LONDON (Reuters) - Heroes to some, villains to others, WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange highlight divisions over data security and show the tech-fueled information revolution is outpacing debate over its use.
An apparent campaign by the United States to lock down the WikiLeaks website sits awkwardly with its rhetoric on free speech. It comes only months after the State Department criticized Gulf states for threatening to block Blackberry smart phones over access to encrypted messages.
The fact that some 250,000 classified U.S. diplomatic cables — as well as almost the entire military logs of the Iraqi and Afghan wars — could be downloaded and leaked has sent shock waves around all those with sensitive data.
The WikiLeaks.com website has since found itself shut down after apparent political pressure on service providers, although mirror sites in several European countries mean the data so far released remains readily available. Social networking sites such as Twitter swiftly pointed users to the new sites.
Around the world, opinion is increasingly polarized.
“There’s always been a divide between those who want the Internet to be open and free and those who view that as a risk, who want information to be protected and controlled,” said Jonathan Wood, global issues analyst at Control Risks. “This obviously highlights those divisions.”
Opinions look to be becoming polarized further. Officials and security experts expressed outrage on Monday after WikiLeaks released a list of facilities around the world deemed essential by the U.S., saying it heightened the risks of militant attack.
Meanwhile, viral emails and websites supporting Assange called on Internet users around the world to fight censorship by disseminating cables as far and wide as possible and boycotting sites such as Amazon and PayPal that had moved to obstruct him.
“The first infowar is now engaged,” said one.
A French minister said on Friday Paris was looking at ways of blocking attempts to host the site in France, and some senior U.S. politicians have called for Assange to be charged with treason or treated as a terrorist. WikiLeaks says its sites have been under near continuous cyber attack.
“This is the first time we have seen an attempt at the international community level to censor a website dedicated to the principle of transparency,” said press freedom group Reporters Sans Frontieres.
“We are shocked to find countries such as France and the United States suddenly bringing their policies on freedom of expression into line with those of China.”
What WikiLeaks has shown is how much data can now be stolen in one go and how widely it can be disseminated. In a previous decade, removing that much paper information would have taken a fleet of trucks. Now, the Internet allows it to be disseminated instantly across international borders.
Corporations and governments say a measure of secrecy and privacy is vital. Firms must be able to keep proprietary technology secret as well as business information if they are to compete. Lives can be put at risk when individuals are named as, for example, helping Western forces in Iraq or Afghanistan.
People are increasingly nervous about the security of personal information. Britain’s government has been embarrassed several times after losing the personal data of thousands on disks and memory sticks.
No one, after all, wants their credit card details leaked.
But there is little if any agreement on what legal controls could prevent misuse of data or whether such controls could be enforced on a national, let alone global level.
“I think the conversation hasn’t kept pace with technology — people are only just realizing how much data is being stored and how much information can be derived from it,” said Jack Hembrough, CEO of U.S. tech firm Vaporstream. “Once it is out there, I don’t think there’s any way of controlling it.”
Vaporstream’s answer is relatively simple — a piece of messaging software it says never saves messages, meaning they can therefore not be stolen. Since the WikiLeaks story broke last week, it says downloads of its test software have increased 20-30 percent.
But often, sensitive information simply has to be saved and transferred around an organization. State Department cables cannot be electronically vaporized after the first person has read them, nor can internal company financial discussions.
There are other debates just beginning across the digital world. Governments might be building ever more sophisticated cyber weapons to attack infrastructure control systems, but experts say the policy framework for their use lags well behind.
Most agree police and spy agencies need the ability to occasionally hack electronic messaging to detect militancy and crime — but what if that crosses the line into corporate espionage or invasion of privacy?
While almost all governments have deplored the release, there is no doubt WikiLeaks enjoys popular support amongst many particularly a younger generation. On sites such as Twitter, many view Swedish charges against Assange as politically motivated.
WikiLeaks’s facebook page has some 850,000 fans and rising — up from 500,000 on Friday and that looks set to increase further. Some see a larger cultural trend.
“It’s no surprise that there has been a rise in antiestablishment feeling coming out the financial crisis,” said Control Risks analyst Wood. “We haven’t really seen what that means yet but this (WikiLeaks) is probably linked.”
Editing by Janet McBride