White House warns of dangers posed by WikiLeaks, LulzSec, other 'hacktivists'

New Obama administration strategy says organizations such as WikiLeaks and hacking group LulzSec may conduct "economic espionage against U.S. companies."

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
3 min read
Attorney General Eric Holder promises the Justice Department will play a "pivotal role" in thwarting efforts by WikiLeaks or any other organization to extract data illegally from U.S. companies.
Attorney General Eric Holder promises the Justice Department will play a "pivotal role" in thwarting efforts by WikiLeaks or any other organization to extract data illegally from U.S. companies. White House

The White House warned today of the threat posed by WikiLeaks, LulzSec, and other "hacktivist" groups that have the ability to target U.S. companies and expropriate confidential data.

A new administration-wide strategy (PDF) disclosed at a high-profile event in Washington that included Attorney General Eric Holder says the theft of trade secrets is on the rise and predicts such theft will undermine U.S. national security unless halted.

It's a "steadily increasing threat to America's economy and national security interests," Holder said at the event, which also featured officials from the State Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

"Disgruntled insiders [may leak] information about corporate trade secrets or critical U.S. technology to 'hacktivist' groups like WikiLeaks," the White House warns. Such groups could "develop customized malware or remote-access exploits to steal sensitive U.S. economic or technology information."

It's an unanticipated inclusion in a strategy that was expected to be focused on state-sponsored intrusions -- especially in the wake of disclosures this week about the Chinese military's involvement in penetrating the networks of U.S.-headquartered companies -- and signals that the government's interest in WikiLeaks has not abated. Vice President Joe Biden has called WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange a "high-tech terrorist," and a grand jury has been empaneled in Alexandria, Va., as part of a criminal investigation of the group.

While WikiLeaks is probably best known for disclosing sensitive U.S. government files, it has also released internal bank documents (and once promised to release more) and has been the subject of a controversial funds blockade by Mastercard, Visa, and PayPal. For its part, LulzSec successfully targeted News Corp., HBGary, and Sony in 2011, but has been far less active since, especially after it was infiltrated by the FBI.

The White House strategy views both organizations as part of a broader problem of nongovernment groups taking aim at U.S. companies' networks, and predicts:

Some intelligence services with less developed cyberprograms already use relationships with nominally independent hackers to augment their capabilities to target political and military information or to carry out operations against regime enemies. For example, the Iranian Cyber Army, a hacker group with links to the Iranian Government, has used social engineering techniques to obtain control over Internet domains and disrupt the political opposition...

Political or social activists also may use the tools of economic espionage against U.S. companies, agencies, or other entities. The self-styled whistle-blowing group WikiLeaks has already published computer files provided by corporate insiders indicating allegedly illegal or unethical behavior at a Swiss bank, a Netherlands-based commodities company, and an international pharmaceutical trade association. LulzSec -- another hacktivist group -- has exfiltrated data from several businesses that it posted for public viewing on its Web site.

In response to these threats, as well as to state-sponsored groups such as the ones Mandiant disclosed this week, the administration says it will increase "international law enforcement cooperation" and that the FBI and Justice Department will "prioritize these investigations and prosecutions."

WikiLeaks' Assange said in November in an appearance from Ecuador's London embassy that prosecutors want alleged source Bradley Manning, who's currently facing criminal charges inside the military justice system, to identify him as a party to the extraction and delivery of secret U.S. government files.

The Army wants, Assange said from his embassy room where he has sought refuge to avoid an extradition attempt, "to break him, to force him to testify against WikiLeaks and me" -- an apparent reference to the Justice Department's grand jury probe. If prosecutors allege conspiracy to commit computer crimes, they could avoid some of the free speech problems they'd face in an Espionage Act prosecution.