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WikiLeaks Finds Itself Target of, Inspiration for Cyber Attacks

December 8, 2010 at 5:49 PM EDT
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WikiLeaks has become the target of hackers who oppose its latest release of secret government documents, but some supporters are waging cyber attacks against individuals and companies -- including MasterCard, PayPal and a Swiss bank -- that have severed ties with the controversial site. Spencer Michels has more.
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GWEN IFILL: Next: WikiLeaks and the cyber-attacks surrounding it.

Last night, we looked at the legal challenges ahead for the Web site and its founder, Julian Assange. Since its latest release of confidential government documents, WikiLeaks has also been the target of computer hackers.

Its supporters are striking back, temporarily shutting down MasterCard’s Web site and targeting other companies who are severing ties with WikiLeaks.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has our story on the online battle.

SPENCER MICHELS: For months, beginning when it revealed to the world secret U.S. war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq, the WikiLeaks organization has been engaged in a global battle to keep its financial and distribution system intact on the Web.

Now, the effort to stop WikiLeaks has redoubled, as the Web site slowly drips out in small daily handfuls some of the 250,000 U.S. State Department cables in its possession, all stemming, allegedly, from computer theft committed by an Army private, Bradley Manning.

WikiLeaks is being bombarded daily by cyber-attacks attempting to shut down its Web sites.

KEVIN POULSEN, senior editor, Wired.com: As they were getting ready to launch the State Department cables, there was what is called a distributed denial of service attack. This is a very common problem on the Internet.

SPENCER MICHELS: Kevin Poulsen is a senior editor at Wired.com. He’s been closely following the cyber-war surrounding WikiLeaks. I talked with him in Wired’s San Francisco office.

KEVIN POULSEN: Basically, any hacker with what is called a botnet, a collection of hacked machines that he can control, can direct those machines to flood any Web site with so much traffic that it becomes unavailable. So, that’s what happened the very first day, even before the State Department cables were launched, and WikiLeaks went down for a while.

SPENCER MICHELS: That means that people wanting to get on the Web site to read the disclosures couldn’t.

KEVIN POULSEN: The first attack, they actually know who did it. A hacker who calls himself the Jester took credit for it. He has a history of launching these kinds of attacks on jihadist Web sites. He considers himself to be somewhat of an activist or an independent cyber-warrior. So, he took issue with what WikiLeaks was doing, and he took the opportunity to take it down for a while.

There have been more attacks since then where the attribution is a little sketchier. We don’t really know who is doing it. But there is no reason to think that it is anything but a random hacker, because there are just so many people out there with the capability of doing this.

SPENCER MICHELS: Despite more attempts to stop it, WikiLeaks can still be found on the Web. It is now housed at more than 1,000 mirror Web sites and under different domain names.

A major challenge for WikiLeaks is where its information lives on the web, requiring powerful servers that can handle the massive amounts of data and high numbers of visitors simultaneously. So, it leases space from server companies in several countries.

Last week, Amazon, the huge Internet bookseller, which also makes millions of dollars a year housing data on the Internet, kicked WikiLeaks off its servers for what it called a violation of terms of service.

Amazon Web Services, or AWS, released a statement which read, in part: “We’ve been running AWS for over four years and have hundreds of thousands of customers storing all kinds of data on AWS. Some of this data is controversial, and that’s perfectly fine. But, when companies or people go about securing and storing large quantities of data that isn’t rightfully theirs, and publishing this data without ensuring it won’t injure others, it’s a violation of our terms of service, and folks need to go operate elsewhere.”

WikiLeaks posted a response on its Twitter account. “Amazon’s press release does not accord with the facts on public record. It is one thing to be cowardly, another to lie about it,” read the message.

Poulsen questions Amazon’s actions here and points out they have hosted previous WikiLeaks releases, like the Iraq war logs.

KEVIN POULSEN: Amazon actually hosted the Iraq war logs, the big leak from the Iraq war. And they apparently were fine with it. They didn’t shut it down. It’s only now, with these — with these State Department cables, less than 1,000 of which have been published, that Amazon has taken action against WikiLeaks. The — the massively larger publication of the logs from Iraq was completely undisturbed by Amazon.

SPENCER MICHELS: Senator Joe Lieberman, chairman of Senate Homeland Security Committee, reportedly urged Amazon to break with WikiLeaks and called for more companies to follow the example, saying: “I call on any other company or organization that is hosting WikiLeaks to immediately terminate its relationship with them.”

Amazon said it didn’t act because of government pressure.

But other companies are distancing themselves from WikiLeaks, and Poulsen says that means more serious problems for the Web site. It has seen a major source of its funding instantly cut off, when PayPal, the popular online finance site, broke ties with Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ founder.

Until Saturday, supporters only had to click on a button on the WikiLeaks page to make a donation. Now it’s gone. PayPal says Assange broke user rules, and, in a statement, added: “Our payment service cannot be used for any activities that encourage, promote, facilitate, or instruct others to engage in illegal activity.”

KEVIN POULSEN: This, I think, is — is actually a much more serious threat to WikiLeaks than — than these halfhearted censorship attacks. Now we are seeing problems with their — their finances. We are seeing PayPal decides to block WikiLeaks. You can’t give them money anymore. That’s actually a danger to them, because PayPal was how they got most of their funds.

SPENCER MICHELS: How was that, that you could just donate to WikiLeaks on PayPal?

KEVIN POULSEN: Yes. They have made — they have made more than a million dollars over the last year in donations. And most of that has come through PayPal. And now that is cut off.

And it just broke recently that MasterCard has now joined in, so you can’t even make a direct contribution to them through — through MasterCard.

SPENCER MICHELS: Today, we couldn’t reach MasterCard’s site on the Web. It is believed to be under Internet attack from WikiLeaks’ supporters. Visa has stopped any payments to WikiLeaks as well.

In Poulsen’s view, it’s all worked to the benefit of Julian Assange.

KEVIN POULSEN: It’s no coincidence that Assange set up hosting with Amazon, a U.S. company, a very, very mainstream company. He did that knowing that there was a very good chance that Amazon would shut him down, and that that would generate controversy and discussion. That would lead to more support, financial support and moral support.

So, basically, he set up — he set up the U.S. when he chose Amazon for his hosting. And now people who — who aren’t necessarily devoted to Assange’s brand of radical transparency, but are devoted to free speech, are supporters of WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks was never in danger of being pulled off the Web. And by trying it, and trying it in such a clumsy way, now — now it is only more popular than ever.

SPENCER MICHELS: The attempts to attack WikiLeaks’ content will ultimately fail, Poulsen says, because, once something is on the Internet, it stays there forever.

GWEN IFILL: There’s more online about the coalition of hackers behind today’s retaliatory attacks. Hari has a conversation with Brendan Greeley of “The Economist,” who interviewed some of the people who worked to bring down the MasterCard site and others.