Skip to main content

The technical muscle behind WikiLeaks

John D. Sutter
Click to play
Wiki-what? How war documents got online
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • WikiLeaks is a website where people send classified documents
  • The site decides what to publish; in that sense, it's not a true user-edited "wiki"
  • WikiLeaks maintains servers in multiple countries and encrypts data
  • The site faces some technical problems due in part to its sudden popularity

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange talks to Larry King about the 90,000 documents his site recently made public reportedly detailing U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan. Don't miss 'Larry King Live' at 9 p.m. ET Monday on CNN.

(CNN) -- WikiLeaks isn't much to look at.

The website's homepage is largely composed of a plain-text logo and a giant hyperlink that simply says: "Submit documents."

But there's plenty of technical muscle and strategy behind the whistle-blowing website that's known for leaking state secrets, including, on Sunday, tens of thousands of alleged documents about the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

That's not to say WikiLeaks is immune to attacks and technical challenges, however. The site crashes on occasion, either because of high traffic, as was the case Sunday and Monday, or because of lack of funds, which reportedly was the case when the site briefly shut down in January.

On Monday, some visitors to the site were met with this error message: "Well there was an error. Maybe we are just overloaded, please try again in a few minutes."

How it works

WikiLeaks, which runs on funding from donors, has been rather secretive about how it operates.

But essentially the idea behind the site is this: People who have access to controversial or classified documents can send them to the site, either through the internet or through the mail.

Then a group of volunteer editors for the site decides what information is authoritative, what information is important, and publishes it accordingly.

Video: Fallout over leaked documents
Video: The new 'Pentagon Papers'
Video: Why the world needs WikiLeaks
RELATED TOPICS

In this way, the site differs from traditional "wikis," such as Wikipedia, which can be edited and changed by anyone at any time.

Only approved information ends up on the WikiLeaks site, but anyone is free to submit documents he or she believes should be made public.

WikiLeaks offers these whistle-blowers anonymity and, to a degree, legal protection.

Technical backbone

Since WikiLeaks is in the business of publishing information that governments and multinational corporations want kept secret, the site employs some technical tricks that aim to keep it from crashing or being hacked.

The site keeps servers on multiple continents, and its sensitive information passes through countries -- such as Sweden, Iceland and Belgium -- that have offered WikiLeaks a degree of legal protection.

"We use this state-of-the-art encryption to bounce stuff around the internet to hide trails -- pass it through legal jurisdictions like Sweden and Belgium to enact those legal protections," the site's controversial editor, Julian Assange, said in an onstage interview at the TED Global conference on July 20.

The fact that WikiLeaks' servers and volunteers are all over the globe makes it, in effect, the "world's first stateless news organization," writes Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University.

Rosen says this is key to the site's ability to protect itself.

"WikiLeaks is organized so that if the crackdown comes in one country, the servers can be switched on in another," he writes. "This is meant to put it beyond the reach of any government or legal system."

Assange reportedly has spent his life developing the tech skills needed to set up such a system.

"As a teenager in Melbourne, Australia, he belonged to a hacker collective called the International Subversives," writes the magazine Mother Jones.

He eventually pleaded guilty to multiple counts "of breaking into Australian government and commercial websites to test their security gaps, but was released on bond for good behavior."

Overloaded

Despite these efforts to distribute and encrypt, however, the site faces technical challenges.

It appears to be struggling in the face of newfound popularity, both because of the leaked Afghanistan documents and because of an alleged war video from Iraq that shows about a dozen civilians being killed in 2007.

Early Monday, WikiLeaks posted on its Twitter feed that it was "tremendously overloaded."

It offered the public an alternate website -- called the "Afghan War Diary" -- where people could read the alleged documents from Afghanistan even if the main website at WikiLeaks.org had gone down.

On Monday, the site's homepage was crashing from time to time.

Assange has said in recent interviews that WikiLeaks' sudden popularity has contributed to some technical troubles.

"At the moment, we are undergoing some serious fundraising and engineering efforts, so our publication rate over the past few months has been minimized by [the fact that] we're re-engineering our back systems for the phenomenal public interest that we've had," he said in the onstage interview at the TED Global conference.

"That's a problem. Like any sort of growing startup org, we are sort of overwhelmed by our growth. That means we're getting enormous quantities of whistle-blower disclosures of very high caliber, but don't have enough people to actually process and vet this information."

In a press conference following the release of the alleged Afghanistan documents, Assange said the site has 800 part-time volunteers and a loose network of 70,000 "supporters."

In the TED talk, he also alluded to the fact that the more information the site gets, the more difficult it is to store and protect all of it.

Here's how he explained the site's process for receiving and publishing information:

"We get information in the mail -- the regular postal mail -- and, encrypted or not, vet it like a regular news organization; format it, which is sometimes something that's quite hard to do when you're talking about giant databases of information; release it to the public and then defend ourselves against the inevitable political and legal attacks."

[TECH: NEWSPULSE]

Most popular Tech stories right now