Huffpost Technology

WikiLeaks 101: Q&A With An Internet Security Expert

Posted: Updated:

WikiLeaks has gone down, returned, gone down again, returned and other sites have been taken down by supporters of WikiLeaks like Visa.com.

From a technical standpoint, what is happening exactly and what will happen next in this ongoing cyberspace saga? HuffPost Tech asked SafeCentral CTO Ray Dickenson to help us break it all down based on his Internet security expertise.

Q: How can WikiLeaks withstand attacks against their site, and how might they propagate the sensitive information they're leaking?

Dickenson: They already are withstanding the attacks. There are many mirror sites where their content is available now. A list is available here: wikileaks.info.

Furthermore, the cablegate dataset has been released via bittorrent, which means it is being downloaded all over the world and then instantly made available from others to download from an ever-increasing number of computers.

The biggest impact right now is that the flagship site, wikileaks.org is being blocked. This only stops casual readers from browsing the content--casual readers who would not look around in more places. Really dedicated readers can still find the content.

Q: Can commercial websites withstand the attacks by pro-WikiLeaks supporters? What types of the threats are these commercial sites facing, and how do they protect themselves?

Dickenson: Yes, commercial sites can spend money to architect and implement resilient designs. These cost more money, require hosting in many locations on diverse networks, complicate the website management processes (it's harder to update a webpage on 30 different servers in 5 locations than on 4 servers in 2 locations), require network and server hosting contracts with multiple vendors and require more sophisticated monitoring and management infrastructure and the skilled engineers to go with it. Even so, hackers with medium level skills could still have an impact..temporary or limited to a geographic region, but still an impact.

Commercial sites have to consider every visitor a "casual reader" and expect them to be stopped cold if a wikileaks.org-style DNS blocking happened. So walmart.com cannot expect visitors to look for a list of mirror sites like wikileaks has created.

Q: Are government websites at risk of being attacked, and what is the threat level? Are government sites better prepared than these commercial sites?

Dickenson: Same answer as commercial sites. However, governments typically have more resources to throw at the hosting problem and also have law enforcement to back them up directly. Attacks on government websites could be considered a national security issue and thereby open up every channel of response, including FBI, Secret Service, Military and other organizations.

Q: What other kind of threats do consumers, and commercial or government entities face in terms of web-based attacks? What other tactics might be used by attackers?

Dickenson: Really dirty tricks could include putting up a fake wikileaks (or walmart) site and putting up disinformation or, even worse, malware that scares everyone away or infects their computers and make them susceptible to further exploitation. Further exploitation could include surveillance--that is, watching what these website visitors are doing on their computers.

Q: What might happen next?

Dickenson: Here is the thing: billions, maybe trillions, of dollars have been spent building and operating the Internet and its array of services that include content, email, payment processing, remote control. Most of this development is designed to make it easy for average people to connect with one another and get things done online. Bad guys take all that infrastructure, technology, software development tools and other resources and TURN THEM AGAINST US. When the latest Internet start-up like Facebook builds its systems it is primarily concerned with adding users and growing its business. Security is an exception..an additional cost..a headwind that slows growth. Something to take care of later. This means that creative, smart people with time on their hands and a willingness to do harm can get a lot done on the wide open Internet.

For example, large-scale attacks on individual citizens, exploiting their online lives through bank accounts, social networking, and professional networks, not seeking to steal money (which requires humans to receive payments and launder funds) but just to disrupt our connected lives. Anything that causes citizens to re-think how safe they are or how stable society is, could have significant impact on a nation, an economy, a large corporation or other large target.

From Our Partners