Though it's nothing new for WikiLeaks to publish information belonging to a private company, Monday's release of Stratfor e-mails might be an indication that for the first time, Anonymous and WikiLeaks have worked together. And that could have legal consequences for WikiLeaks' editor Julian Assange, experts say.
In December, Anonymous claimed it had hacked Stratfor, the Austin, Texas-based private company that produces intelligence reports for clients. On Monday, WikiLeaks began releasing 5 million e-mails it said belonged to Stratfor that reveal, WikiLeaks says, a litany of injustices by the company. WikiLeaks is calling the leak The Global Intelligence Files.
WikiLeaks has not said where it got the e-mails. Anonymous, an amorphous group of hackers worldwide, is claiming on Twitter and on other social media that they gave it to the site. Numerous media outlets such as the Washington Post and Wired are reporting the partnership.
"Their [WikiLeaks and Anonymous] working together made sense. Anonymous did the hack, had the stuff and in the end decided that someone else would be better-suited to comb through this and release it," said Gregg Housh, who acts as a spokesperson for Anonymous. "Anonymous just didn't have the ability to go through all the e-mails themselves. This was a happy partnership. WikiLeaks did such an awesome job categorizing the [State Department] cables."
WikiLeaks became megawatt famous in 2010 with the Iraq and Afghanistan war leaks, and then followed up by leaking nearly a quarter million State Department cables. Meanwhile, Anonymous was making its first international headlines by disabling the Web sites of MasterCard, PayPal and Visa when the corporations stopped doing business with WikiLeaks. With intense attention on WikiLeaks and Assange's subsequent legal woes, it seemed that Anonymous might take over if WikiLeaks couldn't survive. Assange last year said that he had nothing to do with the site disabling of the companies.
Housh is a web developer in Boston and says that he observes Anonymous' IRC chat portal and communicates with anons but he doesn't participate in any hacks. Through Housh, CNN has requested phone interviews with anons, people who associate themselves with Anonymous. On Monday those requests were rebuffed – although across the Web, anons claimed credit for the Stratfor hack. The hackers behind the Stratfor hack may be part of an Anonymous sect called "Anti-Sec," which Wired reports is known for hacking into servers.
Stratfor confirmed Monday that company e-mails had been stolen, but said in a statement that some of the messages may have been altered.
Because the Global Intelligence Files are allegedly stolen from a private company, WikiLeaks could likely be held liable for that theft, said Hemu Nigam who has worked for two decades in computer security.
"There's a huge difference between publishing information and publishing information you know to be stolen," said Nigam, who has collaborated with the U.S. Secret Service, Interpol and the FBI to implement a hacker identification program for Microsoft. He now runs SSP Blue, an advisory firm that tells major corporations how to protect against hackers and insiders looking to leak. "There are a host of criminal statues that I have no doubt Stratfor's attorneys are going over thinking about how best to sue WikiLeaks. Information that is privately owned is not the same as information that is public, that essentially belongs to the public."
Hemu says that it appears to him that the 5 million e-mails were taken by a hacker who penetrated an unprotected server and copied the entire server. "Any company that's keeping valuable or confidential information has to take a multilayered approach to Internet security," Nigam said. "There are so many ways to access a system, and a company has to stay several steps ahead of all of them."
The Stratfor leak isn't the first time that WikiLeaks has published information from a private company, said Rebecca Jeschke of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which defends free speech and online privacy. In 2008, Swiss bank Julius Baer filed suit in federal district court in California against WikiLeaks for hosting 14 allegedly leaked documents regarding personal banking transactions of bank customers. According to Jeschke, Baer ultimately moved to dismiss the case.