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Everything You Need to Know About Wikileaks

Two experts lay out the facts surrounding the controversy.

By Jonathan Zittrainarchive and Molly Sauter

What is Wikileaks? Wikileaks is a self-described “not-for-profit media organization,” launched in 2006 for the purposes of disseminating original documents from anonymous sources and leakers. Its website says: “Wikileaks will accept restricted or censored material of political, ethical, diplomatic or historical significance. We do not accept rumor, opinion, other kinds of first hand accounts or material that is publicly available elsewhere.”

More-detailed information about the history of the organization can be found on Wikipedia (with all the caveats that apply to a rapidly changing Wiki topic). Wikipedia incidentally has nothing to do with Wikileaks—both share the word “Wiki” in the title, but they’re not affiliated.

Who is Julian Assange, and what is his role in the Wikileaks organization? Julian Assange is an Australian citizen who is said to have served as the editor-in-chief and spokesperson for Wikileaks since its founding in 2006. Before that, he was described as an advisor. Sometimes he is cited as its founder. The media and popular imagination currently equate him with Wikileaks itself, with uncertain accuracy.

In 2006, Assange wrote a series of essays that have recently been tapped as an explanation of his political philosophy. A close reading of these essays shows that Assange’s personal philosophy is in opposition to what he calls secrecy-based, authoritarian conspiracy governments, in which category he includes the US government and many others not conventionally thought of as authoritarian. Thus, as opposed to espousing a philosophy of radical transparency, Assange is not “about letting sunlight into the room so much as about throwing grit in the machine.” For further analysis, check out Aaron Bady’s original blog post.

Why is Wikileaks so much in the public eye right now? At the end of November 2010, Wikileaks began to slowly release a trove of what it says are 251,287 diplomatic cables acquired from an anonymous source. These documents came on the heels of the release of the “Collateral Murder” video in April 2010, and Afghan and Iraq War logs in July 2010 and October 2010, which totaled 466,743 documents. The combined 718,030 are said to originate from a single source, thought to be U.S. Army intelligence analyst Pfc. Bradley Manning, who was arrested in May 2010, but that’s not confirmed.

Has Wikileaks released classified material in the past? Yes, under an evolving set of models.

Berkman Fellow Ethan Zuckerman has some interesting thoughts on the development of Wikileaks and its practices over the years, which will be explained in greater detail when the Berkman Center podcast about Wikileaks is released later this week. In the meantime, here’s a capsule version.

Wikileaks has moved through three phases since its founding in 2006. In its first phase, during which it released several substantial troves of documents related to Kenya in 2008, Wikileaks operated very much with a standard wiki model: the public readership could actively post and edit materials, and it had a say in the types of materials that were accepted and how such materials were vetted. The documents released in that first phase were more or less a straight dump to the Web: very little organized redacting occurred on the part of Wikileaks.

Wikileaks’s second phase was exemplified with the release of the “Collateral Murder” video in April 2010. The video was a highly curated, produced and packaged political statement. It was meant to illustrate a political point of view, not merely to inform. The third phase is the one we currently see with the release of the diplomatic cables: Wikileaks working in close conjunction with a select group of news organizations to analyze, redact and release the cables in a curated manner, rather than dumping them on the Internet or using them to illustrate a singular political point of view. What news organizations have access to the diplomatic cables and how did they get them? According to the Associated Press, Wikileaks gave four news organizations (Le Monde, El Pais, The Guardian and Der Spiegel) all 251,287 classified documents before anything was released to the public. The Guardian subsequently shared its trove with The New York Times.

So have all 251,287 documents been released to the public? No. Each of the five news organizations is hosting the text of at least some of the documents in various forms with or without the relevant metadata (country of origin, classification level, reference ID). The Guardian and Der Spiegel have performed analyses of the metadata of the entire trove, excluding the body text. The Guardian’s analysis is available for download from its website.

Wikileaks itself has released (as of December 7, 2010) 960 documents out of the total 251,287. The Associated Press has reported that Wikileaks is only releasing cables in coordination with the actions of the five selected news organizations. Julian Assange made similar statements in an interview with Guardian readers on December 3, 2010. Cables are being released daily as the five news organizations publish articles related to the content.

Is each of the five news organizations hosting all the documents that Wikileaks has released? No. Each of the five news organizations hosts a different selection of the released documents, in different forms, which may or may not overlap. It’s not clear how much they’re coordinating on releasing new documents, since each appears to have a full set and normally newspapers would be eager to scoop one another.

How are the five news organizations releasing the cables? Le Monde has created an application, developed in conjunction with Linkfluence, that hosts the searchable text of several hundred cables. The text can be searched by the sender (country of origin, office or official), date range, persons of interest cited in the docs, classification status, or any combination of the above. Only the untranslated, English text of the cables can be accessed and cut-and-paste is not available.

El Pais offers access to more than 200 cables, available in the original English or in Spanish translation, searchable by country of origin and key terms and subjects (such as “Google and China”). These searches also return El Pais articles written on a given subject, often placed ahead of the cables in the search listings. The paper also offers a “How to read a diplomatic cable” feature, explaining what all the abbreviations and technical verbiage mean in plain speak, posted on November 28, 2010. The Guardian offers the cable data in several forms: It has performed an analysis of metadata of the entire 251,287-document trove, and made it available in several forms (spreadsheets hosted on Google Docs and in downloadable form) as well as infographics. The Guardian also hosts at least 422 cables on its website, searchable by subject, originating country, and countries referenced.

The New York Times hosts what it calls a “selection of the documents from a cache of a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks intends to make public starting on November 28. The webpage goes on to say “A small number of names and passages in some of the cables have been removed by The New York Times to protect diplomats’ confidential sources, to keep from compromising American intelligence efforts or to protect the privacy of ordinary citizens.”

The documents are not searchable and are organized by general subject. Who is responsible for redacting the documents? What actions did Wikileaks take to ensure that individuals were not put in danger by publication of the documents? According to the Associated Press and statements released by Wikileaks and Julian Assange, Wikileaks is currently relying on the expertise of the five news organizations to redact the cables as they are released, and it is following their redactions as it releases the documents on its website. (This cannot be verified without examining the original documents, which we have not done—nor are we linking to them here.) According to the BBC, Julian Assange approached the U.S. State Department for guidance on redacting the documents prior to their release. One can imagine the State Department’s dilemma there: assist and risk legitimating the enterprise; don’t assist and risk poor redaction. In a public letter, Harold Koh, legal adviser to the Department of State, declined to assist the organization and demanded the return of the documents. Are the documents hosted anywhere else on the Internet? What is the “insurance” file? In late July 2010, Wikileaks is said to have posted to its Afghan War Logs site, and to a torrent site an encrypted file with “insurance” in the name. The file, which apparently can still be found on various peer-to-peer networks, is 1.4 gigabytes and is encrypted with AES256, a very strong encryption standard which would make it virtually impossible to open without the password. What is in the insurance file is not known. It has been speculated that it contains the unredacted cables provided by the original source(s), as well as other, previously unreleased information held by Wikileaks. There is further speculation, which has been indirectly boosted by Julian Assange, that the key to the file will be distributed in the event of either the death of Assange or the destruction of Wikileaks as a functioning organization. However, none of these things is known. All that is known for sure is that it’s a really big file with heavy encryption that’s already in a number of people’s hands and floating around for others to get.

What happens if Wikileaks gets shut down? Can it be shut down? It depends on what’s meant by “Wikileaks” and what’s meant by “shut down.”

Julian Assange has made statements suggesting that if Wikileaks becomes nonfunctional as an organization, the key to the encrypted “insurance” file will be released (the key itself is not a big document and could presumably fit into Twitter messages). The actual machination of how such a “dead man’s switch” would release the key is not known. If the key were released, and if the encrypted insurance file contains unredacted and unreleased secret documents, then those decrypted files would be available to many people nearly instantaneously. Wikileaks claimed in August that the insurance file had been downloaded more than 100,000 times.

Wikileaks apparently maintains a small paid staff—who and where is not exactly on a “people” page, though there used to be a physical P.O. box in Australia where documents could be sent—and is additionally supported by volunteers, speculated to be at most a few thousand. So, would it be possible for a motivated organization to disrupt its real-world infrastructure? Yes, probably. However, at this point, it is not practical to recover the information the organization has already distributed (which includes the entire trove of diplomatic cables to the press as well as whatever is in the encrypted insurance file), as well as any other undistributed information the organization might seek to release. So in terms of the recovery of leaked information, the downfall of Wikileaks as an organization would matter little.

Furthermore, there appear to be currently more than 1,000 sites mirroring Wikileaks and its content. Wikileaks has made available downloadable files containing its entire archive of released materials to date.

Why did stop working as a way to find the site? For a traditional website to work it needs a domain name like “” so that people can find it easily with a Web browser. The domain name system (“DNS”) is hierarchical—information is spread from a zone containing several top-level (root) servers down to zones containing lower-level servers—but the top level servers do not determine everything held by servers lower down.

Domain names can stop working for any number of reasons. One common assumption is is that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which manages certain top-level protocol and parameter assignments for the Internet, intervened in the case of Wikileqaks. It did not.

A little technical discussion to explain why: The root zone orchestrated by ICANN is a very small file — just a mapping between each top-level domain (“TLD”) like .org or .ch to the IP address(es) of servers designated to say more about that TLD (one server, not in ICANN’s hands, keeps track of names under .org, one for names under .ch, etc.). So the only thing ICANN could do is to all-or-nothing delete .org or .ch, making every domain name with that ending disappear temporarily.

Note that went down not because of anything done to its DNS entry within the list kept by the registry that domains (full disclosure: I’m on the board of Trustees for the non-profit Internet Society (ISOC) which is the parent to the Public Interest Registry, which keeps track of names in .org). Instead, the name server to which its entry pointed (even lower down the DNS chain) was attacked with a flood of traffic by unknown parties and EveryDNS, the operator of that name server, chose to stop answering queries about Wikileaks in the hopes that the attack would stop. (Apparently it did.)

A website also needs hosting, and Wikileaks has apparently had to shift its hosting at least once after being dropped by a chosen provider: Amazon’s commodity hosting service shut down the site for terms of service violations after being contacted by U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman.

On a more technical level, the Wikileaks website can come under attack, and its means of collecting money can be made much more difficult.

Jonathan Zittrain is a professor of law and professor of computer science at Harvard, and co-founder of its Berkman Center for Internet & Society; Molly Sauter is a research assistant at the Berkman Center. Further updates will appear at

This is an article from MIT


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