Published January 31, 2012
Multiple sources within the hacker community with knowledge of day-to-day WikiLeaks activities say Assange’s financial backers have been working behind the scenes on the logistics of moving the servers to international waters.
"Then they can keep running WikiLeaks and nobody can touch them,” one source told FoxNews.com. “If you get a certain distance away from any land, then you're dealing with maritime law ... They can't prosecute him under maritime law. He's safe. He's not an idiot, he's actually very smart."
One possible location: the Principality of Sealand, a rusty, World War II-era, former anti-aircraft platform off the coast of England in the North Sea. Based on a 1968 British court ruling that the facility is outside the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom, Sealand’s owner has declared the facility a sovereign state, or “micro-nation.”
No nation has recognized Sealand’s independence, but that hasn’t stopped its self-appointed “prince” -- Sealand claims to be a constitutional monarchy -- from marketing the platform as a haven and supporter of Internet freedom.
But others dismissed the idea that simply moving servers would allow WikiLeaks to escape prosecution.
Jim Dempsey, vice president for public policy with the Washington, D.C., think tank Center for Democracy and Technology, said moving WikiLeaks’ servers to Sealand wouldn’t matter -- unless the people behind WikiLeaks moved themselves.
“Where the data resides isn’t what determines jurisdiction,” Dempsey said. “You prosecute real people, you don’t prosecute servers. So if the WikiLeaks people want to live on a platform in the North Sea and educate their children there ... for people who have lives, that doesn’t make sense.”
Another WikiLeaks source said attempts had been made to place servers on old military barges in the ocean, in international waters. The source would not say whether those attempts had been successful, citing concerns for compromising the success of WikiLeaks and its future plans to move offshore.
In 1967, British war veteran Roy Bates occupied the military fort that became Sealand. His 59-year-old son Michael now calls himself "the Prince of Sealand." He told FoxNews.com via email that the platform is currently online and hosting another company’s sites via satellites as well as Wi-Fi connections -- claims FoxNews.com was unable to verify.
Until 2008, hosting company HavenCo operated a server farm from Sealand, hooked to the Internet via ship-to-shore radio communication, said Darryl Weaver, who served as system administrator for the business.
“It was a radio connection to the shore, basically,” Weaver told FoxNews.com, akin to high-powered Wi-Fi. “There was a receiver mounted on the coast on a tall building. On the platform itself was the other end of the receiver.”
HavenCo was meant as an anything-goes Internet host, allowing naughtiness while stopping short of criminal activity that could generate international outrage, according to a 2000 Wired Magazine cover story.
“There was a plan to lay a [fiber optic] cable at some point in the future, though I doubt anyone’s ever done that,” Weaver added.
When asked specifically if Sealand was currently or planning on hosting WikiLeaks servers, Prince Michael said: “It is contrary to our policy to divulge information on the people or companies we provide a service for, whether that be paid for or sponsored by the principality.”
But the HavenCo mentality still rules, experts said.
“My understanding is it’s almost like a Swiss bank account. You can rent server space on the island to hide what you’re doing,” said David Willson, attorney and founder and CEO of Titan Information Security Group.
Sealand relaunched its website on Jan. 3 (hosted on servers in California, not on the platform), and announced plans Jan. 15 to offer email addresses with the .sea domain. Prince Michael wrote on the group’s website Jan. 15 that he was looking for ideas on ways to make money.
The .sea domain is not recognized by Internet authority ICANN, but would instead be made available through an alternate Internet that doesn't connect to the "ordinary" Web, something called the Cesidian Root.
Willson, who has provided legal advice in computer network ops and law to the Defense Department, CYBERCOM, and National Security Agency, agreed with Dempsey’s view that relocating the servers offshore won’t necessarily keep WikiLeaks out of legal hot water.
“Moving WikiLeaks offshore, depending on the legal nature of the location, could actually make taking action easier for a nation,” he said. “Nations might likely be free to take whatever action they deem necessary to stop whatever activity they disagree with.”
And that radio link connecting Sealand to the main land may prove to be a weak one, should someone want to deep-six WikiLeaks from the offshore servers. Willson said the U.K. would be able to take such a link offline -- or the U.S. would have to get permission from the U.K to do so.
Willson said there may be other options to deal with dangerous or illegal activity companies or entities may be engaging in through servers outside the jurisdiction of any nation-state -- including counter-hacking, or remotely bringing down the servers.
“Once you put yourself outside the realm of law, then you’re outside the realm of law, rules on search warrants and excessive force and all that -- the reach of the Constitution -- none of that applies,” Dempsey said.
A grand jury in Virginia is investigating WikiLeaks; other jurisdictions may be separately investigating specific aspects of the group’s activities. And U.S. Army Pvt. Bradley Manning is currently on trial for leaking an enormous cache of classified military documents and videos to WikiLeaks.
Meanwhile, Assange, currently facing extradition by Sweden on sexual assault charges that he vigorously denies, announced last week that he would be hosting his own talk show. A Russian television network has said they would air the program.
The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to FoxNews.com’s request for information on Sealand.
Peter Carr, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, told FoxNews.com via email that the U.S. Justice Department has “an active investigation into WikiLeaks,” and declined further comment.
"When the U.S. government investigates a matter, we follow the facts wherever they lead and bring charges when appropriate."
WikiLeaks did not return FoxNews.com email requests for comment.