The Hourglass Turneth
- WikiLeaks always knew it would make many powerful enemies. Its Swedish servers are housed in a bomb shelter, it helped redraft the freedom of speech laws in Iceland to allow it to release controversial data and all its employees to engage in encrypted chat.
- But days before the release of the US diplomatic cables on November 28, WikiLeaks faced an unprecedented and crippling denial-of-service attack that brought down its server with billions of hits.
- The site then moved to Amazon’s server that features a capacity to accommodate growing hits.
- But on December 1, Amazon booted out WikiLeaks. It then moved to multiple servers in Europe.
- The day after, EveryDNS, which linked wikileaks.org to the numerical IP address, stopped its service.
- WikiLeaks tweets its IP address, it’s retweeted around the world. Thousands of mirror sites of WikiLeaks come up, each with a separate IP address to prevent any effective ban.
- PayPal, Visa and MasterCard, which allowed the site to receive online donations, pull back services
- Hackers supporting WikiLeaks bring down the sites of PayPal, Visa and MasterCard. Also targeted successfully is PostFinance that freezes Assange’s legal defence fund.
- The legal noose around Assange tightens too. WikiLeak’s servers continue to be attacked but it keeps releasing cables valiantly.
As WikiLeaks sparks off a furious debate on the limits of free speech and redefines journalism, it has also split the shadowy world of ‘hacktivists’, or those who infiltrate websites for an avowed goal, into two warring camps. On one side is a brigade of hackers like ‘Jester’, a former soldier who’s a veteran of umpteen cyber attacks on Islamist websites. Keeping aside his pet hate, this time he joined the troops arrayed against WikiLeaks because he believes the site has endangered the lives of real, presumably American, soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. He can partly claim the credit for the WikiLeaks site temporarily crashing as it prepared to release US diplomatic cables on November 28.
Opposing the forces that include Jester is Anonymous, an indefatigable group of hackers who not only want to avenge the attacks on WikiLeaks but also ensure that the American diplomatic cables and other secret data continue to surface on the internet. The credo of Anonymous is as radical as it gets: “To move to censor content on the internet based on your own prejudice is, at best, laughably impossible. The unjust restrictions you impose on us will meet with disaster, and only strengthen our resolve to disobey and rebel against your tyranny.” The rhetoric testifies to Anonymous’s certitude about the hacking skills of its members, who brought down the websites of PayPal, Visa and MasterCard that stopped facilitating online donations to WikiLeaks. “We do not forgive; we do not forget. Expect us,” they said chillingly, savouring their gains in the ongoing internet war.
It was actually the anti-WikiLeaks hackers, some of whom probably enjoy the backing of the US and other governments, who first donned their battle fatigues and began to deploy their cyber arsenals as soon as word got around about the imminent release of cables starting November 28. Earlier that week, Jester and his comrades fired their first volley against the WikiLeaks site—through worm-infected files that spread on the internet, they took control over hundreds of thousands of computers worldwide. They then got these machines to log on to WikiLeaks en masse and weighed down its server, creating the hacking equivalent of carpet-bombing the enemy territory. Called a DDOS (distributed denial-of-service) attack, it reduced WikiLeaks to a badly ravaged, inoperable site.
Varun Srivastava of Delhi’s APPIN Technologies, a company that trains ‘ethical hackers’, explains: “Any server has a maximum limit of how many access requests it can process at any given time. Because of the DDOS attack, WikiLeaks was getting as many as 10 billion hits per second, way beyond its server’s capacity.” The sheer ferocity of the attack can be gleaned from the fact that, in contrast, Google.com, which presumably has far more powerful servers, handled about 3.2 billion hits through all of October this year. James Lewis of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, feels WikiLeaks shouldn’t complain about the attack: “It’s their own medicine—they may not like the taste.”
A resilient WikiLeaks swiftly opened a new front, moving to Amazon’s advanced Elastic Cloud Computing server, the capacity of which expands to accommodate the increase in hits on all the websites it hosts. The shift enabled WikiLeaks to recover from the saturation bombing it had been subjected to. But Amazon, most likely under pressure from the US government, suddenly snapped its ties with WikiLeaks on December 1, claiming it had violated two essential clauses of the hosting contract. First, WikiLeaks couldn’t guarantee that it owned the copyright to all the information it was placing online. Second, it couldn’t assure that its actions wouldn’t lead to any injuries to individuals.
On December 2, the anti-WikiLeaks camp won a new, invaluable ally in EveryDNS, a firm which helps route traffic on the internet, when it discontinued its service to WikiLeaks, claiming that DDOS attacks were threatening its infrastructure. DNS (or domain name server) is a technology that allows the alphabetical internet address that we key in for any site (like www.wikileaks.org) to be connected with the numerically encrypted IP address of the same website. Domain names are used because humans naturally tend to remember meaningful alphabetical combinations more easily than numerical ones. So without Everydns’s help, anyone who punched in www.wikileaks.org couldn’t access the site. (The .org address for WikiLeaks was still unavailable at the time of writing this report.) Then came the ultimate betrayal: several big financial services, like PayPal, Visa and MasterCard, announced they would not accept donations for WikiLeaks.
The WikiLeaks camp wasn’t sitting idle either. First of all, it had to bolster its defence. To create a many-layered security, it moved its content to servers in Switzerland, Sweden, France, Finland and Germany. This sort of spread makes it relatively immune from DDOS attacks—should one server go down, other alternatives are readily available. True, America could browbeat other countries, say, France or Germany, to ensure servers in their countries do not host WikiLeaks. But, as Kimman Balakrishnan, chief technical officer of the Delhi-based Imaging Solutions Pvt Ltd explains, “For every attempt to block WikiLeaks, there will be some one-horse island in the Pacific where the WikiLeaks data could be hosted just to cock a snook at Uncle Sam.”
Then, to counter the decision of Everydns to stop processing requests for the site, WikiLeaks valiantly tweeted its IP address: “Free speech has a number: http://22.214.171.124”. This address is now linked to one of its many new domain names—www.wikileaks.ch. And Twitter, as we all know, is the fastest way of spreading news. Nonetheless, like China and Iran, the Americans could always block IP addresses. Lewis, however, points out, “There are draconian steps but the US would never use them—too many lawyers here (to defend constitutional and other rights).” Nor does an American blockade of IP addresses actually limit the damage WikiLeaks has been inflicting on Washington’s conduct of foreign policy. Since the IP addresses will have to be blocked using filters at internet gateways of America, access to WikiLeaks will be denied only to US-based net surfers, and not those residing elsewhere.
Still, if the Americans themselves tried doing something this futile or browbeat others into doing so, they will have to sift through the entire volume of online traffic to glean the thousands of IP addresses that link to WikiLeaks, thereby slowing it down. Already, strong-arm tactics to suppress WikiLeaks have seen the surfacing of several thousands of mirror sites of WikiLeaks, each with a new IP address. How many can they block? And the number of mirror sites is growing by the day. Tutorials are strewn online, furnishing instructions on how to set up a mirror by establishing a programmed transfer of the few gigabytes of WikiLeaks data, enough for just an average pen drive, onto one’s own server. The coupling also ensures that any update on the parent WikiLeaks site is replicated on all associated mirrors.
It’s practically impossible to imagine how the US can possibly take WikiLeaks and its various avatars off the net. Explains Prasanto K. Roy, chief editor of CyberMedia publications, “The costs of doing something like this are going to be extremely high and would require a lot of nations and groups like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers to come together. As we know, the internet is not under any homogeneous control, it has gone far beyond that.” Adds Jaikumar Vijayan, a senior editor with Computerworld in Chicago, “It is impossible to put a lid on this now. Maybe, the only motive people have to attack WikiLeaks is to just get back at it.”
With WikiLeaks’s most vital asset—the diplomatic cables—ferreted away to the safety of multiple servers and on file-sharing websites, the site’s supporters have launched a new offensive. They successfully attacked PostFinance, a Swiss bank that froze WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange’s 31,000-euro legal defence fund. Enthused and emboldened, they have now promised to hit all those who betray WikiLeaks or refuse to do business with them.
The bigger chance of trouble for the US and other countries wanting to govern under secrecy is that even if WikiLeaks is nixed, the idea of an online whistleblower site is now immutable. Just as there will be other Osamas if the original one is bumped off, there will be another anti-establishment Assange to take over from Julian sooner rather than never. When the World Trade Center towers were attacked on September 11, 2001, Jean-Marie Colombani, editor of Le Monde, declared stirringly, “We are all Americans.” The current refrain, befittingly enough, on the internet is, “We are all WikiLeaks.”