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WikiLeaks' Partnership With Anonymous May Indicate Shift In Tactics

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange holds a leaked Stratfor document at a news conference in London on February 27.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange holds a leaked Stratfor document at a news conference in London on February 27.
WikiLeaks is back in the news with the release of millions of e-mails from Stratfor, a global security firm.

The latest trawl -- 167 of more than 5.5 million corporate e-mails -- was obtained after the hacktivist collective Anonymous hacked into Stratfor servers in December 2011.

It's no surprise that WikiLeaks is partnering with Anonymous. After companies, including Amazon and PayPal, withdrew their support for WikiLeaks after the release of U.S. State Department cables in December 2010, Anonymous launched distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS) against PayPal and a Swiss bank. Anonymous activists have been strong supporters of the Free Bradley Manning campaign. Manning is the U.S. Army private who is alleged to have leaked the cables to WikiLeaks.

For Anonymous -- a loose and decentralized collection of activists sometimes united but often divided into various factions -- it makes sense to partner with WikiLeaks. One activist told Wired that:

"WikiLeaks has great means to publish and disclose,” the anon told Wired. "Also, they work together with media in a way we don’t."

"Basically, WL is the ideal partner for such stuff," the anon continued. "Antisec acquires the shit, WL gets it released in a proper manner." Antisec is the arm of Anonymous that is known for hacking into servers.

While WikiLeaks has always maintained it doesn't hack, it has published information that has been obtained by hacking, such as the Climategate e-mails. But as Andy Greenberg points out at Forbes, "Since hitting the spotlight in 2010, WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange has played down the group’s associations with hackers and focused more on its role as a media organization and a conduit for whistleblowers."

WikiLeaks has undoubtedly received much support because of its choice of targets (the U.S. government, for example), but its high-tech submission system has also been lauded as a model for future whistle-blowing. However, that submissions system -- which meant that whistleblowers could anonymously and securely leak information -- has been dormant since 2010. Potential users just get a site-under-maintenance message and a link to an Internet relay chat channel. If, say, you were a whistle-blowing bureaucrat in Country X visiting the WikiLeaks website, it isn't immediately apparent how you would leak information.

Not only is WikiLeaks facing financial challenges, but security challenges. In December 2011, the "FT" reported that while WikiLeaks had been hoping to "re-engineer from scratch" its submission system, it had to delay the release because of "the deteriorating state of internet security which directly impacts the ability of sources to communicate with journalists and human rights activists securely."

With its submissions system on ice, WikiLeaks will no doubt rely more on the likes of Anonymous for its leaks. While many Anonymous activists are relatively low-skilled and just foot soldiers in DDoS operations, there are certainly hackers capable of sophisticated exploits. That could potentially bring WikiLeaks plenty of swag and also mean the organization doesn't have to maintain a secure dropbox on its site. It could also bring them a few PR headaches. Greenberg writes that, "A public association with a hacker group like Anonymous may hurt WikiLeaks’ moral credibility just when the group needs it most."

Would people feel the same about WikiLeaks -- in a post-Murdoch hacking scandal world -- if it just relied on hacked information obtained by shadowy and unaccountable groups like Anonymous? Assange, a former hacker himself, is certainly not troubled by the ethics of relying on hacked information, but other supporters might be. There was much public outrage over the "News Of The World's" alleged reliance on hacking, private investigators, and paying for sources, but as Assange revealed in this interview, he had no moral qualms.

The partnership with Anonymous could also put WikiLeaks under more legal scrutiny. A functioning submissions system could have been a handy legal loophole for WikiLeaks: one of the original concepts of the organization was that their technology enabled their sources to remain anonymous, even to WikiLeaks. But as a Canadian hacker, Oxblood Ruffin, commented on Twitter: "There's no plausible deniability if there was a hand-off, no?" referring to the exchange of information between WikiLeaks and Anonymous.

The other question is one of verification and trust. Anonymous is known for and has its origins in pranking. An e-mail circulating earlier on various forums used by Anonymous claimed that the Stratfor CEO, George Friedman, had resigned. But in interviews to wire agencies on February 27, Stratfor said that the e-mail was a fake and that Friedman remained the company's CEO.

Stratfor has said in a company statement that some of the published e-mails "may be forged or altered to include inaccuracies; some may be authentic." For WikiLeaks, the problem with working with Anonymous is that the decentralized structure means that technically anyone can do anything in Anonymous's name. There are plenty of serious hacktivist types who would identify as Anons; but there are also plenty of troublemakers and pranksters. For WikiLeaks -- keen to present itself as a serious media organization working in the public interest -- Anonymous might just be too lulzy to handle.

What is clear is that WikiLeaks is in desperate need of funding. Partnering with Anonymous on a release of pretty underwhelming information is a good way to get WikiLeaks back into the news cycle and raise funds.

Visit the WikiLeaks site and it's almost impossible to find out how you can leak information, but you can instantly see how to donate.