WikiWars: The face of future conflicts

Attacks, and government's own unconventional strategy, could be the first real cyber war

We appear to be in the middle of the first real cyberwar. And like so much on the Internet, it has evolved in ways that weren't expected.

The war against the controversial, anti-secrecy WikiLeaks is being fought not with conventional weapons such as worms, Trojans or even targeted malware such as Stuxnet. It is a guerrilla war — and this time the U.S. government is playing the role of the insurgent. The objective is not the short-term takedown of WikiLeaks but a strategic denial of services to future online leakers, and WikiLeaks supporters are playing into their hands.

The WikiWars are exploiting an inherent weakness of a free, unregulated Internet: the need for service providers to make money.

WikiLeaks first incurred U.S. wrath with the publication this summer of a cache of low-level intelligence observations from Iraq and Afghanistan. The more recent release of thousands of classified diplomatic cables has ratcheted things up several notches.

A spate of conventional denial-of-service attacks were launched against the site, but were easily brushed off. But then Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, launched his own denial-of-service attack in the form of a letter from his staff to Amazon, which was hosting the WikiLeaks website. Amazon soon announced it was no longer hosting the site.

Amazon said it was because WikiLeaks broke its rules and not because the senator made any demands, threats or promises. But Rep. Peter King, (R-N.Y.) the incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee for the 112th Congress, was explicit in a statement praising Amazon’s decision.

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“This situation should serve as an example for all private U.S. and international companies that conducting business with WikiLeaks is intolerable and against American interests,” he said.

WikiLeaks has lost its original Web address, and financial companies PayPal, MasterCard and Visa no longer are processing donations and payments to the organization.

This has not taken WikiLeaks off line. In fact, the Washington Post commented that “WikiLeaks now is stronger than ever.” Hacktivists have launched conventional denial-of-service attacks against companies that have repudiated WikiLeaks, using the online DOS tool Low Orbit Ion Cannon to flood target sites with TCP and UDP packets and HTTP requests.

But although the United States might like to prosecute founder Julian Assange, taking down WikiLeaks is not an important goal. The documents already are released, the horse is out of the barn, the cat is out of the bag. But these guerilla actions may well prevent the next wiki leak.

Taking up residence on the Internet is a low-cost proposition, with lots of options around the world. But an online presence depends on private-sector service providers who provide and control the infrastructure, and they are not likely to ignore the concerns of the U.S. government or the hassles of running afoul of hacktivists, on either side of the fight, who might want to shut them down.

“At the end of the day, these are businesses,” said Dean Turner of Symantec Intelligence Services, who has been observing the online attacks. “It costs them a lot of money when they are under attack like that.”

The next wiki leaker to come along will likely find it much more difficult to get and maintain the services it needs and to raise the money it needs from supporters. PayPal, Amazon and others might well say, “No thanks, we don’t need those hassles.” Not to mention inquiries from senators.

The big drawback to this strategy is that the next wiki leaker might not be an idealistic individual operating on a shoestring. A nation such as China could step in to support the effort — either out front or behind the scenes — ensuring a strong online presence and getting a double bang for its buck.

Not only would it be a terrific propaganda tool against other countries, but a sponsoring country could get first look at classified collections submitted for publication. Then the WikiWars would have to be ratcheted up yet another notch.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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Reader Comments

Thu, Jan 20, 2011 Falls Church, VA

An interesting counter to WikiLeaks would be for the United States to slowly leak hundreds of thousands of "secret" documents as part of a massive dis-information campaign to dilute the validity of diplomatic cables or other legitimate documents received by Assange. The press and the world at large would not be able to separate the facts from fiction in the future and WikiLeaks and other future sites like it would fail to generate news because of questionable reliability of the information.

Tue, Dec 14, 2010 Jeffrey A. Williams

PFC Manning perhaps if not likely violated the Espionage act. Assange may have also, but that remains unclear. What is clear is that SIPERNET was too accessable, PFC Manning donloaded onto a removable media divice highly classified information and than gave it to Assange whom in turn published the information some of which he did not redact at all or adaquately which IMO was at least bad judgment.

Mon, Dec 13, 2010 Paul

Until this summer, I thought WikiLeaks seemed like a great idea but after such irresponsible leaks as the embassy cables, I'd like to see Assange strung up by a certain sack. Nonetheless, it's easy to post information without a site like WikiLeaks so in the end, they aren't so much the problem as those that released the information. Operational security has been a problem for a while but these represent deliberate attempts to undermine the federal givernment. As far as I'm concerned, those responsible for the leaks are guilty of espionage and treason and should face capital charges for the offence.

Mon, Dec 13, 2010 compugeek

"are there not any classified documents that "russia" or "chile" ... might not want to be published?" Of course there are -- and WikiLeaks has shown that it is NOT an agnostic "information wants to be free" organization so much as an agit-prop distribution hub by their decisions on what to leak and when. I can't see Assange pushing any information that might be damaging to Chavez in Venezuela, Castro in Cuba, etc. He and his organization have demonstrated their ideological motivations by their actions.

Mon, Dec 13, 2010

As to the possible involvement of "china" or some other governmental organ...are there not any classified documents that "russia" or "chile" or "isreal" or "saudi arabia" might not want to be published? This could keep some governments out of the picture.

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