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  • 01.14.11

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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