Julian Assange Arrested On Behalf Of The US, For Trying To Help Manning Crack CIA Password

from the cfaa-and-conspiracy dept

Julian Assange has been arrested in the UK on behalf of the US, as Ecuador has finally tired of their overstaying asylumed house guest. We're about to see quite a major legal battle, first in the UK and then almost certainly in the US, about Assange. The current charges seem narrowly focused on a CFAA-based "conspiracy" between Assange and Manning to try to hack a CIA computer, but if they expand to other Wikileaks activities, there should be concerns over press freedom issues.

I am no fan of Julian Assange or Wikileaks. However, for years I've made it clear that prosecuting him for publishing leaked documents would be a huge mistake by the US. The DOJ spent years trying to come up with an excuse to charge Assange, but kept realizing they had no case, because while he may have had malicious intent, none of his public actions in releasing documents were any different -- legally speaking -- than what any investigative journalism outlet did in releasing obtained documents. The Supreme Court has made it clear that publishing classified documents is protected by the First Amendment. If he went beyond just releasing documents, as the indictment alleges, it becomes a lot trickier -- but there's a fine line here.

It's been clear in the last year or so, that despite years of not finding anything, the DOJ was finally moving ahead with plans to charge him. As we noted last year, everyone who believes in a free press should be concerned about what this might mean for press freedoms in the US as the case proceeds. And that's true, even if the specific charges right now are limited to actions that are unrelated to the publishing of the documents.

A few minutes ago, the DOJ released a fairly barebones 7-page indictment, alleging he was in a conspiracy with Chelsea Manning to hack into government computers to obtain documents. From the indictment, the charges are separate from releasing the documents that everyone knows Manning provided to Assange, and specifically revolve around Manning and Assange apparently working together to try to hack the CIA after Manning had finished handing over all of the documents we already know about. The indictment claims (and I kid you not) that Manning "used special software, namely a Linux operating system... to obtain the portion of the password provided to Assange." What was obtained apparently was a hashed password to a CIA computer system, that Assange was allegedly going to try to crack, in order to enable Manning to get more info out of the CIA.

If all of this is true, then it certainly could go beyond issues related to press freedoms. It's one thing to receive classified documents and publish them. It is a different issue altogether to work with a source and participate in trying to hack a government system. There is no evidence that Assange was ever actually successful in cracking the password, but he's facing CFAA and conspiracy charges here that may have more staying power. If the indictment is accurate and there's evidence to back it up, then Assange could potentially be in (and this is the legal term) deep shit.

But so much of what Assange did, even if we might disagree with his reasons for doing it, is little different than what many media organizations do. What will be necessary is watching closely how the case against Assange advances and changes (it is unlikely that these will be the only charges against Assange). If it is narrowly limited to the actions described in the current indictment, the dangers to press freedoms may be limited. However, if it strays beyond that into some of the other, more journalistic efforts of Assange, it could still represent a huge attack on a free press. Given our current President's near daily attacks on the free press, with repeated announcements that he'd like to change the laws to harm them, going after Assange legally (which may seem a bit ironic, given all the accusations that Assange's leaks in 2016 were designed to help Trump get elected), might be the best way to actually achieve that goal.

Filed Under: cfaa, chelsea manning, cia, conspiracy, doj, hacking, julian assange, passwords


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  1. icon
    Thad (profile), 15 Apr 2019 @ 8:44am

    Re: Re: UUUhhhh

    Perhaps a poorly crafted hash is susceptible - idk.

    Here's how password storage typically works:

    The system stores a salt and a hash for each user. The salt is something random (technically pseudorandom).

    When the user types in a password, the stored salt is added to the password and then it is put through the hashing algorithm. If it matches the stored hash, the user is authenticated.

    The purpose of the salt is to stymie common or reused passwords. If my password is "Password1", and the system doesn't salt it before hashing it, then the hash will be the same as every other idiot who used "Password1" with the same hashing algorithm, and therefore effectively useless. Adding a random string to the end of "Password1" gives it a unique hash. (Technically not unique, but if the hashing algorithm is any good, it will be prohibitively difficult to generate another password that produces the same hash with the same salt. It's still a weak password, but at least it's harder to reverse-engineer it from its hash.)

    A poorly-crafted hash is susceptible -- eg one that doesn't use a salt, or uses a weak hashing algorithm.

    But here's the thing: if there were any evidence that Assange has successfully broken the password, that would be in the indictment. As such, we can reasonably conclude that he tried but wasn't able to.


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