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US Government Conflates Media Outlet Wikileaks with Cyber-Criminals and 'Hacktivists'

New Obama administration strategy says WikiLeaks might perform "economic espionage against US companies"

Defenders of Wikileaks call the White House description of the media outlet as a group of 'hacktivists' as blatantly false.

In what transparency advocates and defenders of free speech see as a troubling development, the Obama administration on Wednesday released a multi-agency "strategy"—designed to combat cyber-crime and foreign espionage—which makes unsettling comparisons to the work of the government and corporate whistleblower media outlet Wikileaks to criminal hacking syndicates.

"Disgruntled insiders [may leak] information about corporate trade secrets or critical U.S. technology to 'hacktivist' groups like WikiLeaks," the White House document warns, belying the well established fact that Wikileaks does not operate as a 'hacking' site but as a clearing house for leaked documents that acts as a media outlet more than anything else.

According to Wikileaks' own website, it describes itself as is "a not-for-profit media organization."

Its goal, the group states, "is to bring important news and information to the public. We provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists. One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth."

But, as CNET's Declan McCullagh points out, Wikileak's inclusion in the new strategy document (PDF)—one expected to be focused on "state-sponsored intrusions"—had not been anticipated.

"Regardless of the US government’s prejudice, [Wikileaks] is a media organization and a publisher, not some “hacktivist” collective. It has a right to publish just like other news outlets, including those in the United States that are sometimes incredibly subservient to corporate interests or the US government." – Kevin Gosztgola, FireDogLake

"Especially," writes McCullagh, "in the wake of disclosures this week about the Chinese military's involvement in penetrating the networks of U.S.-headquartered companies." 

McCullagh says that by mentioning Wikileaks—whose founder Julian Assange remains holed up the Ecuadorean Embassy in London due to his fears that the US would like to prosecute him for releasing embarrassing US government and military documents—the Justice Department "signals that the government's interest in WikiLeaks has not abated."

McCullagh notes that vice president Joe Biden has called Assange a "high-tech terrorist," and that "a grand jury has been empaneled in Alexandria, Va., as part of a criminal investigation of the group."

And Kevin Gosztgola, writing at FireDogLake, adds:

The strategy makes clear that the White House does not consider WikiLeaks a media organization. It characterizes it as a “self-styling whistleblowing” organization, but the word “self-styled” indicates they are not a “whistleblowing organization” to White House officials.

The organization is listed under a description of hacktivists and even described as an example of a “hacktivist” organization. This is blatantly false and malicious because staffers of WikiLeaks are not known to have hacked into any businesses or organizations to obtain information. They are not even known to have solicited information from insiders. All information released has been the result of submissions from sources they are unable to identify because their submission system was setup to protect the identity of sources or the information has been personally handed over by a whistleblower, who publicly wanted to be identified as the source [as in the case of Elmer].

Regardless of the US government’s prejudice, it is a media organization and a publisher, not some “hacktivist” collective. WikiLeaks has a right to publish just like other news outlets, including those in the United States that are sometimes incredibly subservient to corporate interests or the US government.

By including WikiLeaks in this strategy, the Obama administration is seeking to characterize WikiLeaks as an organization that poses a potential threat to the US economy. Such a characterization is advantageous to military prosecutors in the court martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning, who allegedly provided classified information to WikiLeaks. Manning is charged with “aiding the enemy” by indirectly providing intelligence to al Qaeda through WikiLeaks. His defense maintains WikiLeaks is a media organization that should enjoy the same legal protections the New York Times or Washington Post would enjoy, but if the White House is going to cast WikiLeaks as an actor that might engage in economic espionage, it is much easier to convince the judge that WikiLeaks is some type of info-terrorist organization and that Manning should have known the information could be used to injure the United States.

There is no reasonable justification for including “hacktivists” in this strategy other than the fact that the White House intends to further support the targeting of “hacktivists” by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. ”Hacktivists” do not pose any threat to trade secrets and never will. If they truly are political or social “hacktivists” and not thiefs, they will not take anything from any businesses or organizations and they will not destroy any of the business or organization’s website by accessing it through the internet.


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