The gigantic dump of raw data about the global political and economic situation provided by wikileaks has been immensely satisfying. For anyone interested, and constantly attempting to infer the underlying reality below all the gruff public posturing over the past decade, this is nothing less than a revelation.
I desperately wish for wikileaks to survive until they can dump out the Bank of America/Merrill Lynch documents they're rumored to be prepping. We've been speculating about the origins and follow-through of the 2008 economic crisis for a bit now—with no serious investigations or public hearings likely any time soon. A dump of dirty data could be damning for those responsible, now richly profiting and unpunished.
It seems to me the aggressive, coordinated, multigovernmental backlash against Wikileaks really picked up heat when the BoA/Merrill document rumors started. Diplomatic cables—embarrassing or not—are one thing. Showing the sausage making (and incompetence) of the financial powers is another. As arrests and accusations start flying, the insurance.aes256 file becomes ever more interesting.
The gigabyte cache of secret documents is encrypted via AES—a US government released symmetric key encryption algorithm. This sort of encryption is distinct from that used when you visit a secured website. The latter starts with public key cryptopgraphy—something like the RSA algorithm, based upon the difficulty of factoring the product of two large prime numbers. In that sort of cryptography, each person communicating knows a part of the final, combined key.
AES is something different: A substitution-permutation network that (in theory) only be navigated with a shared key as a guide. (The metaphor is sending your secret to the far end of a long labyrinth. With a map (the key used to encrypt your secret), you can find your way fairly quickly, by making all the right turns. Without, you'll spend aeons to find the right path.
In the event of a mortal threat to Wikileaks, or one of the leaders of the organization, there is the threat of releasing the key to this encrypted cache of data—and thus allowing anyone who has already downloaded (the widely distributed file) access to the secrets within.
There is one interesting quirk to all this: The AES algorithm was released by the US government in 2001, after a contest to pick a replacement for the older DES encryption algorithm. One of the concerns about DES, was a sense that there was an NSA backdoor into the encryption—a second map owned by the governmental cryptographers through the labyrinth that bypassed your chosen key. AES is supposedly without such a backdoor, an open standard developed initially by European cryptographers. We'll see.