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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

On WikiLeaks Methods and Motivations

Recently, the WikiLeaks Task Force tweeted something quite inflammatory:

We are thinking of making an online database with all "verified" twitter accounts & their family/job/financial/housing relationships.

In other words, that it was determined to create and publish a database of personal interconnections between verified Twitter users. This database would include information about finances, family connections, cohabitation, jobs and so forth.

This statement has, at the very least, sparked outrage.

Let's look at this statement from two points of view: (1) that WikiLeaks made the statement , and (2) that someone else made the statement and wants us to think WikiLeaks said it.

(1) WikiLeaks made the statement

That, on the face of it, would be galling.

I ask you here, honestly: does everything have to be public?

I can understand Facebook and why they would want to collect their user graph. They protect their users' privacy (although that's far more nebulous, even given their periodic missives, famous missteps, and explanations of policy).

But let's look at the author of the tweet: WikiLeaks. This sounds more like a sinister plot to me. Let's address the main reason for this.

What's all this about WikiLeaks working with the Russians?

Though WikiLeaks may never have dealt directly with the Russian intelligence services, they certainly had to know that release of the data played right into the Russians' hands. It seems pretty clear, given the timing of the release of the Podesta emails, that WikiLeaks understands perfectly the consequences of their actions.

In fact, WikiLeaks' sensitive data releases almost always damage the west and leave Russia unscathed. A visit to the torrent repository shows us specifically who they target. There are very few Russia-related information troves.

If they released a trove of data on the Russians, it seems clear to me that Assange and many others at WikiLeaks would find themselves sipping Polonium-210-laced tea like that ill-fated ex-KGB whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko. Bad press for the Kremlin (in his case, looking into the assassination of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya) is generally punished by death in Russia. Dig too deeply and you'll discover, much to your chagrin, that it's your own grave you have dug.

WikiLeaks denies they received the leaked emails from the Russians. The US claims they know the go-betweens that prove Putin ordered the operation.

Let's just say for a moment that WikiLeaks are enemies of the west. Then this is completely consistent with publishing a database of who is related to who, what their jobs are, how much they make, and where they live. This process, called doxing enables people and organizations with malicious intent to get handles on people they want to attack. If this were true, the database WikiLeaks apparently would want to publish is, in fact, an analog of the human flesh search engine.

This kind of data would be of immense use to the Russian intelligence services, such as the FSB. So it certainly seems plausible to me that WikiLeaks was behind the tweet. But what about the other possibility?

(2) Someone else made the statement and wants us to think WikiLeaks said it

Did they even say it? It was tweeted by the WikiLeaksTaskForce, the Official WikiLeaks support account. It is explicitly intended to "correct misinformation about WikiLeaks".

Very soon after the original tweet, which has since been deleted, WikiLeaks itself tweeted the following:

Media note: is the only official account of WikiLeaks. No other accounts are authorized to make statements on behalf.

So the narrative might be that some troll joined (or hacked into) WikiLeaksTaskForce and posted the tweet to spread false information.

Its not unlikely at all that someone would want to discredit WikiLeaks. After all, their business is to enable whistleblowers by providing foolproof ways to release sensitive information. So anyone that has been damaged (or may be damaged) certainly has the motivation to discredit WikiLeaks. This is a big list of people, like John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and organizations, like Bank of America, the American Intelligence community, and so on.

Tom properly discredit WikiLeaks, they would plausibly possess the means to accomplish the database in question. To assess that, we must first know exactly how WikiLeaks works.

How does WikiLeaks work?

Their primary modus operandi, I believe, must generally be given by the following steps:

  • accept large corpora of whistleblower information
  • put it onto an air-gapped network
  • strip it of all attribution, which entails editing it
  • separate it into bins of sensitivity
  • encrypt and encapsulate (using BitTorrent) the bins for transport
  • upload the information on
  • get other sites to mirror the information
  • periodically release keys for the purpose of disseminating the information a bit at a time

They would use an air-gapped network to prevent anyone from hacking into them, which is definitely possible. They would want to isolate the sensitive data to completely control what is done with it and where it goes.

The stripping of all attribution information, including email headers and telltale references is done to protect their sources. This may involve redaction of information that can hurt innocent parties. But also look at this on the face of it: they are intimately acquainted with the forensics of data present in email headers.

They have admitted that they separate the data into bins of sensitivity so they can control the impact of the releases. After all, the idea that some information is more sensitive than others is a natural consequence of the information itself. But they might also want to keep the most inflammatory information as a deadman switch. Such information can be released if Assange is killed, for instance. This was demonstrated recently when, in October 2016, Ecuador cut off Julian Assange's Internet access. Soon thereafter, WikiLeaks tweeted hashes to various troves of information, aimed at John Kerry, Ecuador, and the UK FCO. So it's a virtual certainty that Assange has deadman switches.

Their favorite method of leak data storage is by encrypted, encapsulated databases, posted as a single file. This is so they can withhold the release of the data, processed using AES 256-bit encryption, until a later date, without withholding the data itself. Often, the files are hundreds of gigabytes in size, so they use BitTorrent as their transport. The file names often contain the word "insurance". This also corroborates the theory that the files constitute a deadman switch: if Assange or another key-holding WikiLeaks person is killed, then keys may be released by the others in retribution.

After the data is packaged, it is then uploaded to, a storage site run by WikiLeaks that promotes mirroring. Unfortunately, from time to time, this data has often included malware which gets cleaned up, generally as soon as it is discovered.

Once there, any number of sites mirror the WikiLeaks databases. This includes CableDrum, and many other sites. This measure of redundancy prevents any single site from simply being destroyed to prevent the sensitive information from being released.

When WikiLeaks releases a trove of information, they simply need to release the AES 256-bit (64 hex digit) key. This allows anybody having access to any of the mirror sites to decrypt the information and begin the process of data mining it. Usually this means the press.

How does WikiLeaks modus operandi make the tweet more plausible, specifically?

First, because WikiLeaks is known to accept large corpora of hacked data, who says they haven't been able to get ahold of the verified Twitter database? If it's not plausible, then this tweet is a call to arms for the many hackers out there who need the cred that would stem from such a successful attack.

Second, because WikiLeaks is adept at stripping attribution information from email, metadata from photographs, wrappers from tweets, and other media, they are the perfect institution to be able to make use of that attribution information, symmetrically, to work against the "system".

Third, knowledge of encryption and the limits of its usefulness means they must also be knowledgeable about decrypting and cracking such information. They have a milieu of hackers that they are in regular contact with, certainly. They are trusted by hackers because it is WikiLeaks specific mission to protect them. They need to know what can and can't be cracked so they can keep their publicly available information troves secret from the most capable intelligence agencies in the world.

How does the tweet discredit WikiLeaks, specifically?

The ghastly specter of Big Brother looms over the tweet, that some clandestine organization is gathering information on all of us. This makes WikiLeaks the new NSA, the new GCHQ. Which makes those two organizations the ones most likely to discredit Assange.

Do they really need discrediting?

Currently their leader Julian Assange had been holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for 4 years and 7 months. This is because he has been granted asylum by Ecuador. Assange suspects that he will be extradited to the US to face charges under the Espionage Act of 1917. This could net him 45 years in a supermax prison, and potentially the death penalty.

Assange is also wanted for "lesser degree rape" in Sweden, a charge that will not expire until 2020.

The NSA has labelled WikiLeaks as a "malicious foreign actor".