Wikileaks data debacle: when transparency becomes a threat
By Peter Zschunke Sep 2, 2011, 15:55 GMT
Berlin - Wikileak's goal was to make the world better, more transparent.
But nine months after the spectacular release of more than 250,000 cables culled from US embassies the world over, transparency has taken on a new meaning for more than 100 informants who worked for the US: they now live in fear.
While these individuals' names were 'blacked out' in the initial release of a tranche of embassy cables in the fall of 2010, a new book has revealed how to crack the original documents.
Now, months later, the original, uncensored cables have made their way onto the internet.
In late fall 2010, the world looked at the US with a certain derision and asked: How could the world's most powerful nation be so sloppy with its national secrets?
When the original cables were released, the names of people who had helped the US - of people who risked retribution for their collaboration - were blacked out.
Yet now, the full-versions of these texts have made it onto the internet. And this incident reveals a paradox at the center of the entire Wikileaks enterprise: that even the original Wikileaks hackers, computer experts in their own right, couldn9t keep these explosive documents secure.
In order to understand how the full-text cables could be released, one must retrace the now well-known Wikileaks story from its middle.
Wikileaks - the brand name for a loose network of anarchist computer hackers led by Australian Julian Assange - lost control of its 284-million-word trove of data when Assange provided the original documents to media partners like the British newspaper The Guardian.
Control slipped further when German internet activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg broke ranks with Wikileaks founder Assange, and took with him a copy of the database.
In February, Guardian journalist John Leigh released his book 'WikiLeaks. Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy.'
The book revealed how Assange had given Leigh a password with which to unlock the master database. Leigh writes that Assange jotted the password on a piece of paper, and then said, 'This is the password. You have to put the words 'diplomatic' before the word 'history.' Can you remember this?'
Leigh, of course, did - and since the release of his book last February, the key to unlocking the master database has been open for all the world to see.
And seen the world has: over the last few months, password- protected databases containing the Wikileaks data have ended up being distributed as BitTorrent feeds, thereby allowing the documents to be accessed though a decentralized global network that can't be stopped - even if Wikileaks' own website might be shuttered by government authorities.
People have been talking about Guardian journalist Leigh's discovery for months.
'But in the last few weeks, the situation has reached a critical mass,' Wikileaks said in a press release voicing its position on the debacle.
The German weekly newspaper Der Freitag, which is working with Assange's German ex-Wikileaks partner, Domscheit-Berg, on a new open-media-source project, reported last week about the availability of the un-redacted diplomatic cables on the internet.
Shortly thereafter, the row escalated further between Assange and Domscheit-Berg. Assange remains under house arrest in London while awaiting trial for alleged sexual assault.
In a statement delivered by his lawyer, he accused his former colleagues of breaking their agreements and of acting in a base manner.
Domscheit-Berg responded to Assange in a statement e-mailed to the German Press Agency dpa:
'The people who knew about these mistakes remained quiet for several months. They knew that Mr. Assange also knew about the mistakes. They assumed that Mr. Assange would act with responsibility and warn the involved persons.
'This would have been the only correct step to have taken. But they decided instead to ignore and be silent about the issue. This manner of dealing with the problem wasn't in the interest of those affected,' Domscheit-Berg charged.
The Guardian also sought to defend itself from accusations of impropriety. A statement on the newspaper's website, Guardian.co.uk, said: 'It's nonsense to suggest the Guardian's WikiLeaks book has compromised security in any way.'
'Our book about WikiLeaks was published last February. It contained a password, but no details of the location of the files, and we were told it was a temporary password which would expire and be deleted in a matter of hours.'
On Wednesday, a Twitter posting further publicized the password. But passwords would seem to be unnecessary by this point, as unlocked variants of the 251,287 cables are now widely available online.