The WikiLeaks Saga (Part 2)

Assange in the UK on his way to jail.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t give so much attention to one story. But, this story strikes me as a significant milestone in our evolving views on freedom of speech, transparency in government and business, and hacking culture. As this story continues to evolve it gets all the more interesting and significant.

So to recap: In recent weeks, the popular whistle blowing site WikiLeaks has posted hundreds of thousands of confidential government documents for the world to view. the US government and its allies have condemned the action and are considering ways to shut down Wikileaks and prosecute its founder Julian Assange. Assange has been in hiding for several years living a nomadic life around Europe fearing retaliation from companies and governments that have been exposed on his site. Several US companies with which Wikileaks has done business, including Amazon, PayPal, EveryDNS, Mastercard and Visa cut off service to WikiLeaks, some believe they were asked to do so by the U.S. Government. There have been Distributed Denial of Service attacks against the WikiLeaks Web site initiated from unknown sources. Wikileaks has been forced to relocate its servers in order to stay in business. Recently, charges of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion were brought against Assange in Sweden by two young Swedish ladies who had a relationship with Assange last Summer.

This week, Assange turned himself in to British law enforcement and now faces extradition to Sweden. Assange has threatened that many more private and damaging U.S. documents will be published on his site, if the U.S. presses charges against him. Many Assange supporters are protesting the actions against WikiLeaks and Assange. One group identifying itself as “Anonymous” has launched Distributed Denial of Service Attacks against the businesses and governments that have acted against WikiLeaks. The founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, John Perry Barlow, has called it “the first infowar.” He told his twitter followers that “The field of battle is WikiLeaks” and “You are the Troops.” The group “Anonymous” recently posted a change in its strategy. Rather than running DDOS attacks the group plans to study the leaked documents and broadcast important issues that they reveal in order to throw more fuel on the fire. Wikileaks now runs on hundreds of “mirror sites” and would be difficult if not impossible to shut down should anyone try. Meanwhile, attacks persist from other Assange groupies. Two hackers have been arrested in Sweden, while protests heat up around the world.

Meanwhile, some ex-WikiLeaks staff have announced that they plan to launch a rival to WikiLeaks. The new site to be called OpenLeaks will maintain an open and transparent approach, which they feel Assange has corrupted in the original WikiLeaks design. They believe Assange has hijacked WikiLeaks to promote his own political agenda. Some insight into that agenda can be found in Assange’s 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” that opened with the lines: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

There is no telling where this battle of wills will lead. Stay tune for more next week.

The Noose Tightens Around WikiLeaks’ Neck

Wikileaks Director, Julian Assange

The U.S. Government, along with other governments around the world became enraged this week when WikiLeaks published 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables from the U.S. State Department on the Wikileaks Web site. WikiLeaks is a Web site that allows whistle-blowers to publish confidential documents designed to incriminate their employer. In this case the documents posted exposed the private conversations between diplomats unveiling secret plans, previously unknown alliances, and covert operations. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton condemned the release of the diplomatic cables, and stated that the US is taking aggressive steps to hold responsible those that stole the information, and to make sure nothing like this happens again.

The founder of WikiLeaks Julian Assange is in hiding with a last-known location somewhere in the UK. Assange and his colleagues claim to be taking steps to protect themselves from death threats. Assange is also wanted in Sweden to face questioning over alleged sex crimes. It’s only natural to wonder if Assange wasn’t set up in an effort to discredit him. WikiLeaks.org came under heavy attack this week by denial-of-service attacks from multiple sources. In an effort to defend itself from the attacks WikiLeaks extended its number of servers provided by Amazon. Shortly thereafter, Amazon booted Wikileaks off its servers under pressure from the U.S. government. Later that day, the company EveryDNS expelled WikiLeaks from its service invalidating the Wikileaks.org domain. Wikileaks then obtained a new domain at wikileaks.ch utilizing servers in France. The French government is working to expel WikiLeaks from its country as well. Meanwhile PayPal has closed the WikiLeaks account set up to provide WikiLeaks with supporter donations.

Wikileaks maintains its philosophy that its service supports freedom of speech, and encourages more open and honest operations in government and business. With growing pressure against WikiLeaks from governments and businesses, it is unlikely that the company will be able to hold out much longer.

China “Hijacks” Internet

The U.S. is confronting China for “hijacking” the Internet for an 18 minute period last April. A China telecom company issued incorrect router commands that resulted in most Internet traffic being rerouted through China servers. The rerouting could have allowed China to tap, store, and tamper with all Internet communications. The China telecom denied the accusations.
Pentagon says “aware” of China Internet rerouting [Reuters]
Q+A: What happens when Web traffic goes through China? [Reuters]
China Telecom denies hijacking U.S. Web traffic [Reuters]

Stuxnet Attacks Industrial Controllers

Viruses, worms, and other forms of malware have traditionally attacked software, inflicting damage only in the digital world. Stuxnet is the first major worm to cross from the digital world into the physical world to destroy physical objects and endanger lives. Stuxnet infects systems over the Internet or by inserting an infected flash drive. Once launched, the worm takes advantage of security holes in Microsoft Windows to scour all the computers on the network, searching for computers that control industrial processes. The worm can then manipulate the software, changing sensor controls, shutting down manufacturing, and issuing false instructions. In worst cases the worm could destroy gas pipelines, cause nuclear power plants to malfunction, cause industrial boilers to blow up, and even shut down a country’s power grid.

It is believed that Stuxnet has infected over 45,000 industrial control systems around the world. It is likely that many other systems are infected but the owners are unaware. There is some speculation that the worm may have been developed by a government agency as part of a cyber warfare initiative. One report suggests that the work may have been developed by the US or Israel to target Iranian nuclear plants.

The US’s new commander of the military’s cyberwarfare operations, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, is concerned about such attacks on systems in the US. In a recent report he advocates the creation of a “separate, secure computer network to protect civilian government agencies and critical industries like the nation’s power grid against attacks mounted over the Internet.”

google.cn > google.com.hk

Google has closed the doors on its search engine in China, following through on its promise to leave unless it was allowed to provide uncensored search results. But, rather than eliminating its filters on google.cn, and risking the arrest of its China-based employees, Google has redirected requests for google.cn to its Hong Kong search engine, google.com.hk, where it maintains unfiltered Chinese-language search results. Shortly after the switch, China was quick to apply its own censoring filters to the Internet DNS servers that feed the country.

Google isn’t alone in its stand against China censorship. This week the popular Web hosting company GoDaddy stopped registering domain names for the .cn domain. The decision came after the Chinese government demanded personal information about people who had purchased domain names from GoDaddy. Both Google and GoDaddy addressed the Congressional-Executive Commission on China this week regarding their dealings with China.

China isn’t the only country where Google censors content based on government-imposed policies. In Thailand and Turkey it censors YouTube videos that mock the country’s leaders. In France and Germany, Google filters out hate speech produced by extremist groups. Google is continuously screening YouTube videos for copyright infringement. Increasingly, Technology companies like Google and Internet service providers are assuming responsibility for policing Internet content. Google’s stance against China’s censorship has shown that the company is clearly uncomfortable with its role as a censor, and causes some to wonder if it may not follow up with changes in policy elsewhere. Google’s chief legal officer wrote that the China issue “goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech.”

Google’s head of policy for Google Australia spoke out against Australian censorship saying that the “government should not have the right to block information which can inform debate on controversial issues,” even if the information is “unpleasant and unpalatable.”

Clearly the responsibility of companies like Google for filtering search results requires serious consideration. As does the company’s responsibility for content posted by users. Recall the Google employees that have been jailed in Italy for hate videos posted on YouTube. Making Internet companies responsible for content posted by users discourages any company from providing online services and will ultimately stifle innovation.

Internet companies are working to find a balance between staying true to share holders and staying true to conscience. If a company filters too strongly, it may be accused of infringing on human rights. If it doesn’t censor enough, it can be imprisoned for aiding criminals. Either way, there is a risk of appearing to behave unethically. Consider Apple’s recent decision to remove thousands of iPhone Apps that showed scantily clothed individuals. Certainly, no laws were being broken by those apps. But Apple felt it necessary to remove them in order to improve its corporate reputation in the eyes of a handful of users that had complained. In so doing it has marred its reputation with others that feel it is too controlling, and standing in the way of basic human rights.

Today’s Internet companies walk a fine line where it is impossible to please all users, so they must opt for satisfying a majority. As citizens of our countries and the Internet, it is up to us to guide our governments in balancing legal power and responsibility for online content between citizens, governments, and commercial enterprises.

The FCC’s National Broadband Plan

This past week, the Federal Communications Commission released its National Broadband Plan. The 360 page document is the first step in extending broadband Internet service to millions of U.S. residents. The Plan intends to influence U.S. broadband access in four ways:

  • First, in designing policies to ensure competition among Internet service providers in order to drive innovation and lower costs,
  • Second, in ensuring efficient allocation and management of assets such as wireless spectrum, and network infrastructure,
  • Third, in reforming service mechanisms to support the deployment of broadband to high-cost areas, at a price affordable to low-income Americans,
  • Fourth and lastly, in reforming laws, policies, standards and incentives to maximize the benefits of broadband in public education, health care, and government operations.

The National Broadband Plan has six primary long-term goals to be accomplished over the next decade:

  1. 100 million U.S. homes to have 100 mbps download speeds
  2. The U.S. leads the world in mobile innovation
  3. Every American has affordable access to robust broadband service
  4. Every U.S. community has at lease 1 gigabit per second service to schools, hospitals and government buildings
  5. First responders are provided with nationwide, wireless, interoperable broadband over a national public safety network
  6. The U.S. leads in the clean energy economy using broadband to track and manage real-time energy consumption.

The plan is expected to cost over $15 billion. The FCC believes that it could raise a significant percentage of the cost by auctioning off portions of the wireless spectrum. While portions of the Plan are likely to be controversial, broadband providers and consumer groups are praising the plan as just what the country needs to stay ahead in the global economy.

Google Takes On China

Google shocked the world this week by announcing that it would rather shut down its China operations than comply with China’s censorship laws. The announcement was applauded by human rights organizations around the world, with bouquets of flowers being laid across Google’s sign at the entrance to its large Beijing headquarters. Meanwhile Google investors are stunned speechless by the prospect of Google snubbing the country with the 2nd largest, and most rapidly growing economy.

Google’s decision was prompted by a cyber attack on Google servers last month that originated in China. Google’s investigation of the attack shows that it was not the only target. Twenty other large businesses and government agencies were also hacked. In each case, the attackers were seeking information related to human rights activists with a history of attacking China and its practices. While it is not possible to prove the attack was government sponsored, investigators believe that the level of sophistication involved point to government sources.

China has responded to the allegation by downplaying the incident and reiterating that all businesses in Chine are bound to uphold China laws. As it appears China will not budge on its censorship requirements for Internet companies, everyone is waiting to see if Google will stay true to its word and close its China operations. Meanwhile the US government intends to make a formal demand of China to investigate the incident and report back its findings.

Yahoo!, who has previously found its own Chinese operations caught between China’s censorship and human rights groups, was also a target in the recent attack. Yahoo! released a statement supporting Google’s stance against China. The statement stirred up contempt from Yahoo’s China partner, Alibaba, who called Yahoo’s response reckless. Yahoo owns a 40 percent share of the giant Chinese online company that runs Yahoo! China. Meanwhile, Microsoft, who was also hacked, is downplaying the incident stating that it has no plans to change its business strategy in China. Microsoft has partnered with the Chinese government to crack down on software pirating in China. To criticize China might destroy the progress Microsoft has made in its efforts.

The hackers were able to infiltrate the corporate networks utilizing a security hole in Internet Explorer. The method of the attack was recently made public and is already being used by hackers in more recent attacks. Security experts are cautioning INternet users from using Internet Explorer, although Microsoft says that Vista and Windows 7 users should be safe if they run IE in Safe Mode. Microsoft is scrambling to create a patch for the vulnerability. Meanwhile Google announced that it is adding HTTPS encryption to all gmail services to help protect user’s privacy.

So, like a soap opera on a global scale, we will have to wait to see how this story plays out…

  • Will Google really pull out of China?
  • Will other companies follow Google’s lead?
  • How will China respond to U.S. demands for an investigation?
  • Will Yahoo and Alibaba kiss and make up?
  • Will Microsoft patch Internet Explorer before many others are hacked?

Tune in next week to find out!