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Anonymous vows to take leaking to the next level

By Ashley Fantz, CNN
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Is WikiLeaks broke?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • WikiLeaks is going broke and could die
  • The hacker group Anonymous has launched what could be WikiLeaks' heir apparent
  • Anonleaks.ru's debut features internal e-mails Anonymous says it stole from security firm

(CNN) -- WikiLeaks could have one foot in the online grave.

It's been months since its last major leak, and its staff members -- former and current -- say it's so thinly staffed and broke that it can't dissect a massive file a whistle-blower handed over, allegedly naming rich and influential global players guilty of tax crimes.

Founder Julian Assange, described as a megalomaniac in a tell-all book by the group's former spokesman, is facing extradition to Sweden on sex crime charges. Many observers predict he'll face extradition to the United States next.

That could mean time is running out to pay for Assange to appear at your dinner party (via video message), but it's a reason to purchase a "Free Assange" T-shirt, now available from WikiLeaks' online store.

It may take more than a few shirts to pull WikiLeaks out of the red. Financial institutions stopped doing business with the site after it published a trove of confidential U.S. diplomatic cables late last year, and donations have been stymied.

Assange, out on bond in London Wednesday, set up a Facebook page this month with a PayPal link and a plea: "I need your help. Please give." Last week, he told the Swiss newspaper Tribune de Geneve that WikiLeaks is losing about $600,000 a week. A judge Thursday ordered that Assange can be extradited to Sweden.

Where that money is going, or what it's paying for, is unclear.

"WikiLeaks could well be a flash in the pan. It's not exactly a site with an apparent solid business plan or stable group of founders," said Jonathan Zittrain, an internet law and computer science professor at Harvard University.

"But the idea that leaks can happen, whether by a turncoat employee or an Exxon Valdez-sized spill of data due to a hack, is more enduring."

So, if WikiLeaks wilts, what will grow in its place?

"Let us teach you a lesson you'll never forget: You don't mess with Anonymous."
--Anonymous to HBGary Federal

Several leak-loving sites claim to be WikiLeaks' heir apparent. Greenleaks.org and GreenLeaks are battling to become the top site for whistle-blowers with dirt on environmental issues.

WikiLeaks' ex-spokesman and Assange's former right-hand man, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, has launched OpenLeaks, a secret information catch-all.

His memoir, out this month, "Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website," describes WikiLeaks as an organization that lost its original goal to reveal small, important leaks and instead became wrapped up in Assange's pursuit of big leaks like the Afghanistan and Iraq war diaries and the cables.

Watch Domscheit-Berg describe Assange as a megalomaniac VideoOpenLeaks says it will be more transparent than WikiLeaks about the way it operates. Most significant, it wouldn't openly publish information but rather would give it to reporters and human rights organizations to disseminate.

But perhaps the most controversial incarnation of the WikiLeaks model comes from Anonymous, the hacker collective globally infamous for disrupting the websites of MasterCard, Visa and PayPal in December.

The hackers said the attacks were revenge after the companies cut ties to WikiLeaks. Since then, Anonymous has grown more sophisticated, and experts say it's reasonable to fear that they could do more than wait for someone to give them secret documents. They could hack into highly sensitive military and corporate computer systems themselves.

This month, Anonymous launched anonleaks.ru, a site that features a searchable database of what appear to be tens of thousands of internal e-mails from a U.S.-based internet security firm whose website was also defaced.

Reportedly, the CEO of HBGary Federal told reporters his Twitter account was hijacked, and his home address and Social Security number appeared in his Twitter feed.

This is thuggery at this point
--Jim Butterworth of HBGary Inc.

A message to HBGary Federal from Anonymous appeared on the company's hacked website: "Let us teach you a lesson you'll never forget: You don't mess with Anonymous."

A letter from Anonymous directly to HBGary Federal was posted on the Web's largest pirate site. "We feel it's time we took the game to the next level," it said.

The information posted on anonleaks.ru, which CNN cannot authenticate, suggests that HBGary Federal offered to attack or undermine adversaries of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Bank of America, including spreading bogus information about Anonymous.

Assange has said that WikiLeaks is planning a "megaleak" about a major bank, and there's been much speculation that Bank of America is the target.

Bank of America spokesman Scott Silvestri said it has no relationship with HBGary Federal. A senior U.S. Chamber of Commerce official said the same. The New York Times, USA Today and Salon have detailed the battle between Anonymous and HBGary.

HBGary Federal's site is down, and phone numbers to its Colorado office are not working.

But HBGary Federal's sister company, HBGary Inc., based in Sacramento, California, also had its servers hacked. Content from HBGary Inc. appears on anonleaks.ru as well.

"What has happened here is a crime. We were hacked," said Jim Butterworth, a vice president at HBGary Inc. "But it's more than that. Our employees are getting calls from (Anonymous) making physical threats. People were concerned about their physical safety."

Butterworth, who says he's been placed in charge of determining what left the company vulnerable to hacking, said HBGary is working with law enforcement.

Continually over the past two weeks, Anonymous has "pounded" HBGary Inc.'s servers, trying to again to gain access, he said. Office fax machines have been clogged with faxes touting the Anonymous mantra: "We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. ..."

"This is thuggery at this point," Butterworth said.

Anonymous is not trying to be WikiLeaks. They are trying to be a new kind of site
--Gregg Housh, on behalf of Anonymous

The only time CNN has been able to engage with anyone claiming to be Anonymous came in December, around the time of the Master Card and Visa attacks, via two instant messages that appeared to be from different people.

One wrote that Anonymous considered its actions to be a "demonstration against all things people were unable to change using legal means."

"Our primary goal is freedom of information. Any and all information."

Read more about Anonymous

Since December, Boston-based hacker Gregg Housh has been the only public face associated with Anonymous. He says he's not part of the hackers' current activities but merely monitors their chat portals.

"Anonymous is going to keep doing whatever they want to do to people who piss them off," Housh said of anonleaks.ru.

Anonleaks.ru is using "ru" because the domain is less easily tracked by the U.S. government, Housh said. The domain is not meant to imply that anonleaks is run from Russia.

The site's hackers also want the world to understand this: "Anonleaks is not trying to be WikiLeaks," Housh said. "They are trying to be a new kind of site."

Chris Ridder, lawyer and fellow with Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society, agrees.

"It's definitely a new kind of site, you can say that. Like, possibly illegal-kind-of-new," Ridder said.

Although few people may have heard of HBGary, that's no reason to dismiss anonleaks.ru.

Their army is so much bigger
--Hacking analyst Jose Nazario on Anonymous' capabilities

"Today it's a small firm hardly anyone has heard of," Ridder said. "What would make anyone think that they wouldn't (next) hack into the military's database or a corporation that matters to a wide group of people? The question is one of intent. What will Anonymous do down the road?"

There's no doubt Anonymous has the technology to do what it wishes, said Jose Nazario, an analyst with Massachusetts Arbor Networks, a firm that monitors activity on the Web for private clients, mostly businesses trying to deter hacking. He has been watching Anonymous' users gather in chat channels for months.

"Their army is so much bigger," he said, thanks to Anonymous' own redesigned hacking tools and beefed-up Web applications.

Anonymous has made it easier for anyone to give them permission to log in remotely to computers and use the machines in a large-scale hacking effort, Nazario said. "I was watching a (chat) channel recently where thousands (of users) were present, laughing, debating what to do. It used to be hundreds."

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The thought of an army of prankster hackers breaking into your e-mails, credit card records or business is disturbing. But it would be a mistake to portray members of Anonymous as cackling evil-doers, Ridder and Zittrain said.

Instead, Ridder said, Anonymous is driving Web culture. "They are making a significant mark on what it means to put information online."

Improvement in technology is a given, and access to data will become increasingly more flexible, Zittrain said. Efforts to stop the group, whether through a lawsuit or an indictment, will have implications that go far beyond one company's battle with a group of hackers.

They say it could forever hamper what has always been the cornerstone of the Web: anonymity.

CNN's Atika Shubert contributed to this report.