Wikileaks: the Web Watches and Waits

It's clearly still far too early to attempt to assess the impact of Wikileaks' latest mega-leak, this time of US secret cables, which is certainly a biggie: The full set consists of 251,287 documents, comprising 261,276,536 words (seven times...


It's clearly still far too early to attempt to assess the impact of Wikileaks' latest mega-leak, this time of US secret cables, which is certainly a biggie:

The full set consists of 251,287 documents, comprising 261,276,536 words (seven times the size of "The Iraq War Logs", the world's previously largest classified information release).

The cables cover from 28th December 1966 to 28th February 2010 and originate from 274 embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions.

Much of that impact will be political, and so outside the scope of this column. But even in the last 12 hours or so since just a small fraction of those cables were released, it's clear that the online effects are already being felt.

News that China has imposed a blanket ban on coverage of the leaks is hardly surprising, but US moves are more worrying:

The incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee says WikiLeaks should be officially designated as a terrorist organization.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the panel's next head, asked the Obama administration today to "determine whether WikiLeaks could be designated a foreign terrorist organization," putting the group in the same company as Al Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult that released deadly sarin gas on the Tokyo subway.

This would have important ramifications:

If the State Department adds WikiLeaks to the terror list, one effect would be to prohibit U.S. banks from processing payments to the group. WikiLeaks currently takes donations through PayPal, bank transfers, and Visa and Mastercard payments.

But it wouldn't just be these large organisations that would be affected:

The Patriot Act increased the maximum penalties for violating what has become known as the "material support" law to 15 years in federal prison. In a 6-3 ruling this year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that law as constitutional, saying the Draconian legal sanctions are reasonable "even if the supporters meant to promote only the groups' nonviolent ends."

If Wikileaks is added to the State Department list, one problem for its supporters might be the relative vagueness of the term "material support." In a law review article, former UCLA chancellor Norman Abrams wrote that "the janitor or the pizza delivery person or a taxi driver, or anyone who provides the most mundane 'services,' would seem to be at risk of prosecution" if they could be said to know they're dealing with a designated terrorist group.

This indicates how action taken against Wikileaks could well spill over into all kinds of general online activities – indeed, providing any kind of help to Wikileaks would probably be construed as "material support", and thus potentially liable to those 15 years in prison.

It's also not hard to see US hardliners calling for Wikileaks to be "taken off the Web" by blocking its address (the COICA approach). Of course, that wouldn't stop people accessing Wikileaks – there are plenty of ways of getting around this. That might then prompt the US to attempt to wipe the address off the official Internet completely, with the support of other governments around the world that are already increasingly unhappy with the threat that Wikileaks poses to their control.

That collusion is likely to be forthcoming. Indeed, Australia has already put Wikileaks on its own censorship blacklist once – ironically for daring to reveal details of Denmarks' censorship blacklist. Apparently, though, it is currently off Australia's (but it will be interesting to see for how long once the revelations from the cables start flowing...)

But any attempt to expunge Wikileaks from the official Internet would, of course, just lead to the growth of a parallel unofficial network on top of the official one, using alternative DNS servers. That would not only split the Internet, but actually make it much harder to keep tabs on truly worrying elements online – just as UK moves to store all our communications data will simply shift the really dodgy people to safer channels where they can't be observed.

Another tempting approach for the US authorities would be to authorise DDoS attacks on Wikileaks. This is like to be particularly attractive given the increasing attention being paid to "cyberwar" (although, of course, anyone using that term probably disqualifies themselves from any sensible discussion of the area) in certain political quarters on both sides of the Atlantic. Of course, it will fail to take Wikileaks offline (there are too many people willing to help circumvent these kinds of attacks), but what it might well do is provoke counterattacks from disaffected hackers.

There's already a precedent for this in 4chan's attacks on those who have carried out DDoS attacks on torrent sites, which have widened to include major media industry sites. Now imagine this applied to key government sites – including those that are increasingly used by the public for their day-to-day activities: this could get very messy.

As well as any political fallout, I think these online developments will be one of the most important legacies of the release of the US cables by Wikileaks. Expect to see lots of knee-jerk actions from the authorities over the coming months – with plenty of unintended and very bad consequences for everyone.

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