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Competition body wants hackers prosecuted
January 6, 2009
By Linda Ensor (Business Day)
CAPE TOWN — The Competition Commission has laid criminal charges against the unknown hackers who lifted the lid on highly confidential information about the South African banking system that the four big banks wanted to keep under wraps.
The charges had been laid in terms of the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act, the commission’s manager for strategy and stakeholder relations, Nandisile Mokoena, said yesterday.
The confidential information is contained in the technical report of the inquiry into the banking system undertaken by the commission.
An uncensored version of the report was posted on the Wikileaks.org website after hackers — believed to be based in SA — broke through the security measures put in place by the commission.
The banks agreed to the public release of the report only on condition that strategic and sensitive information relating to their customer profiling, profit growth, pricing strategies, cost structures and revenue from penalty fees was blacked out.
The commission gave this undertaking of confidentiality, which is legally binding in terms of the Competition Act.
Other data blacked out related to the breakdown of the credit card market and the fees earned from credit cards relative to their costs.
However, the secret information was decrypted (except for certain blacked-out sections which were resistant to “decensoring”) and posted on Wikileaks, which describes itself as a website for anonymous whistle-blowers. It is dedicated to leaking sensitive government, corporate and religious documents.
Mokoena said Wikileaks had refused a request by the Competition Commission to remove the report from its website immediately. Commissioner Shan Ramburuth said in a letter to the website’s proprietors that the information obtained by Wikileaks was “obtained illegally under South African law”.
Mokoena said the leak was a very serious violation of the commission’s confidentiality obligations and meant that it would have to strengthen its security arrangements.
She did not believe a criminal prosecution was “hopeless”, saying the police would have to try to trace the hackers electronically.
The Wikileaks website was launched in December 2006 by dissidents, journalists, mathematicians and technologists from the US, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and SA. It boasts a database of more than 1-million documents and recently made available a confidential briefing document relating to the collapse of the UK’s Northern Rock bank.
It has also posted documents relating to corruption in Kenya, military expenditure in Afghanistan, operating procedures for the US army at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, and a list of the 13500 supporters of the far right-wing British National Party.
According to reports on the internet, the Wikileaks website was shut down by a court injunction in California last year on the basis of an application brought on behalf of Swiss bank Julius Baer.
This was after “several hundred" documents were posted on the website about the bank’s alleged offshore activities, specifically money laundering and tax evasion at its Cayman Islands branch.
Wikileaks slammed the court order as “unconstitutional" and said that the site had been “forcibly censored". The injunction was subsequently overturned and the bank dropped its case in March after the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a motion protesting against the censorship of Wikileaks.
A coalition of US publishers and press organisations joined the application as a friend of the court on behalf of Wikileaks. US legal experts said the case highlighted the difficulty of enforcing national jurisdiction over a globalised internet.
First appeared in Business Day. Thanks to Linda Ensor and Business Day covering this topic. Copyright remains with the aforementioned. Contact Business Day for reprint rights.