Ecuadorian officials claim the country has suffered some 40 million cyber attacks since it allowed UK police to forcibly remove Wikileaks founder Julian Assange from their embassy in London, according to Agence France-Presse.
According to AFP, the 40 million number comes courtesy of Ecuador’s deputy minister for information and communication technologies, Patricio Real, who said the attacks began shortly after the arrest on April 11:
Patricio Real, Ecuador’s deputy minister for information and communication technologies, said the attacks, which began on Thursday, had “principally come from the United States, Brazil, Holland, Germany, Romania, France, Austria and the United Kingdom,” as well as from the South American country itself.
… Javier Jara, undersecretary of the electronic government department of the telecommunications ministry, said the country had suffered “volumetric attacks” that blocked access to the internet following “threats from those groups linked to Julian Assange.”
Volumetric attacks are a type of distributed denial of service attack, in which attackers flood servers with requests in an attempt to overload them and prevent access by legitimate users; the 40 million number should be understood not as the number of independently coordinated attacks, but the cumulative number of automated attempts to disrupt targeted systems. Sites for the foreign ministry, central bank, President Lenin Moreno’s office, tax authorities, and myriad other government websites were targeted, AFP wrote.
No institutions reported successful attempts to steal or destroy data, the news agency added.
Assange, the founder of international non-profit and secrets-leaking organization Wikileaks, had originally sought and received asylum in the embassy in 2012. At the time, UK authorities were seeking to extradite Assange to Sweden, where authorities were investigating two separate accounts he had committed sexual assault and rape; Assange sought to portray the allegations as a pretext to secure his extradition to the U.S., where he would face prosecution for leaking government and military secrets.
Swedish authorities later dropped the investigation, but the UK continued to seek his arrest for skipping bail. Assange remained in the embassy, over time apparently wearing out Ecuador’s patience; while he was there, Wikileaks released caches of hacked emails from Democratic Party email systems, Assange’s Twitter DMs with Donald Trump Jr. (in which he begged for an ambassadorship) leaked, and the official Wikileaks Twitter account began posting far-right diatribes.
The embassy reportedly cut off his internet access in 2018 for alleged political meddling, which the government said followed requests that he stop damaging its relationship with other countries. Moreno has referred to Assange as an “inherited problem” from his predecessor, Rafael Correa, and accused Assange of personally hacking him.
As it turns out, the U.S. did secretly charge Assange with conspiring with Chelsea Manning in an attempt to break into a protected Department of Defense computer network (the Secret Internet Protocol Network, SIPRNet) using another username. That attempt failed, but Manning eventually provided Wikileaks with of hundreds of thousands of government files, which it released in 2010. Those ranged from diplomatic cables to other data implicating U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan in covering up civilian casualties, enabling torture, and perhaps most infamously, opening fire in Baghdad from Apache gunships, killing at least a dozen, including two Reuters journalists.
The leaks humiliated the U.S. government, and there has been considerable discussion over whether Assange really conspired with Manning to break into SIPRNet or the charges are just revenge served cold. If Assange is extradited to the U.S. and convicted, he faces a maximum of five years in prison on those charges. As the Verge noted, the indictment is unusually weak on the evidence (and possibly outside the statute of limitations), though CBS News reportedprosecutors are weighing additional charges.
If extradited on the specific hacking charge alone, however, the Verge reported that legal experts say the U.S. cannot simply slap him with additional charges like espionage—which Assange’s lawyers claim could earn him the death penalty.