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Jason Pontin

A View from Jason Pontin

Secrets and Transparency

What is Wikileaks, and what is its future?

  • January 26, 2011


“There is a mystery in the soul of the state …” Troilus and Cressida (III.iii.202)

I. How do we begin to make sense of Wikileaks, the Internet-based organization that publishes the secrets of governments and companies?

What Wikileaks is, and whether it is good or bad for civil society, has become disputed terrain; and what has been written about Wikileaks has revealed more about the authors’ feelings for the state and corporations than it has shed light upon the organization’s innovations. But the innovations are real and disruptive, and, like those of any Web start-up, can be imitated by other, perhaps more sustainable ventures with better modes of business. In this essay I want to define Wikileaks, separate its technology from its mission, and say what it is not; and thereby sketch a likely future for Wikileaks and other organizations it inspires.

Begin with its guiding spirit and tutelary genius. People like to say that Wikileaks is “bigger than Julian Assange” (who describes himself as the organization’s “editor-in-chief”), but they have interests that are parents to the thought. They are concerned to portray Wikileaks as a popular force, or else they are embarrassed or angered by Assange, who has a talent for alienating those with whom he works. But in unguarded moments, Assange himself is candid. In an online chat with one disgruntled Wikileaks volunteer—a transcript of which was leaked to the New York Times—he summarized the blunt facts: “I am the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier, and all the rest.” If we want to describe Wikileaks, we must start with its creator.

In 1997, Assange was all of 26: the product of a deracinated Australian childhood, and famous only within the computer hacker subculture. (The best account of Assange’s backstory remains “No Secrets,” by Raffi Khatchadourian, published by The New Yorker last June.) He seems to have earned his living as a freelance software developer and white-hat hacker, but he was then, as now, an activist. That year, he wrote a program for other activists who might want to protect their laptops’ data if arrested. He called it “Rubberhose,” because it would thwart what cypherpunks jokingly call “rubber-hose cryptanalysis”— that is, when the police beat the keys out of you. The software was a type of “deniable cryptography”: anyone examining the encrypted computer’s hard drive would know that it was encrypted, but never how much was hidden, so that the activist could convincingly deny that parts of the encryption existed. Rubberhose thus possessed a curious feature: it was still secure when the tortured cracked. In the program’s documentation, “Julian” explains:

In Rubberhose the number of encrypted aspects (deniable “virtual” partitions)… is theoretically unlimited. Ordinarily [the] best strategy for the rubber-hose wielder is to keep on beating keys out of (let us say, Alice) indefinitely till there are no keys left. However, and importantly, in Rubberhose, *Alice* can never prove that she has handed over the last key. As Alice hands over more and more keys, her attackers can make observations like “the keys Alice has divulged correspond to 85% of the bits”. However at no point can her attackers prove that the remaining 15% don’t simply pertain to unallocated space, and at no point can Alice, even if she wants to, divulge keys to 100% of the bits, in order to bring the un-divulged portion down to 0%.

As the science fiction writer Bruce Sterling wrote in a much-admired blog post, “Hey, neat hack there, pal.” Assange was preparing for jail, Sterling thinks: he “had it figured out that the cops would beat his password out of him, and he needed some code-based way to finesse his own human frailty.”

I like this story because it is illuminates Assange’s background as a hacker, his morbid preoccupation with coercion, his interest in technology as a “force-multiplier” for activism, his distrust of all human agency, and his brilliance and level strangeness.

II. What Wikileaks is

Nine years later, Assange founded Wikileaks. What was he thinking? Fortunately, we know, because two short essays he posted in late 2006 on his now blank personal Web page have been preserved on cryptome.org, a repository of cypherhacker documents. These essays are primary texts for any understanding of Wikileaks: they are, in Assange’s own description, “motivational,” and he wrote them before he became guarded and disingenuous. (Any discussion is indebted to Aaron Bady, who writes the blog zunguzungu.com, and his post, “Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy.”)

State and Terrorist Conspiracies” and “Conspiracy as Governance,” are extraordinary documents: supple, logical, original, and, it must be declared immediately, nuts. They are written in a strange, epigrammatic, abstracted prose, as if Theodor Adorno had picked up network theory by hanging out with the comp-sci kids at the University of Melbourne. Assange begins by quoting that 17th century wit the first Lord Halifax to the effect that “The best kind of party is but a kind of conspiracy against the rest of the nation”—and goes on to define all authoritarian regimes, including the management of corporations, as conspiracies. Assange sees conspiracy as the “primary planning methodology behind maintaining or strengthening authoritarian power.” How so?

Because “authoritarian regimes create forces which oppose them by pushing against a people’s will to truth, love and self-realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers…”

In imagining how conspiracies “compute,” Assange draws upon the mathematical concept of “connected graphs,” and explains the concept’s application to conspiracies by asking us to imagine a board with nails and twine:

“First take some nails (“conspirators”) and hammer them into a board at random. Then take twine (“communication”) and loop it from nail to nail without breaking. Call the twine connecting two nails a link. Unbroken twine means it is possible to travel from any nail to any other nail via twine and intermediary nails … Information flows from conspirator to conspirator. Not every conspirator trusts or knows every other conspirator even though all are connected. Some are on the fringe of the conspiracy, others are central and communicate with many conspirators and others still may know only two conspirators but be a bridge between important sections or groupings of the conspiracy.”

Traditionally, a resistance movement employed assassins; but Assange insists that nothing so unsubtle could undo a modern conspiracy. Instead, he recommends activists degrade the conspiracy’s ability to “think.”We can, Assange writes, decrease a conspiracy’s“total conspiratorial power…We can split the conspiracy, reduce or eliminating important communications between a few high weight links or many low weight links.”

Although Wikileaks is often described as a “whistle-blower site,” Assange cares less about the content of leaks than what leaking does to conspiracies. Still less was Wikileaks invented to further some Internet ideology of “radical transparency”: Assange accepts that individuals have rights to secrecy. (Indeed, he can become quite energized by public “smears” about his own life.) Rather, he conceives of Wikileaks as an insurrection. He writes in the preamble to the two essays:

“The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power …”

Although (for reasons I shall shortly explain) Assange is now at pains to describe himself as a journalist and Wikileaks as a media organization, his big idea is unchanged. As recently as last April, he said, “We are an activist organization. The method is transparency, the goal is justice.”

How Wikileaks works is more easily described. Assange himself, with obvious pride of authorship, has been forthcoming, if secretive about the details. At TED Global last July, he told Chris Anderson, the event’s organizer:

“So we use just state-of-the-art encryption to bounce stuff around the Internet, to hide trails, pass it through legal jurisdictions … We get information … encrypted or not, vet it like a regular news organization, format it—which is something that’s quite hard to do, when you’re talking about giant databases of information—[and release it to the public … Very rarely [do] we know [the sources of the leaks]. And if we find out at some stage then we destroy that information as soon as possible.”

The technologies involved are complicated, but not new. (Technology Review has created a useful primer: “Everything You Need to Know about Wikileaks.”) Wikileaks’s primary website is hosted on servers managed by PRQ, the same nonjudgmental Swedish Internet service provider that serves the bit torrent site The Pirate Bay and various pedophiles’ fora, and it is mirrored on around 1,400 other sites. Sources can upload documents to Wikileaks using a version of the TOR network, which permits the anonymous transfer of files, in combination with some undisclosed form of encryption, which disguises their content. It is this combination of an irrepressible Web site, TOR, and encryption that constitutes the innovation of the “secure drop-box”: together, they make Wikileaks a kind of “platform” for leaking, whose leaks cannot be traced, and which cannot be censored. The suspected source of Wikileaks’s most sensational material, a U.S. Army private named Bradley Manning, was only caught because he bragged to a former hacker, who turned informer.

Wikileaks has published a bewildering number of documents: to date, around 20,000 files, according to the organization. Nevertheless, those files constitute only a fraction of the documents Wikileaks claims to possess, but has not yet released. (The reason seems to be sheer incapacity. The organization is, for all its notoriety, small, under-funded, and struggling. It relies upon a handful of full-time staff and volunteers, none of them paid—too few to validate, evaluate, and format the flood of submissions.)

Most of the published documents are neither very secret nor newsworthy. They did not have to be, if we recall the goals of Wikileaks; it was enough if conspiracies were made to feel porous. From 2006 to 2008, Wikileaks published the U.S. Army’s protocols at the Guantanamo detention center; the e-mails of U.S. vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin; and allegations of malfeasance at the Cayman Islands branch of a Swiss Bank—and much more. In 2009, it released a report about an accident at the Iranian nuclear facility; instructions from the British Ministry of Defense explaining how to secure military computer systems from Wikileaks and foreign spies; documents from a bank deeply involved in the Icelandic financial crisis—and, again, much more. 2010 was the year Wikileaks began to live up to Assange’s ambitions. The organization posted an highly-edited classified U.S. military video “depicting the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in … New Baghdad, including two Reuters news staff”; and it began to release over 391,000 reports from soldiers in the field in Afghanistan and Iraq and over 251,000 secret, confidential, and unclassified diplomatic cables. So far this year, Wikileaks has released yet more documents belonging to a Swiss bank, and Assange toldForbes magazine that his next target will be a major American bank, reported to be Bank of America. (Wikipedia, fulfilling its crowdsourcing mission, has a long and mostly accurate list of all “Information Published by Wikileaks.”)

An abiding mystery about Wikileaks is the degree to which it was founded upon a hack, or is still a hack. The New Yorker’s profile of Assange reported that, at some time before late 2006, an unnamed “Wikileaks activist” had owned a server that was a node in the TOR network. The activist noticed that hackers from China “were using the network to gather foreign governments’ information, and began to record this traffic.” This initial windfall of hacked documents allowed Assange to claim, at the site’s foundation, “We have received over one million documents from thirteen countries.” While it is technically possible to record an unencrypted data packet on the TOR network, Wikileaks stoutly denied the charge. But the suspicion that Assange has returned to his roots as a hacker in founding Wikileaks persists. In late January, Bloombergreported that Tiversa, a computer security company, had “evidence” that Wikileaks was hacking peer-to-peer file sharing networks, in a fashion that the company’s researchers called “both systematic and highly successful.” Mark Stephens, Assange’s London lawyer, denied this latest charge of hacking, too.

III. What Wikileaks isn’t

Julian Assange doesn’t want anyone to think of his creation as the world’s biggest hack. Instead, and increasingly, he talks about Wikileaks as a “media organization” that publishes journalism.

In part, this is pretension. How much better to be the editor in chief of a news site practicing an innovative form of “scientific journalism”— an intellectual of world historical importance!—than a cyber-thief or digital pimp. Assange can become testy when reminded of his hacker background. He darkly toldForbes: “That was 20 years ago. It’s very annoying to see modern day articles calling me a computer hacker. I’m not ashamed … But I understand the reason they suggest I’m a computer hacker now. There’s a very specific reason.”

And in truth, Wikileaks has become more like a media organization as it has evolved. At its founding, there was some thought that ordinary people would organize and interpret the documents the organization published; anything could be submitted. This crowdsourcing suggested the name “Wikileaks.” But since December, the Wiki-functions of Wikileaks have been turned off; its editor in chief decides what leaks are sufficiently important to publish. The crowd disappointed him, and Assange won’t trust them again. At a seminar on the future of journalism at Berkeley last year, he explained:

“Our initial idea was, Look at all those people editing Wikipedia. Look at all the junk … they’re working on. Surely, if you give them a fresh, classified document about the human rights atrocities in Falluja, surely all those people … busy working on articles about history and mathematics … all those bloggers … busy pontificating about the abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan … surely those people will … do something.

No. It’s all bullshit. People write about things (if it’s not part of their career) because they want to display their values to their peers. They don’t give a fuck about the material. Very early on, we understood … that we would have to at least give summaries of the material we were releasing to get people to pick it up … In cases where … the material is more complex, it’s not even enough to do a summary. You have to do an article, or … liaise with other journalists … Otherwise it goes nowhere.”

This is misleading. There are only two dozen such “articles” on Wikileaks.ch and they read less like journalism than corporate press releases: mostly short, self-aggrandizing, overheated documents that quote Wikileaks spokespeople. In fact, the organization relies upon large, professional media organizations such as the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, El Pais, and der Spiegel to do the heavy work of reporting, analyzing, writing, and distributing the journalism the leaks suggest.

Assange has a powerful motive to represent himself as an editor and Wikileaks as a media organization. He doesn’t want to go to jail. In countries that enjoy strong free speech and press protections, leakers can be prosecuted for crimes including espionage and theft, but the media cannot be punished for publishing leaks. In the United States, for instance, the 1917 Espionage Act provides sweeping powers that allow the prosecution of anyone who “willfully” communicates information “relating to the national defense” if it could give “advantage” to America’s enemies. But in a celebrated decision in 1971, New York Times vs. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional freedom of the press, guaranteed by the first amendment, could not be subordinated to the government’s need for secrecy. The New York Times was allowed to publish the Pentagon Papers, a history of the Vietnam War prepared by the Department of Defense, which showed that the American government had lied to its citizens about the origins, scope, and progress of the war. By contrast, the leaker, Daniel Ellsberg, was tried in court under the Espionage Act (although acquitted because of government misconduct). Assange knows that the U.S. Justice Department is considering whether it can bring a similar case against him: at issue is whether Wikileaks solicited classified materials or hacked computer systems, or was a mere passive publisher of leaked materials.

Members of two other groups have felt the need to describe Wikileaks as some kind of media organization: New Media critics and journalists themselves. Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, describes Wikileaks as “the world’s first stateless news organization.” Dan Gillmor, a columnist at Salon, told me, “Yes, Wikileaks is a media org. Defend them and you’re defending yourself.” The two groups have different reasons for their common definition, although it’s probably the case that they recognize in Assange a fellow traveler. Rosen’s definition is a misprision: it is part of his long-term project to traduce the “mainstream media.” He says, “The watchdog press died; we have this instead.” Gillmor’s definition has a more genial impulse: he fears for his own freedoms. He writes, “Defend Wikileaks or lose free speech.”

Wikileaks is not a media organization, except insofar as it publishes. But it publishes little original writing, video, radio, or any other editorial product, because it does no reporting, analysis, or criticism. It employs neither journalists, editors, art directors, nor any of the business people who develop audiences and sell advertising. Media organizations are institutions where professionals collaborate in laborious processes to make useful things. Their editors, howsoever ideologically committed, want to produce publications that surprise and delight. They are accountable to their audiences and to the laws and mores of the societies in which they are incorporated. What does Wikileaks make? What does Julian Assange want? To what is Wikileaks accountable, except to Assange’s outraged rectitude?

Perhaps the best way to conceive of Wikileaks is like this: it is a stateless, distributed intelligence network, a reverse image of the U.S. National Security Agency (which Bruce Sterling called a vast, “crypto-empire”), dedicated to publicizing secrets rather than acquiring them.

IV. The future of Wikileaks

If Wikileaks is not a media organization, is it another example of the Internet overthrowing our settled habits? That question is legitimate—and more interesting. By this formulation, Wikileaks is to the state and corporations what Napster was to music or Google to media-as-a-business.

Shakespeare, Lord Annan recalled in his wartime memoirs, gave to Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida the haunting phrase “There is a mystery in the soul of the state …” “That mystery is the intelligence services,” Annan explained. Annan was thinking of his service on the United Kingdom’s Joint Intelligence Committee seventy years ago. But the modern state has many allied organizations besides the intelligence services, including the management of large corporations and banks, who partake in its mystery. Julian Assange, who is the disordered soul of Wikileaks, wants to explode the soul of the state.

But the modern state with its monopoly on violence and covert, magical technologies is not like the music industry or media. It is properly jealous of its secrets, and more powerful and able than Assange understands. It will bitterly resent an attack by a crypto-utopian on its ability to “think.” Assange has declared himself the state’s enemy and he will, in all likelihood, be comprehensively destroyed. Wikileaks will vanish. There will be collateral damage to the press and our civil liberties.

But the technology of Wikileaks, once imagined, cannot be forgotten and is easily imitated. Other organizations, less radically activist, will create secure drop-boxes for anonymous leaking. Already, the disgruntled former Wikileaks volunteer, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, has said he will create a competing, less threatening leaks platform called OpenLeaks. It will, he says, publish nothing, but instead function as a kind of pipeline where sources designate the media organization to whom they wish to leak: “No single organization carries all of the responsibility or all of the workload. We want to be a neutral conduit. That’s what’s most politically sustainable …”

Predictably, media organizations want to replicate Wikileaks’s secure drop-box, too. Recently, Al Jazeera launched a “Transparency Unit,” which encourages its audience to submit “all forms of content” for “editorial review and, if merited, online broadcast and transmission on our English and Arabic-language broadcasts.” Their first product was stunning: in January, Al Jazeera published the “Palestine Papers,” a decade’s worth of secret documents, created by the Palestinian Authority, describing negotiations with the Israeli government. Al Jazeera, which is no friend of the Palestinian Authority, has described the concessions offered as unprincipled and craven; others disagree. But it’s fair to say that the Palestinian people had little idea that so much had been offered for so little, or that the Israelis were quite so mulishly intransigent. The reality that emerges from the Papers is that the Israeli government is no longer interested in securing a Palestinian state: it is a scoop, and it could not have existed without the Transparency Unit’s drop-box. Yet more publications are considering their own secure drop-boxes. Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, is pondering how he can make it easier for sources to leak to his journalists.

Is all this a good thing? Any answer necessarily reflects the writer’s preferences, and I must therefore unburden myself and say “where I am coming from.”

Personally, I distrust transparency. I am by birth and education a member of the establishment, and, politically, a Whig (that is, a sort of progressive conservative). I think the rights we enjoy are not natural but derive ultimately from the laws of a properly constituted state, and I am wary of attacks upon its institutions. I believe that states and corporations enjoy privacy rights like individuals and that any human system requires secrecy for its effective management. Neither innovations, nor art, nor contracts, nor representative government, nor marriages, nor anything valuable at all would exist without secrets.

More, I am confident that we know how secrets should be kept. The computer scientist Jaron Lanier wrote in “The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: the Case of Wikileaks”: “If the secret is of vital interest to other people, then secrets can be kept by those who are sanctioned and accountable to keep them within the bounds of a reasonably functional democratic process.”

At the same time, as a journalist I am committed professionally to truth-telling, and oftentimes that means revealing the secrets of the state and of corporations. I cling to the formal protections that let me publish such secrets without risk. Lanier’s reasonably functional democratic process requires for its operations that I should be free to practice a kind of licensed disrespect for the ordinary rules of secrecy. Justice Hugo Black, explaining the Court’s decision about the Pentagon Papers, wrote, “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”

Secrets breed like weeds, and all over the world they have grown to occlude everything that is done by those who govern us or sell us things; technology has made it easier for states and corporations to keep such secrets; and a corrective toward transparency is long overdue. Therefore, I welcome the use of secure drop-boxes by recognizable media organizations, or neutral organizations that wish to work with them.

Like equality and freedom, we must balance the conflicting goods of secretiveness and transparency. I don’t like Julian Assange’s goals and methods, but corrective reformers are mostly unlikable weirdos. I am fairly sure that Wikileaks won’t be with us for the long haul, and that those who imitate its innovations will be more constrained and responsible.

Jason Pontin is editor in chief of Technology Review.

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