Should the U.S. government declare a cyberwar against WikiLeaks?
[View a larger map of insurance seeders on Google maps.]
On Thursday, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told a gathering in London that the secret-spilling website is moving ahead with plans to publish the remaining 15,000 records from the Afghan war logs, despite a demand from the Pentagon that WikiLeaks "return" its entire cache of published and unpublished classified U.S. documents.
Last month, WikiLeaks released 77,000 documents out of 92,000, temporarily holding back 15,000 records at the urging of newspapers that had been provided an advance copy of the entire database. On Thursday, Assange said his organization has now gone through about half of the remaining records, redacting the names of Afghan informants. That suggests the final release could still be weeks away.
Pundits, though, are clamoring for preemptive action. "The United States has the cyber capabilities to prevent WikiLeaks from disseminating those materials," wrote Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen on Friday. "Will President Obama order the military to deploy those capabilities? … If Assange remains free and the documents he possesses are released, Obama will have no one to blame but himself."
But a previous U.S.-based effort to wipe WikiLeaks off the internet did not go well. In 2008, federal judge Jeffrey White in San Francisco ordered the WikiLeaks.org domain name seized as part of a lawsuit filed by Julius Baer Bank and Trust, a Swiss bank that suffered a leak of some of its internal documents. Two weeks later the judge admitted he'd acted hastily, and he had the site restored. "There are serious questions of prior restraint, possible violations of the First Amendment," he said.
Even while the order was in effect, WikiLeaks lived on: supporters and free speech advocates distributed the internet IP address of the site, so it could be reached directly. Mirrors of the site were unaffected by the court order, and a copy of the entire WikiLeaks archive of leaked documents circulated freely on the Pirate Bay.
The U.S. government has other, less legal, options, of course - the "cyber" capabilities Thiessen alludes to. The Pentagon probably has the ability to launch distributed denial-of-service attacks against WikiLeaks' public-facing servers. If it doesn't, the Army could rent a formidable botnet from Russian hackers for less than the cost of a Humvee.
But that wouldn't do much good either. WikiLeaks wrote its own insurance policy two weeks ago, when it posted a 1.4 GB file called insurance.aes256.
The file's contents are encrypted, so there's no way to know what's in it. But, as we've previously reported, it's more than 19 times the size of the Afghan war log - large enough to contain the entire Afghan database, as well as the other, larger classified databases said to be in WikiLeaks' possession. Accused Army leaker Bradley Manning claimed to have provided WikiLeaks with a log of events in the Iraq war containing 500,000 entries from 2004 through 2009, as well as a database of 260,000 State Department cables to and from diplomatic posts around the globe.
Whatever the insurance file contains, Assange - appearing via Skype on a panel at the Frontline Club - reminded everyone Thursday that he could make it public at any time. "All we have to do is release the password to that material and it's instantly available," he said.
WikiLeaks is encouraging supporters to download the insurance file through the BitTorrent site The Pirate Bay. "Keep it safe," reads a message greeting visitors to the WikiLeaks chat room. After two weeks, the insurance file is doubtless in the hands of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of netizens already.
We dipped into the torrent Friday to get a sense of WikiLeaks' support in that effort. In a few minutes of downloading, we pulled bits and piece of insurance.aes256 from 61 seeders around the world. We ran the IP addresses through a geolocation service and turned it into a KML file to produce the Google Map at the top of this page. The seeders are everywhere, from the U.S., to Iceland, Australia, Canada and Europe. They had all already grabbed the entire file, and are now just donating bandwidth to help WikiLeaks survive.*
Since the Afghan war logs were posted, it's emerged the 77,000 records already published contain the names of hundreds of Afghan informants, who now face potentially deadly reprisal from the Taliban. WikiLeaks' publication of those records has drawn criticism from human rights organizations and the international free press group Reporters Without Borders.
Those organizations are just urging WikiLeaks to be more careful with its releases. But the Pentagon has hinted it actually has some recourse against the site. "If doing the right thing isn't good enough for them, we will figure out what alternatives we have to compel them to do the right thing," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said last week. It's hard to see what that recourse might be, when Julian Assange, or someone in his inner circle, can spill 1.4 gigabytes of material with a single well-crafted tweet.
(*No, Wired.com has not posted a targeting map for Pentagon cruise missiles. IP geolocation is not precise.)
This post originally appeared on Wired's Threat Level blog. Wired.com has been expanding the hive mind with technology, science and geek culture news since 1995.