Anonymous Hands WikiLeaks 2.4 Million Syrian Emails

Hacktivist group claims credit for data breach; turned to WikiLeaks to help process the emails.

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

July 10, 2012

4 Min Read

Who Is Anonymous: 10 Key Facts

Who Is Anonymous: 10 Key Facts

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WikiLeaks last week began publishing a massive trove of emails related to Syria, in conjunction with six news outlets.

In an overview of the Syria Files project, WikiLeaks said that the 2.4 million emails were taken "from Syrian political figures, ministries, and associated companies." All told, 680 different domain names were involved, including those of the Ministries of Presidential Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Finance, Information, Transport and Culture. The emails are dated from between August 2006 and March 2012.

"At this time Syria is undergoing a violent internal conflict that has killed between 6,000 and 15,000 people in the last 18 months," said WikiLeaks. "The Syria Files shine a light on the inner workings of the Syrian government and economy, but they also reveal how the West and Western companies say one thing and do another."

[ A little online anonymity can be a good thing. Has Anonymous ruined that? Read Has Anonymous Ruined Online Anonymity? ]

Exactly where did the emails come from? On Friday, the hacktivist collective Anonymous answered that question by releasing a statement in which it took credit for having provided the Syrian emails to WikiLeaks.

To clarify, it said "Anonymous Op Syria" began on February 5, 2012, when a team "succeeded in creating a massive breach of multiple domains and dozens of servers inside Syria." The team's participants hailed from Anonymous Syria, AntiSec--"now known as the reformed LulzSec"--and the Peoples Liberation Front. According to Anonymous, downloading all of the data it ultimately acquired took several weeks.

Faced with the enormous data set, Anonymous turned to WikiLeaks. "Having already formed a partnership with WikiLeaks in the disclosure of the 'Stratfor Files,' it seemed natural and obvious to continue this historic partnership between Anonymous and WikiLeaks with the disclosure of the 'Syria Files,'" Anonymous said. "Expect many more disclosures of this type in the future as this wonderful partnership between WikiLeaks and Anonymous continues to grow stronger and change human history."

WikiLeaks, however, has cautioned that not all of the 2.4 million emails--around 42,000 (1.8%) of which had been infected with viruses or Trojan malware--could be presumed to be legitimate. "In such a large collection of information, it is not possible to verify every single email at once; however, WikiLeaks and its co-publishers have done so for all initial stories to be published. We are statistically confident that the vast majority of the data are what they purport to be."

WikiLeaks is being aided in the Syria Files project by multiple news outlets, including Al Akhbar in Lebanon, Al Masry Al Youm in Egypt, ARD in Germany, the Associated Press, L'Espresso in Italy, Owni in France, in Spain, as well as other--as yet unnamed--publications. They're collectively helping to analyze the emails and prepare related stories.

The choice of media partners appears to represent a step down from the WikiLeaks U.S. Embassy Cable project, which saw the participation of the Guardian in Britain, Le Monde in France, The New York Times, El Pais in Spain, and Germany's Der Spiegel. Those organizations worked together to study, redact, release, and publicize the 251,287 sensitive State Department diplomatic cables, dating from 1966 to 2010.

But according to news reports, the working relationship between WikiLeaks and those news organizations was often tense, especially after WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange mishandled an archive containing unredacted versions of all of the cables that the news organizations had worked long and hard to vet. The archive ultimately went public, undercutting much of the work that the news organizations had put into the project. WikiLeaks then threatened to sue the Guardian newspaper for having published the temporary password that Assange had used to encrypt the unredacted cable archive. But Assange had reportedly promised that the password he was sharing was only for the Guardian, and that the related archive would only be left temporarily online.

Assange is currently holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, while Ecuador considers his request for amnesty. Assange, who's Australian, contends that should he be extradited by Britain to Sweden, where he's wanted for questioning in relation to allegations of sexual misconduct. The United States will request his extradition on charges related to publishing the U.S. cables, helicopter gunship footage, and other sensitive or restricted materials.

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About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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