Wikileaks is and always has been both dependent and associated
with its founder, Julian Assange. Now it faces an uncertain future in
I. Wikileaks' Messy Predicament
Mr. Assange currently resides in Britain free on bail while awaiting extradition on sex crimes charges in Sweden. While some believe the
Sweden incident to be a setup by the U.S. and other enemies of the site, the
U.S. appears to be considering more direct methods of prosecution. According to CNN and
other news outlets, Mr. Assange may face extradition to the U.S. to face
additional charges after his sex crimes trial wraps up.
As a result of this situation, Wikileaks has fallen almost
completely silent for the last three months. Many are already predicting
that the site may have "one foot in the grave."
Opinions aside, the hard reality is that Wikileaks only
appears to have one major document left in its leaks storehouse -- a Bank of America hard drive with supposed
incriminating financial documents. However, the site is moving at a
glacial pace in publishing that document.
Meanwhile the Wikileaks organization -- or its founder Julian Assange, perhaps -- is in financial
The Australian claimed in an interview with Swiss newspaper Tribune de Geneve
that he's losing $600,000 USD per week.
Now most of Wikileaks hosting these days is done on a volunteer basis since Wikileaks lost its primary domain name and hosting. Likewise, most Wikileaks members
are volunteers. And while Mr. Assange's legal expenses are mounting, it
seems unlikely that they've reached $2.4M USD per month-- approximately twice the monthly operating expenses of the
much larger Wikipedia.
Mr. Assange has not made it clear why the site needs $2.4M USD a month, or
$31.2M USD a year to stay in business. In fact Wikileaks never publishes
complete disclosures of who its funders are or what it does with the money.
As CNN puts it, "Where that money is going, or what
it's paying for, is unclear."
Jonathan Zittrain, an internet law and computer science professor at Harvard
University, tells CNN in an interview, "WikiLeaks could
well be a flash in the pan. It's not exactly a site with an apparent solid
business plan or stable group of founders."
II. Assange Divides the Leaks Community
If Wikileaks falls it likely will be in part due to its
intimate association with Mr. Assange. Some view Mr. Assange as a
relatively radical figure. In the 1990s, he edited one of the preeminent
works on the hacking scene in the late 80s and early 90s. In that book,
Mr. Assange writes that hackers should be anarchists rather than cooperate with
One of Mr. Assange's noisiest critics is somebody who was once his second-hand man and close friend -- Daniel
Domscheit-Berg. He criticizes that Assange chose to, in some cases, directly publish state secrets rather than handing them over to discerning
experts in the free media who could filter legitimate leaks from damaging, but
He also has criticized Mr. Assange's seeming obsession with the U.S. (over 97 percent of leaks on Wikileaks are
documents from or pertaining to the U.S.) and the way he runs the site.
In his new book, "Inside Wikileaks: My Time with Julian Assange
at the World's Most Dangerous Website", Mr. Domscheit-Berg calls Mr.
Assange a megalomaniac and paints him as someone unfit to be leading a major
Despite the criticism, Mr. Assange isn't backing away from being the face of
his site. On February 9 he held a fundraising event, dubbed "Dinner for Free Speech", where he greeted
donors in canned video form at their dinner parties worldwide.
And he's keeping his eye on his goal of getting $31M USD, selling T-Shirts
dubbed "Free Julian". The T-Shirts are sold on Wikileaks homepage,
which is accessible despite the loss of the "Wikileaks.org" domain
Mr. Assange has even set up a Facebook page, on which
he pleads, "I need your help. Please give."
The page offers a donations link to PayPal account, though it's unclear how
long that account will last, given the fact that PayPal already cut off Wikileaks primary
account for encouraging legal activity.
III. Civil War in the Security Community
HBGary Federal, a top security company composed of veteran hackers of all hat
colors, is finding itself in a growing war with the hacker group
"Anonymous" over its work to undermine Wikileaks.
While the accuracy of the material is certainly questionable, documents posted
to The Pirate Bay by Anonymous indicate that HBGary was
looking to use social engineering and other techniques to damage Wikileaks and
prevent its further releases of information from gaining traction.
According to the documents HBGary was contracted by, cooperating with, or
offering services to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Bank of America.
It appears the pro-Wikileaks hackers are winning against the
purportedly anti-Wikileaks security firm. As of this week
HBGary Federal's phone lines to its Colorado offices are down, as is the
company's website. Data has been illegally obtained from the company
servers, including what Anonymous claims is internal company emails.
Company fax machines spilled out torrents of faxes proclaiming, "We
are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. ..."
Jim Butterworth, a vice president at HBGary Inc., HBGary Federal's sister
company, states, "What has happened here is a crime. We were hacked. But
it's more than that. Our employees are getting calls from (Anonymous) making
physical threats. People were concerned about their physical safety. This
is thuggery at this point."
Both Bank of America and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce deny working with or
Anonymous has also attacked Visa, MasterCard, and other financial institutions using
infected computers to form an attacking distributed denial of service (DDoS)
botnet. The botnet was assisted by personal DDoS attacks from Anonymous
members who downloaded special software dubbed "Ion Cannon" designed
to spam a targeted website with requests.
Several individuals in the UK have been arrested and charged in relation to the
attacks. And federal authorities in the U.S., with charges possibly
pending, have raided homes of Anonymous members.
In response to those arrests, Anonymous has called on hackers to wage "war" against the government of Britain.
The hacker community has been largely divided on the topic of Wikileaks ever
since the arrest of Bradley Manning, the Pentagon leaker who was turned in by former black-hat hacker and
computer criminal Adrian Lamo. Like HBGary, Mr. Lamo has found himself
the subject to a mix of both hate mail, including death threats, and messages
of support ever since he played a part in challenging Wikileaks.We spoke with Mr. Lamo about his experience and he tells us, "Clearly, I'm not of the belief that witness intimidation can be a valid form of protected speech. The First Amendment was not intended to pervert the course of justice. I certainly will not be changing my course of conduct in response to illegal efforts by the 'nothing-should-be-secret' crowd."
IV. If Wikileaks Goes, What's Next?
Faced with financial troubles, increasing association with illegal activity
from groups like Anonymous, and criticism by former supporters, Wikileaks may
be in trouble. But even if the site departs suddenly or slowly from its
position of internet infamy, its legacy of promoting online leaks will likely
Even former member and critic Mr. Domscheit-Berg acknowledges this in his
creation of OpenLeaks.org, a site that promises to only
leak to reputable news organization and to be transparent about its procedures
Other rival sites include anonleaks.ru, Anonymous's pet project.
Where as OpenLeaks looks to tread closer to legality, anonleaks heads in the opposite direction, looking
to be a place for hackers to directly post the information and secrets they
illegally obtain. Currently the site is largely devoted to the campaign
against HBGary and contains a wealth of information that was likely illegally
obtained from the security firm.
Other leaks sites have also popped up looking to focus on special interest
topics. One example is the various environmental leaks sites.
Currently GreenLeaks.com and GreenLeaks.org are vying for the top
environmental leaking position.
While Wikileaks leaking future on the web is uncertain, the
prospects of there being leaks on the web are virtually
unquestionable. States Professor Zittrain, "The idea that leaks can
happen, whether by a turncoat employee or an Exxon Valdez-sized spill of data
due to a hack, is more enduring [than Wikileaks itself]."