Following WikiLeaks' Playbook, BalkanLeaks Releases Insurance File With Its Spilled Secrets
by Andy Greenberg
WikiLeaks may have faded from the headlines, but in a corner of Eastern Europe, a copycat is playing out the secret-spilling site's saga again. And it's learned all of its predecessor's tricks.
Earlier this month BalkanLeaks, an anonymous leaking site run by a pair of Bulgarian journalists, obtained and published a series of secret documents from Bulgaria's country's police archive showing that the country's prime minister Boyko Borisov had been suggested by police as a possible informant against his alleged associates in the Bulgarian mafia. The 1997 file, which refers to Borisov under the codename "Buddha," notes his "criminal orientation" and suggests "clarifying connections of the subject with people and businesses linked to criminal activities," according to a translation by the English-language Bulgarian new site Novinite.
That Buddha file is just the latest scandal-stirring publication from BalkanLeaks, which over the last two years has released other documents through its news site Bivol that deal with alleged corruption in Bulgaria's banks and claims of Borisov's mob ties. But this time it's accompanied its leak with a new defensive measure taken from WikiLeaks' playbook: An encrypted insurance file with a key that will only be released if BalkanLeaks' staff are arrested or feel that their lives are threatened.
"In response to threats made against its journalists, Bivol is now releasing this insurance file. The key will leak automatically if something happens to our staff," reads a note posted to BalkanLeaks' website. The note asks supporters to download the file and share it via bittorrent in order to make it more difficult to censor.
When I reached BalkanLeaks founder Atanas Tchobanov by instant message, he said the 86 megabyte, AES-encrypted package includes a collection of PDF and audio files, but wouldn't offer details of their contents. Tchobanov explained that the threat of releasing the key for the data is intended to offer protection for him and the rest of BalkanLeaks' staff; The release follows a series of anonymous threats posted to online forums and a cyberattack against the website that took it offline for 12 hours earlier this month. "We are up against a mafia-state nexus," says Tchobanov. "We need insurance."
Tchobanov adds that the insurance files contain classified documents whose release might be illegal under Bulgarian law, and says he'll only reveal the information if the Bulgarian or European Union parliament convenes a hearing to investigate Borisov's alleged criminal past.
BalkanLeaks' move mimics a tactic used by WikiLeaks, when in the summer of 2010 it distributed a large, encrypted file labelled "insurance," which similarly was intended to be decrypted if WikiLeaks was shut down or its staff's lives were threatened. The key for the file has yet to be released, and its contents are still unknown.
Investigative reporters Atanas Tchobanov and Assen Yordanov created BalkanLeaks in early 2011, inspired by WikiLeaks' massive leaks of classified U.S. Department of Defense and State Department files. Since then, the Bulgarian site has become the most successful of the dozens of copycat sites that have tried to emulate WikiLeaks' model of anonymous disclosures, obtaining and releasing secret files describing widespread bribery in the Bulgarian judiciary, the anatomy of the Bulgarian mafia, and the role of Freemasons in Bulgarian government. Eventually the group partnered with WikiLeaks to publish the leaked U.S. State Department cables regarding Bulgaria, which included a 2005 memo describing Prime Minister Borisov's alleged mafia past.
A chapter of my book on the history and future of cryptography and anonymous leaking details BalkanLeaks' story, and was excerpted in a three-part series on Slate here, here and here.
In responses to the Bulgarian media, Borisov has denied being the informant described in the Buddha file, and called the release of the documents a "purposeful campaign" against him. In another press conference, he seemed to threaten secret service investigations against journalists covering the story: "I can order the secret services to launch similar cases for all of you journalists, all of you without exception," Borisov is reported to have said by Novinite.
Reporter Without Borders condemned that statement as intimidation of the press. "We are stunned, dismayed and outraged by the prime minister's irresponsible comments, which constitute serious and direct threats to all news providers," the group wrote in a statement. "We thought that 'secret service investigations' of journalists and media were a thing of the past, the Cold War era."
BalkanLeaks' staff has faced plenty of attacks from the subjects of its reporting. Aside from the denial of service attack that targeted the site earlier this month, it has also been the subject of a complaint by a group of Bulgarian banks filed against the site with Bulgarian regulators in October of last year, claiming that it had sought to undermine their reputation by publishing a U.S. State Department cable about alleged banking corruption. The complaint, which the banks haven't further pursued, threatens up to 0,000 in fines against the site.
In 2004, BalkanLeaks co-founder Assen Yordanov was also attacked and beaten by a group of assailants outside his apartment in Burgas, Bulgaria after publishing an article on allegedly corrupt land sales. Tchobanov tells me that since the Buddha publication, Yordanov has received several silent phone calls, which he's interpreted as an intimidation tactic.
With so many powerful enemies, Tchobanov says the insurance file is a necessary safeguard. "We've heard rumors, that Buddha is furious and as he is a former mafioso, having all the power of the state and the connections to organized crime," says Tchobanov. "We don't feel safe."
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