WikiLeaks Dodges Obstacles To Stay Online

Mark Stephens, lawyer for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, talks to the media as he leaves a court

Mark Stephens, lawyer for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, talks to the media as he leaves a court hearing for his client in London. Assange was jailed after telling the court he will fight efforts to extradite him to Sweden, where he faces a sex-crimes investigation. Sang Tan/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Sang Tan/AP

If the enemies of WikiLeaks are hoping Tuesday's arrest of Julian Assange will bring an end to his organization's disclosure of government secrets, his attorney Mark Stephens is anxious to set them straight.

"WikiLeaks will continue," Stephens said after Assange was taken into custody in London over a Swedish arrest warrant. "WikiLeaks is many thousands of journalists reporting news around the world."

Indeed, the detention of the website's founder may turn out to be just one more chapter in what is shaping up as a WikiLeaks war. The organization's many supporters remain determined to see the release of the secret documents still under WikiLeaks' control, and they're girding for battle.

When the website was shut down by a "distributed denial-of-service attack" (deliberately overloading the website with data requests), WikiLeaks engineers went to work and found alternative servers for the site, effectively demonstrating that the Internet is hard to control.

But the anti-WikiLeaks forces are also powerful. U.S. allies have endorsed a get-tough policy with the organization, extending all the way to Assange's native Australia, where the WikiLeaks operation was denounced again Tuesday by Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

"Information was taken and that was illegal," Gillard said in a news conference.  "So let's not try to put any glosses on this. Information would not be on WikiLeaks if there had not been an illegal act undertaken."

The tough talk from the United States and allied governments may have had an effect on some companies that were providing services to WikiLeaks. The online retailer Amazon stopped hosting its website. A Swiss bank that had been holding Assange's legal defense fund announced it was freezing the account. PayPal, Visa and MasterCard all said they would stop processing payments to WikiLeaks.

"There are all kinds of influence that government has in dealing with the private sector," says Herbert Lin, a computer scientist and cyberwar expert at the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. "One could imagine some senior government official calling them up and saying, 'You know, you really ought to stop supporting payments to this organization, because it's really harming national security. And if you help us, we won't forget you.'"

Neither Amazon, PayPal nor the credit card companies have indicated they felt government pressure to cut their ties to WikiLeaks.

Their actions, however, angered WikiLeaks defenders.

A hacking group that calls itself "Anonymous" said Tuesday it was launching retaliatory cyberattacks on PayPal, on the credit card companies and against Post Finance, the Swiss bank that was handling Assange's defense fund. The group called the action "Operation Payback" and said it was being carried out in solidarity with WikiLeaks.

"We fight for the same reason: Transparency and anti-censorship," the group said in a statement.

For now, it appears the WikiLeaks war is likely to continue, with tit-for-tat escalation. The Anonymous website has itself been hit by denial-of-service attacks, according to PandaLabs, an anti-malware laboratory affiliated with Panda Security.

Some members of Congress, meanwhile, want the U.S. government to declare WikiLeaks a terrorist organization. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has called on the U.S. government to close down the WikiLeaks website, with "decisive" action.

In theory, it should be possible. One option, according to cyber expert Herbert Lin, would be to design and deploy a computer worm that could burrow into a computer hard drive and look specifically for WikiLeaks files, as the recent Sutxnet worm did with respect to industrial control files.

"There have certainly been many instances of worms that could create damage," Lin said. "So all you would have to do is hitch yourself to one of those. You could put code in that looks for WikiLeaks material on hard drives and then goes off and destroys it. One could do that. Whether it's a wise thing to do and whether it would serve the government's goals, that's a different question."

Hackers who are not accountable for their actions might try something like that. But it could be highly controversial as a government move.

"Does the U.S. government have the right to go into your computer and erase material that you obtained legally?" asks Lin. "That's a very, very deep question."

The complexity of any anti-WikiLeaks operation may be one reason the United States and other governments, for now at least, seem more interested in taking legal action against Assange and WikiLeaks, whether it stops the release of more secret documents or not.

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