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U.S. government powerless to plug WikiLeaks

A screen shot of a web browser shows the home page with a portrait of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange next to the out of service domain, in Lavigny December 4, 2010. WikiLeaks moved its website address to the Swiss on Friday after two U.S. Internet providers ditched it and Paris tried to ban French servers from hosting its database of leaked information.

Valentin Flauraud/Reuters/Valentin Flauraud/Reuters

Last week, the career services office at Columbia University's school of international and public affairs received a call from an alumnus working at the U.S. State Department. The alumnus had some advice for students planning to apply for federal government positions.

The advice was straightforward: if you're interested in a government job, don't go talking about the WikiLeaks cables on the Web.

"Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government," the career office said in an e-mail to students.

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Although the State Department has since distanced itself from the alumnus's advice, saying it doesn't constitute a formal policy position, the extent to which the U.S. government has gone to stop the dissemination of WikiLeaks documents is readily apparent. Politicians and government officials have pressured Internet service providers to stop hosting the whistle-blowing organization's site, and have condemned it on myriad occasions.

But undermining the U.S. government's attempts is the fact that, thanks to millions of individual users and easily available software, efforts to stop the on-line dissemination of the biggest classified information leak in history have largely proved futile.

"Any effort to put the genie back in the bottle is always futile in the Internet era," independent technology analyst Carmi Levy said. "Even if WikiLeaks is stamped out, the data is already out there."

Shortly after WikiLeaks started posting the first of the classified cables last month, Amazon shut down one of the group's websites, which was running on one of its servers. The timing of Amazon's decision - coming after U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman inquired about the relationship between the company and WikiLeaks - caused some to question whether Amazon had been pressured into shutting the site down. However, Amazon denied that, saying WikiLeaks had simply violated the company's terms of service by, among other things, posting material it did not own and that may cause individuals harm.

A few days later, online payment service PayPal also shut down the WikiLeaks account - the whistle-blower website solicits donations to keep the site running.

However, in both cases, the site has simply found other avenues to maintain its presence. The website is now believed to be running on servers in a Swiss bunker, among other locations. It has also set up donation accounts with other companies.

Indeed, WikiLeaks appears to have foreseen such issues years in advance: The organization set up multiple accounts with service providers in several countries long before it became infamous for high-profile leaks.

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But perhaps the most significant factor working in the site's favour is the sheer number of individual users reposting its content. Moments after WikiLeaks releases new information, users tend to upload it using a medium called BitTorrent - a file-sharing tool that allows individuals to simultaneously download and share information. Because of the widely dispersed nature of BitTorrent, it is virtually impossible to shut down.

WikiLeaks has taken advantage of the medium to post what is calls "history insurance," a massive encrypted file it released to the public without explaining its contents. It is believed that, should the site be shut down or its staff arrested, WikiLeaks would post the decryption code, allowing the people who've already downloaded the file to see its contents. Until then, nobody appears to know whether the file contains highly sensitive, embarrassing information, or is simply a bluff by WikiLeaks.

Meanwhile, Washington confirmed Sunday that it may have to relocate some of its sources as a result of the WikiLeaks release, but stopped short of saying any of those sources had come into harm because of the website.

"We may well have to reassign some of our diplomats and a couple of our ambassadors," Philip Crowley, the U.S. assistant secretary of state, said on CTV's Question Period. "We'll be watching that closely in the weeks and months ahead."

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