the rise of cyber-attacks against high profile targets threatened to overshadow the 'Cablegate' releases in late-2010. With millions of users worldwide unable to make card payments or use such popular sites as eBay as a result of the PayPal denial-of-service attack, the focus shifted away from the diplomatic cables release to the downtime by major consumer websites.

In some way, this allowed governments some reprieve as the media detracted away from the potential embarrassment suffered by politicians and diplomats.

Wikileaks relies on cryptographic and high-end security technology as the main focus for whistleblowers to deposit their 'intelligence'.

Tor, the anonymising protocol used, works as an interconnecting peer-to-peer network of servers and clients which allow information to be randomised, and passed through multiple locations to hide the location and other information to identify the user.

Supported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), by concealing the users' identity and network activity from covert surveillance techniques such as deep-packet inspection, this includes multi-layered encryption to all but guarantee protection for the intended user.

On the other hand, Tor, like all algorithmic technologies, is not infallible, Certain flaws have been noted in the press over the course of its lifespan, with Wikileaks continuing to use this system as exposed defects in Tor "enable a better system for submitting leaks" to the site and thus increasing the security around the whistleblower.

Intelligence and security services across the globe have sophisticated technologies which are presumed, under their own secrecy and discretion, that leaks could be traced back to the source whistleblower.

To allow whistleblowers to submit documents of a sensitive nature is a crucial factor to consider when taking on multinational corporations and governments.

The server distribution across different jurisdictions offers further protection to whistleblowers and the organisation alike from attacks on their infrastructure.

Wikileaks has one datacenter based in Sweden but has mirroring sites across the world. Most of the documents are submitted, stored and transmitted through the Swedish serverto protect whistleblowers under Sweden's Press Freedom Act, where it is a criminal offence to breach source-to-journalist confidentiality. However, there are exceptions to this law where it could be deemed in the interests of 'national security' to disclose information to a Swedish court.

Ben Laurie, a computer security expert and member of the Wikileaks advisory board, told Wired that if Assange was to suffer a "nasty accident", Wikileaks might "fizzle out".

Shortly after the Afghan War Logs were published, a large 1.4GB AES-256 encrypted file named 'Insurance' was posted on Wikileaks and distributed across peer-to-peer networks through BitTorrent technology.

AES-256 encryption is one of the most secure encryptions developed and is near impossible to break. It is understood that the Wikileaks advisory board are in possession of the password under a 'prearranged agreement with Assange' should the founder be incapacitated.

Even with his arrest and detention in London in December 2010 the file continues to be distributed and contents unknown.

Continue reading

The next post will detail how Bradley Manning allegedly leaked the largest cache of secret data in U.S. history. It will go live at 7 am PT / 10 am ET / 3 pm GMT tomorrow.

In this series:

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Topics: Hardware, Government, Government : US, Mobility, Networking, Telcos

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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