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.

Stilgherrian — Technology writer and broadcaster


Technology writer and broadcaster

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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9 thoughts on “WikiLeaks in the clouds: why attempts to shut down Assange will fail

  1. zut alors

    Thanks for providing some explanation for what’s going on technically. While not understanding the intricacies of IT, my gut says the genie is out of the bottle. Forever.

    Perhaps a sympathetic billionaire good samaritan will provide funds to build Wikileaks a hosting infrastructure?

  2. Tamo

    The Internet was “invented” by the US DoD as a highly flexible and resilient communications network that would survive multiple nuclear attacks on US cities during the Cold War.

    Well, they suceeded.

    Add to it the Cloud and it isn’t any wonder that WikiLeaks is surviving.

    But in the digital age nothing is secure and nothing is authentic. So which cables are the real ones and which ones are the fakes?

  3. Niall Clugston

    Sorry, I think this is nonsense. To the average Internet user, WikiLeaks is down for the count. Just try to Google it. Oh, I’m sure there is a corner of cyberspace where the “site” is hiding out, but thats like the proverbial Japanese soldier still holding out on a Pacific island long after WW2 ended. So what. The war is lost. The Internet is about broadcasting to the world, or it’s about nothing.

    Put aside your rose-tinted 3D goggles for a moment and look at the real world. The information is being disseminated by the Guardian and other newspapers. All Julian Assange and his associates need to do is deliver the material to a friendly media office. They have no need to engage in cyberwarfare and, if they are, are probably just doing so for kicks. Sorry to break it to you, on this one the Internet is irrelevant.

  4. Stilgherrian

    @Tamo: The story about the internet being designed to survive nuclear war is a bit of a myth. The internet was designed as an academic research network within the US Department of Defence, and the ability to route around failures had more to do with the unreliability of the long-distance comms links than potential enemy attack. If it were intended to survive a nuclear strike then the data centres and even the intercity links themselves would have to have been buried in nuke-proof bunkers and shielded from nuclear weapons’ electromagnetic pulse effects.

    That said, the protocols were also adopted for the military’s secure communications because they are robust an self-healing.

  5. Niall Clugston

    Do I interpret your silence as consent to my argument???

  6. Gavin Moodie

    As Guy Rundle and I think Bernard Keane have explained in depth, Wikileaks is radically different from leaking a few documents to the traditional media. First, as GRundle explained, it is far easier to download thousands of documents onto a memory stick that photocopy a dozen pages. Secondly, it is easier to send documents as attachments to emails or with peer to peer file sharing systems than posting a sheaf of papers through the conventional mail. Thirdly, it is far easier to analyse material that is stored electronically than cataloguing and indexing material manually. Fourthly, it is easy to store vast amounts of data in multiple sites at least some of which are beyond the reach of any government’s spooks.

    Finally, while distribution thru the www is disrupted for now, it seems as unlikely that the US and its lackeys will block distribution of Wikileaks’ material permanently as it is unlikely that the music industry will be able to block unauthorised downloading of music.

  7. Niall Clugston

    Well, yes, electronic records are easier to steal (etc), but that’s got nothing to do with WikiLeaks.

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