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Dec 7, 2010

WikiLeaks in the clouds: why attempts to shut down Assange will fail

Despite attacks by hackers, despite takedowns by its service providers, WikiLeaks’ ability to keep on publishing is proving remarkably resilient. That’s less to do with their technical skills, and more to do with information ecology.

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Despite attacks by hackers, despite take downs by its service providers, WikiLeaks’ ability to keep on publishing is proving remarkably resilient. That’s less to do with their technical skills, considerable though they are, and more to do with information ecology.

WikiLeaks has been hit hard. Hackers’ denial of service (DoS) attacks flooded it with rogue data streams running at multiple gigabits per second. That’s enough to cause problems for most providers — although that depends on the specifics of the attack.

“[Internet service providers] do talk to each other, and if an ISP is under that kind of attack — and it’s easily identifiable — then the ISP will be talking to others that are connected to it, its peers and transit providers, and the majority of the attacks will then be made to go away,” network engineer Mark Newton told the Patch Monday podcast.

But service providers can do without the grief. The decision by Amazon Web Services and other hosting providers to dump WikiLeaks for breaching their terms of service, or for attracting DoS attacks that affected other customers, mean it’s hopping from home to home.

If WikiLeaks runs out of places to live, it’ll need to build its own hosting infrastructure. It’ll need money for that. PayPal’s decision to stop processing donations to WikiLeaks — a decision likely to be followed by other transaction providers — cuts off that oxygen.

Having your Swiss bank account frozen doesn’t help either.

“[T]he attack of WikiLeaks ought to be a wake-up call for anyone who has rosy fantasies about whose side cloud computing providers are on. The terms and conditions … will always give them grounds for dropping your content if they deem it in their interests to do so,” wrote UK-based internet commentator, John Naughton.

And yet WikiLeaks survives.

“I think what WikiLeaks has actually managed to do is to create for themselves a bespoke cloud-based CDN [content distribution network] that is enabled by the Streisand Effect,” Newton said. “Their domains and the IP addresses that are hosting their content are going up and down all the time. As soon as somebody notices, they’re all over blogs and Twitter and what have you saying, ‘yeah that one’s down, but here are all the other places where you can get it’.”

Hacker attacks, even terms and conditions enforcement, are making very little difference to the practical accessibility of WikiLeaks’ content. It only needs to be online long enough to tweet about it and a few downloads to happen and out it spreads — on mainstream media sites, and on the computers of anyone willing to play the game. Hundreds are already so willing.

“All the bastards are doing are showing us the points of failure in the system,” said futurist Mark Pesce on Sunday night — the weaknesses that a WikiLeaks 2.0 would need to be engineered against.

One of those weaknesses could well be the singular presence of Julian Assange. Even if he’s taken out of the equation — by prosecution as a criminal or, as various US commentators prefer, a bullet — the idea of WikiLeaks will live on.

And then what? Arrest everyone who downloads leaked data? Monitor the entire internet for same?

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