Music and movie pirates may not be the only ones trolling peer-to-peer networks for booty. The secret-spilling site WikiLeaks may also have used file sharing networks to obtain some of the documents it has published, according to a computer-security firm.
The allegations come from Tiversa, a Pennsylvania peer-to-peer investigations firm, that claims it passed information of WikiLeaks’ file sharing activity to U.S. government officials, according to Bloomberg.
Tiversa asserts that on Feb. 7, 2009 it monitored four computers based in Sweden, where WikiLeaks’ primary servers were based, as they conducted 413 searches on peer-to-peer networks seeking Microsoft Excel files and other data-heavy documents, some of which were subsequently published online by WikiLeaks.
If the allegations are true, it would not be the first time that WikiLeaks published documents that were obtained through hacking or online surveillance rather than from a whistleblower or other insiders.
The site published data in 2008 that a hacker obtained from the private e-mail account of then vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. And, according to a New Yorker story published last year, the site also possesses a cache of more than a million documents that were grabbed by a WikiLeaks activist in 2006 after they traveled through the Tor anonymizing network. At least one of these documents was published on the WikiLeaks site, according to the magazine.
So why should we care? Whether you like Wikileaks, don’t like them, or think they should die in a fire, does it really make a difference in how they distribute and gather information?
Well yes, it does and it could be a very serious difference.
News organizations by and large, seek out tips, sources, whistleblowers– but they always have that intermediate link between them and the original source material. When gathering the Pentagon Papers, The New York Times didn’t go and get them themselves, they received them from Daniel Ellsberg, rather than a crack team of reporter ninja’s who stole documents from the Pentagon before engaging in a running gun battle with MP’s on their way to New York. The crime if there was one, was Ellsberg’s– and by long standing tradition, later codified in New York Times Co. v. United States, the standards for prior restraint were placed high enough that today it’s unusual for a serious attempt to even be made to stop publication of such information– no matter how embaressing.
But, we need to note that Ellsberg wasn’t found innocent of violations of the Espionage Act and the act itself was not ruled unconstitutional– the case was simply fatally flawed by governmental misdeeds. That act is still out there, and it has never been ruled unconstitutional.
So if Wikileaks, is engaging in independent efforts to gather information, trolling p2p files, and such, they’ve removed a very important barrier between them and possible legal trouble– because now it’s no longer a matter of gathering information from whistleblowers, but directly obtaining the information.
This doesn’t only apply to Wikileaks, of course– as the ability to individual gather information from the net, the difference between reporter and source will increasingly blur. For example, it’s known that in many cases these documents were released inadvertently. But does their release to a public p2p network immunize Wikileaks or any other reporting agency? You can argue that by being on a public network, for whatever reason, they are no longer covered by the Espionage Act– but that hasn’t actually been argued in a court yet.
This is going to be an increasingly important factor– the growth of new blogs, and even private citizens making use of capabilities which simply didn’t exist as little as 15 years ago to also engage in news (or gossip) gathering is forcing changes in the way both nations and individuals view the law as it applies to the news media.