Wikileaks: Guardian journalist negligently published password to unredacted cables (Update: Guardian denies)

Wikileaks, facing criticism after unredacted versions of diplomatic cables escaped into the wild, today accused a Guardian journalist of negligently publishing the password required to decrypt them.

A Guardian journalist has negligently disclosed top secret WikiLeaks’ decryption passwords to hundreds of thousands of unredacted unpublished US diplomatic cables.

Knowledge of the Guardian disclosure has spread privately over several months but reached critical mass last week. The unpublished WikiLeaks’ material includes over 100,000 classified unredacted cables that were being analyzed, in parts, by over 50 media and human rights organizations from around the world.

For the past month WikiLeaks has been in the unenviable position of not being able to comment on what has happened, since to do so would be to draw attention to the decryption passwords in the Guardian book. Now that the connection has been made public by others we can explain what happened and what we intend to do.

Wikileaks also says it is in touch with the U.S. State Department and will be taking legal action.

UPDATE: The Guardian, in a story about the availability of the unredacted cables, denies that its journalist disclosed the password. [Thanks, Douglas!]

But further down in the story it seems to admit it, instead blaming Wikileaks for letting it do so:

"Our book about WikiLeaks was published last February. It contained a password, but no details of the location of the files, and we were told it was a temporary password which would expire and be deleted in a matter of hours."

Interesting! Now you may go and check the timelines again to find out when certain password-protected files might have left Wikileaks' exclusive custody. Go right ahead! No-one's going anywhere.

UPDATE: the book passage in question may be read at Google books. Just like that, for all the world to see, since the day it was published.

WIKILEAKS EDITORIAL - Guardian disclosure [Wikileaks]


  1. Is this a joke? Wikileaks wants to have the Guardian prosecuted because they leaked information? Seriously?

    1. Guardian didn’t leak, they ‘negligently published password to unredacted cables.’ You really need to read the article, or pay attention when you read.

  2. Why should WikiLeaks care? They’re in the business of releasing things that people don’t want released.

  3. I don’t think Wikileaks cares about the disclosure in absolute terms. It cares about not being blamed for perceived negligence, as attributed here to a media partner.

  4. Of all the things to spell correctly the Grauniad had to choose the password to the Wikileaks cache of unredacted cables.

  5. “David Leigh secretly passed the entire archive to Bill Keller of the New York Times, in September 2011, or before, knowingly destroying WikiLeaks plans to publish instead with the Washington Post & McClatchy.”

    I’d really like to hear more about how leaking the cables to the newspaper is only OK when Wikileaks does it. Why should David Leigh be a party to Wikileaks’ PR strategy?

    1. Eli. it’s like this: “Rational” people who want to know What The Hell Our Government Thinks It Is Doing are surrounded by a circular firing squad composed of our leaders. But help is on the way! Wikileaks, The Guardian, The New York Times, and Opensecrets are here to rescue us… in the form of a circular firing squad.

      I’m only laughing to keep back the tears.

  6. I do not have the book but this was easy enough to find:

    ACollectionOfHistorySince_1966_ToThe_PresentDay#. “That’s the password,”
    he said. “But you have to add one extra word when you type it in. You
    have to put in the word ‘Diplomatic’ before the word ‘History’

    It is alleged in this article,, that Domscheit-Berg knew the location of the hidden file but not the password. The Wikileaks editorial also named Domscheit-Berg as the Freitag informant.

  7. “Hi, State Department? Yeah, this is WikiLeaks. Sorry about leaking your diplomatic cables. We weren’t finished publishing all of them yet. Now some other guy’s stolen them from us and released ALL OF THEM! Can you prosecute them, please?”


  8. A less than tightly-held password went unchanged long enough to make it into a hardcopy book? Even if it was a moderately strong password, that’s pretty darned sloppy.

    1. It has been alleged that the file was accessible via Bittorrent. I imagine it was therfore on a number of machines outside the control of Assange prior to the password being shared with the Guardian.

      It was a mistake to give up the password but I would guess that Assange was more socially engineered than technically incompetent.

  9. The notion of an encrypted password that is not changed with extremely high frequency in order to protect information this sensitive is abjectly LUDICROUS. 

    1. Is it possible to change such a password?

      A file is encrypted and requires a certain password to decrypt. If that encrypted file is released, you cannot change the password required to decrypt it.
      Is that right?

      1. Right.  A file is a string of bits.  You use an encryption algorithm plus a password to transform a human-readable string of bits into an random-looking encrypted one, and use the corresponding decryption algorithm and the password to transform the unreadable one back into a human-readable one.  If somebody has a copy of the encrypted string of bits, and the password, they can decrypt it back into the human-readable one. 

        You can try to erase all the copies of the first encrypted file, but if somebody you don’t control already has one, and has the password, you’re out of luck. 

        There have been fancier encryption systems which depend on a trusted third party storing part of the key for you, and promising that they’ll erase their part of the key on some specific date, so nobody can retrieve it later if they did their job.  But that’s not what they’re using here.

  10. I don’t think Wikileaks cares about the disclosure in absolute terms. It cares about not being blamed for perceived negligence, as attributed here to a media partner.

    Exactly! One of the challenges Wikileaks has to rebut (at least from people who are ‘undecided’ or skeptical about what wikileaks is doing) is that the leaks cause collateral damage by outing regular people who are doing important and dangerous work as well as the powerful folk that need to be held accountable. Wikileaks needs to be able to claim it is working with the system and behaving with some sense of honor if it wants to keep looking like the good guys. The auditing/filtering done by the govt/big media houses goes a long way to give that assurance, and this disclosure messes things up.

    Obviously to some extent I’m speaking for myself: I’m on the fence, and knowing that some effort has been made to redact and filter matters to ME. But I doubt I’m the only one, since I’ve heard the argument made elsewhere. Probably a more accurate assessment of human nature is that wikileaks is just mad to lose control of the story.

    Thanks for reporting this Boingboing, I hadn’t heard about this anywhere else. (yet)

  11. Btw, is the suspected rapist still under house arrest? How long until deportation to Sweden, and subsequent deportation to US, and subsequent life term?

    These are genuine questions, it’s been a while since I heard any news on him. So much for his ego trip…

    1. Are you really having difficulty finding the information to answer your questions, or are you just an axe-grinder? Seems odd for someone so concerned with Assange’s status to broadcast their ignorance so proudly.

      1. A litte bit of both.

        Indeed I don’t know how the deportation thing is going on, since the case is not on headlines anymore. Not proud of it, just too lazy to go find out.

        But yes there is some degree of what you call “axe-grinder” in my post, since I don’t like the guy nor what he stands for.

  12. This is where I make the obligatory nerd TV reference by pointing out it took Peter Davison way too long to realize “A Collection of Diplomatic History Since 1966 to the Present Day” was in a 500-year-old binding, and that kindly old I. M. DeMaster was really The Master in disguise.

  13. So let me get this straight:

    Party A encrypts a file containing sensitive info using PGP. Party B receive the password out-of-band and successfully decrypt the file on the other end. Party B then decide to publish the password.

    Party B’s excuse is to say that they were told that the password was temporary and would expire?! Seriously?!

    This doesn’t happen unless somebody wants it to happen. It’s almost impossible to fail that hard on accident.

    I say “almost”, because I can imagine how this can go wrong. Let’s assume that some sort of local password expiration was applied to the file. Party A, knowing how the cryptosystem works, understands that the security of the system cannot rely on expiration, which is just a bit of a deterrent; however, party B, who are probably most familiar with password expiration in the context of networked environments, misunderstand and believe that if they can’t use the program to decrypt the file after expiration, then no one can.

    If this is the case, then it’s still an Epic Fail by party B, but it’s a fail of a more essential nature: DO NOT TELL ANYBODY THE FREAKING PASSWORD! EVER!

  14. /facepalm In between bouts of LMAO.  Seriously, I am trying to suppress some seriously girlish giggling here and failing.

  15. Wikileaks is doing an incredible job at bringing transparency to Government corruption and sleazy, dirty going-ons, and puts good effort in doing it in a way that won’t get people killed by editing names from the cables.
    We all benefit from it, and the positive impact on society is great – despite on people’s opinion of Assange (thanks to the smearing campaigns he’s been subject to, and his ‘colourful’ personality).

    Lots of people are bent on shutting the whistleblowers. Governments, jealous press, competition.They will use every dirty tool they have in their book.
    In this case, the reporter from the Gaurdian f**ked up. By contract and obligation he should NOT have published the password, since it was confidential, sensitive and the lives of people depended on it.

    And that’s it. I don’t see what makes other commenters do their faux-laugh, quick to point ‘oh, they don’t like leaking now!’ or worrying about the password. You are missing the point, and it’s no laughing matter. Wikileaks was leaking responsibly, the Guardian behaved like an unprofessional, hasty third party unconcerned for the safety of others and willing to do everything to get their scoop. They should be held responsible.

  16. The Guardian (one of the better independent European news outlets) needs to sit all their staff (predominantly arts and meeja studies graduates, I imagine) down and train them the basics of encryption.

    It’s not an optional skillset for journalists any more, and can’t be left to the techies.

  17. There appear to be two fails here.  

    Firstly, Assange had the opportunity to use public key encryption using PGP, in which case wouldn’t have needed to tell the journalist the password; the journalist should have chosen his own passphrase and then shared his public key with Assange.  

    Secondly, the Guardian failed to understand the protocol that Assange was using to distribute files.  If technology used was bittorrent, then the quote at the end of the guardian article:

    No concerns were expressed when the book was published and if anyone at WikiLeaks had thought this compromised security they have had seven months to remove the files

    indicates that the Guardian failed to understand the implications of using bittorrent.  If it was a different, non P2P, file sharing protocol, then the failure was one of communication.  Assange assumes that any file that leaves his systems is in the public domain (true, but maybe a little paranoid) and so sees no reason to attempt to attempt to “undistribute” it.  The Guardian assumes that no-one would rely solely on encryption to protect access to some content when they could also use additional means to prevent access (untrue, but a common misconception).

    1. You’ve misread the article. The Guardian doesn’t say it received the archive via bittorrent, but from a secure server, and that the same file became available via bittorrent at a later date. If Wikileaks actually did recycle the file without re-encrypting it, that’s an act of indefensible stupidity.

  18. There are multiple failures on all sides in this case (which, as usual, reinforces the cock-up theory of history rather than the conspiracy version.)  But the most extraordinary thing to me is not the printing of the password itself but that the idea of publishing it in the book was even considered, regardless of whether Mr Leigh thought that it must have been a single-shot deal.

  19. I just love this. Wikileaks gets leaked info from a Private who walks out with it on a CD. They then put it all one password, which is then published by the Guardian so that Wikileaks then contacts the US govt for legal reasons. So, the Guardian is really no better at handling info than wikileaks (go Main Stream Media) which in turn is no better at keeping secrets than the us gov’t many of whose members still aren’t allowed to read the information if it shows up outside normal gov’t channels. WIkileak leaks, the Guardian does guard. Yep. Great Farce. Really more entertaining than a lot of the leaked information itself.

  20. Moments ago, a spammer wrote (before being vaporized):

    > Your blog written in very good, I support you,saxo bank jersey
    > This site is good and useful I support you, saxo bank jersey 

    Isn’t that supposed to be “saxo DIPLOMATIC bank jersey”?

  21. @boingboing-8b886a5c6d6c17b40bcf17f556616561:disqus 
    possibly stupid but i think re-encrypting a file that large might have taken considerable time. if they thought the guardian was nit gonna share the password, they would have been fine. not defending their actions, just pointing out where it all could have gone south.

    1. No, it wouldn’t take that long. With 7zip and a fast computer you can encrypt a few gigabytes in a few minutes. Especially if there’s no compression involved, just containering. Containment?

  22. Don’t the WikiLeaks people know the second rule of computer security:
    Change your passwords often!?
    Wikileaks posted the encrypted blob into the wild without setting up a password that was not already in use. Really? Are they that stupid?
    I opt for the Julius Malema excuse: “Bloody agents!”

  23. If you read the next paragraph of the book, you find that Leigh unencrypted the file but couldn’t work out how to use the .7z archive that the encrypted file contained.  He drove to Assange’s residence and asked him to unzip it for him.

    Seriously, high-level successful journalist can’t type “how do I use a 7z file?” into Google.

    I’m pretty sure that if I had a super secret file of literally life-or-death importance, there’s no way I’d let some technology-illiterate fool have access to it.  At the very least , Leigh’s “What is this I don’t even?” reaction to a 7z file should have been a neon-lit warning to Assange that he needs to give Leigh a lesson in cryptography 101.

    I’m also dissapointed with the reporting about this ‘encrypted file’.  Some people say it’s on bittorrent, which seems to be confusion between this and the insurance file – unless Assange set up a private torrent to share with his cabal of approved journalists.

  24. I can’t decrypt both files (the insurance.aes256 of over 1 GB as well as the new *.enc) published via the torrent network using the mentioned key. The result is not any kind of archive at all, says 7z as well as winrar.
    On some types of AES (e.g. cbc) I even get an error leading to the assumption the the password may be incorrect. I tried all salted  and unsalted variants of 256-AES.. Does anyone have any information where the problem is? There was obviously no pgp used making AES the most plausible solution.

  25. 1. The Guardian did not get the files through bittorrent. They were provided access to a secure server via a password which they were assured would be time limited. Sure, they aren’t techies – why would anyone expect them to be? Geek finger pointing and laughing doesn’t really help us understand what happened and why here. And it would help if some people would actually read the accounts before commenting and making assumptions…
    2. Someone else leaked the cables from Wikileaks via bittorrent later. It had nothing to do with The Guardian or Assange, but with a mole inside Wikileaks.
    3. The most ridiculous thing of all is Wikileaks getting upset about leaks from Wikileaks. Assange is looking more and more like his own own worst enemy, and if I was the US government, I’d stop trying to extradite or prosecute the egotistical Assange and just let him get on with destroying himself and Wikileaks at the same time. Maybe they already have. It’s all rather depressing for anyone who actually thinks that making states and corporations transparent may become one of the most important political tasks of the C21st.

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