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The Newest WikiLeaks Problem: Unredacted Cables

Despite the best efforts of the State Department and media titans such as The New York Times, unredacted WikiLeaks cables appear to be making their way across the internet.

The Newest WikiLeaks Problem: Unredacted Cables

Information wants to be free and that, apparently, even applies to censored portions of WikiLeaks. Unredacted versions of censored WikiLeaks cables appear to be quietly (and widely) disseminating through the torrentsphere, conventional websites, and the murky subculture of conspiracy- and cryptography-oriented websites. Meanwhile, a controversial Russian figure associated with WikiLeaks has announced his intent to release further unredacted cables to the web.

The leaked diplomatic cables currently available through both the primary WikiLeaks website and its mirrors and through journalistic partners such as The Guardian and Der Spiegel go through a process of editing before formal release to the public. In an interview with NPR's Terry Gross, The New York Times' David Sanger described a process in which his newspaper and its lawyers weighed both the ramifications of publishing national security information before reproducing some of the cables and the need to put information in context for readers.

Other media outlets presumably go through similar processes as well. According to Harvard University's Jonathan Zittrain, "WikiLeaks is currently relying on the expertise of the five news organizations [who have access to the cables] to redact the cables as they are released, and is following their redactions as it releases the documents on its website."

That leaves a lot of redacted cables.

Fast Company reported previously on the activities of Israel Shamir, a Russian associate of WikiLeaks who has come under fire following charges of anti-Semitism. Shamir recently published an article in the website of the left-wing magazine CounterPunch which reproduced unredacted cables relating to high-level corruption and government-organized crime links in Central Asia. These cables implied the identities of American sources and implicated Western corporations in government corruption. In the article, Shamir accuses The Guardian— which published the original cables—of pursuing a political agenda in redacting the cables.

Contacted by email by Fast Company, Shamir gave his reasoning in releasing unredacted cables that hinted at the names of State Department sources and presumably put them at risk: "Handing confidential and secret information to everybody is the thing of Wikileaks. That's what it is about. Your question is like asking police why they catch thieves. That is what they are for."

Shamir's personal website also contains the claim that "we also hand confidential information to everybody without discrimination."

Meanwhile, a torrent alleging to show edits and redactions made to WikiLeaks cables is being distributed by a Ukranian website and gaining wide dissemination on Torrent directories and bulletin boards frequented by both cryptography and conspiracy theory enthusiasts.

The website, which is associated with the Twitter account privet_bank and maintains a theme involving cute cats, distributes and is responsible for a torrent of a ~560k 7-ZIP archive containing HTML files which claim to be before-and-after versions of edited WikiLeaks diplomatic cables, with changes keyed to dates. Due to the sensitivity of the unredacted WikiLeaks cables, Fast Company has opted not to link to the site or to the torrent. However, the torrent's current wide distribution and relatively easy availability make it newsworthy.

Establishing accuracy in these cases is difficult for the layperson. However, the WikiLeaks cable torrents keyed to in the .RAR file are legitimate and a spot inspection of cables showed a correspondence between the cable identifications shown in the Torrent and those on the actual WikiLeaks site. This applied to the location of the retractions as well.

While most of the redactions were grammatical corrections, stylistic corrections, or deletions of time/date information, many of the redactions appear to involve sensitive information concerning State Department sources or assets. Many of the deletions also appear to be related to American corporations or business interests. These cables all originally showed up in unredacted form (either on the WikiLeaks website or on official torrents) but were later redacted. For the tabloid gossip factor, the files also appear to name Muammar Gadaffi's infamous 'Ukranian nurse.'

When contacted for email comment by Fast Company, the website's operator gave a description of their methods, which involves a series of custom programming tools that monitor torrents, autogenerate databases of added/redacted information and a data scraping tool that targets several of the major publications involved in the WikiLeaks disclosures. The site's operator also gave this explanation, which implies the belief that WikiLeaks is following a private political agenda:

[The] content of cables was already released by WikiLeaks. Torrents are published at thepiratebay and many others websites. WikiLeaks has claimed regularly that nobody was hurt by releases, why should somebody else be worried about releasing information with changes between cables? Even more - if WikiLeaks and it's partners has own agenda and hide more then just names - why should fact should not be made public?

The most important takeaway here is that WikiLeaks' intent to make classified information free appears to be defeating the attempts of both the United States government and WikiLeaks' journalistic partners to mitigate fallout from the more sensitive portions of the disclosed cables. If a 14-year-old with a minimal knowledge of Google can now obtain torrents of unredacted cables just by browsing The Pirate Bay or isoHunt, so can people with darker intentions.

Moreso, the difficulty barrier towards the creation of fake unredacted cables in the future by other parties appears surprisingly low. There have been cases of fake WikiLeaks diplomatic cables in the past and, given that only 2428 of the 251,287 cables in WikiLeaks' possession have been released by press time, it appears that the spread of WikiLeaks torrents will make verifying information contained therein increasingly challenging.

Most surprisingly, if the cables contained on the unredacted torrent and the alleged timeframe are indeed as accurate as they seem to be, this means WikiLeaks has been posting unredacted cables to their website before their media partners edit them. If correct, this hints at an interesting intent on the part of WikiLeaks.

Follow the author of this article, Neal Ungerleider, on Twitter.

Update: An earlier version of this post misidentified the WikiLeaks unredacted cable cache as a RAR archive. In addition, some wording has been changed for clarification purposes.