Cyber War! (Wikileaks update)

Last week I wrote a relatively informal summary of the Wikileaks story which focused on the chain of events rather than the law surrounding them. The pace of events has slowed (slightly) this week, and it’s a good time to examine how the law applies to some of the events.

The U.S. Government is claiming that Assange will be indicted and face trial for disseminating confidential information, possibly in contravention of the U.S. Espionage Act, or under “conspiracy or trafficking in stolen property”. However, sabre-rattling aside, federal prosecutors may find it difficult to actually identify a legal basis upon which to pursue Assange. Charges of violation of the Espionage Act aren’t always successful in these circumstances – see for example the famous “Pentagon Papers” case of 1972 involving the New York Times.

From a UK law perspective, the most immdiately relevant aspect of the Wikileaks saga is the Direct Denial of Service (“DDoS”) attacks. As I briefly mentioned last week, while the means, motives, and targets of a DDoS attack vary, they generally consist of concerted efforts by a person or persons to prevent an internet site or service from functioning efficiently, temporarily or indefinitely. The Wikileaks websites are experiencing very high levels of DDoS attacks from unknown sources, and supporters of Wikileaks have retaliated by attacking sites such as mastercard.com, and today, the Swedish Prosecution Authority’s site. Governments and corporations across the world are now preparing for what the tabloids are referring to as “cyber war”!

Beyond the sensational soundbites, DDoS attacks are clearly illegal in a lot of jurisdictions. In the UK, the Police And Justice Act 2006 updated the Computer Misuse Act 1990, in order to make it a criminal offence to carry out “any unauthorised act in relation to a computer” where the person “has the requisite intent and the requisite knowledge” to carry out the act. The requisite intent is to carry out the act by: i) impairing the operation of any computer; (ii) preventing or hindering access to any program or data held in any computer; or (iii) impairing the operation of any program or the readability of any data. The intent need not be directed at any particular computer or any particular program or data, and the wording is wide enough that paying someone else to launch an attack will still be a crime, with a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. The U.S has similar laws in place, and a man was jailed last year for instigating DDoS attacks against Scientology websites . What will happen next is anybody’s guess.

Sweden’s move to have Assange detained in the United Kingdom for now, on whatever charge, provides time for a case to be fashioned against him. In light of the Wikileaks affair, and the likely high-profile casualties of the “cyber war” in the weeks to come, the pressure to charge Assange is only going to become more intense. Watch this (cyber)space!

2 Responses to “Cyber War! (Wikileaks update)”


  1. 1 Criminal Lawyers Glasgow December 29, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    “Beyond the sensational soundbites, DDoS attacks are clearly illegal in a lot of jurisdictions. In the UK, the Police And Justice Act 2006 updated the Computer Misuse Act 1990, in order to make it a criminal offence to carry out “any unauthorised act in relation to a computer” where the person “has the requisite intent and the requisite knowledge” to carry out the act.”

    Thanks for the posting this: an important update to the criminal laws of the UK which may be easily forgotten in the midst of the Assange / Wikileaks cables controversy. Looking forward to see what happens next – what this cyberspace indeed!

    Best wishes
    Beltrami SolicitorsCriminal Lawyers Glasgow


  1. 1 The Computer Misuse Act – a beginners guide « Brodies TechBlog Trackback on March 20, 2012 at 8:20 pm

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