Can You Plug a WikiLeak?
It’s not easy.
Dec 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 15 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
But the most promising line of foreclosure is a legal one. WikiLeaks has been on the run for the last month, moving its virtual operations in an attempt to avoid being shut down. Originally its domain (the IP address which points a user to a website) was registered in Sweden and its servers were hosted there, too. But the threat of being shut down forced the group to move its domain registration to Switzerland and the hosting to France. Almost immediately, the French minister of industry asked that the site be banned from French servers. The hosting company, OVH, won a temporary victory when a judge ruled that it could not be forced to evict WikiLeaks.
But that may not be the end of the story. The only reason WikiLeaks is using OVH servers is that after leaving Sweden, it set up shop on servers run by Amazon.com (and moved its domain registration to another American company, EveryDNS.net). These companies quickly severed ties with WikiLeaks, not because they were forced to by law but because the backlash against them for being in business with WikiLeaks was more trouble than it was worth.
Other companies have also cut ties with WikiLeaks. PayPal, the service WikiLeaks once used to collect donations, stopped working with them after the last group of leaks was released. So did Visa and MasterCard, which refused to process money being sent to the group. As a result, it has become much more difficult for WikiLeaks to receive donations. Other big, high-profile companies are still providing service to WikiLeaks—Facebook and Twitter, for instance, allow WikiLeaks to use their services to network and disseminate information about their activities. There’s no reason a government couldn’t lean on them, as well as on the second-level companies that do business with the businesses who support WikiLeaks, such as OVH.
If gay advocacy groups can force Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s radio program off the air through coordinated complaints and boycotts, it seems likely the U.S. government and its allies could exert enough pressure to make it tremendously uncomfortable for corporations to be in the WikiLeaks business.
The end-user experience with WikiLeaks is also vulnerable to pressure. Filters, applied to a network, would make WikiLeaks and all of its mirrors invisible to users within the system. That’s the Chinese model, and although it’s possible for determined users to get around such a firewall by using encrypted trickery, the number of people sophisticated enough to do so is quite small.
America doesn’t have a network built like China’s, but there are other ways to keep people from looking at WikiLeaks files. For instance, to combat the WikiLeaks torrents, a government could create dummy torrents designed to mimic the WikiLeaks files. These dummy files would have the same file size and same file nomenclature and would look like the real WikiLeaks to anyone searching for its torrents. But once you downloaded them, they would contain only gibberish. If these dummy files were massively seeded on the torrent networks, it would make it difficult and time-consuming for users to find genuine WikiLeaks torrents in a sea of meaningless fakes.
Which brings us to the site’s first-order function: collecting leaked information from volunteers.
WikiLeaks exposes one of the dirty secrets of security: You can’t make a system totally secure. You’ll never have a setup in government from which it is technically impossible to leak documents. All you can do is make sure that employees know that if they leak, they will be caught. And then hope that no one is willing to pay that price. In that sense, one of the most effective tools for curbing WikiLeaks would be an energetic, and public, prosecution of Pvt. Bradley Manning.
Even if WikiLeaks disappeared, might other organizations materialize to perform the same function? Perhaps. A former WikiLeaks staffer, Daniel Donscheit-Berg, is readying a competitor, Openleaks.org, for launch in the near future. It’s possible that other leak sites could be as destructive as WikiLeaks. Or more so. But it’s also possible that if it were run to ground, WikiLeaks might be replaced by a more diligent and judicious organization. After all, it’s not difficult to imagine a leak site that really does operate in the public interest. The problem with WikiLeaks is the practice, not the theory. (Donscheit-Berg has split with WikiLeaks because he thinks the group’s leader, Julian Assange, is running the shop in an irresponsible manner.)
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