It has been just over two years since Americans were really introduced to WikiLeaks. The high-profile releases of US State Embassy cables, war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the “Collateral Murder” video turned the organization and its founder Julian Assange into a beat, which journalists or reporters were closely following. One journalist, who has closely tracked the organization and its founder, is Andy Greenberg of Forbes.
His book, This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information, covers what he describes as “a revolutionary protest movement bent not on stealing information but on building a tool that inexorably coaxes it out, a technology that slips inside of institutions and levels their defense against the free flow of data like a Trojan horse of cryptographic software and silicon.”
The introduction briefly highlights the struggles WikiLeaks has faced in the aftermath of leaks in 2010. Greenberg writes, “WikiLeaks is on life support.” It is struggling to raise cash. Its most “ardent supporters” have become its “most bitter critics.” Assange seems to be “more interested in hosting a TV talk show on the Russian government-funded network RT than in rebuilding his organization.” And, skeptics are wondering if the web can ever be this “free anarchic realm” one might want it to be so that information can flow.
Chapter by chapter, Greenberg explores “the forces that coalesced to WikiLeaks happen”—The Cryptographers, The Cypherpunks and The Onion Routers. Then, he details the forces at work ensuring the leaks WikiLeaks brought about continue to happen: The Plumbers, The Globalizers and The Engineers.
The Cryptographers are people like Eric Hughes, a mathematician, and Tim May, an intel physicist, libertarian and crypto-anarchist thinker. They founded the Cypherpunks, a group whose name was inspired by the popular cyberpunk novels of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson that were being written where hackers were fighting mega corporations in virtual worlds.
The Cypherpunks had an email list that grew to more than one thousand subscribers by the mid-1990s. The group had in-person meetings and developed a manifesto that expressed a commitment to writing software that defended users’ privacy. [Assange would later join the list.]
The creation of Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption is detailed through the story of developer Phil Zimmerman. What might be interesting to those reading about the challenge from the US government when it figured out this was going to be available to subvert authority is how one paragraph in a crime bill in 1991 tried to create a climate where cryptographers like Hughes, May and Zimmerman could not encrypt their communications:
…It is the sense of Congress that providers of electronic communications services and manufacturers of electronic communications service equipment shall ensure that communications systems permit the government to obtain the plain text contents of voice, data and other communications when appropriately authorized by law…
The person, who inserted the paragraph, is someone who has called Assange a “high-tech terrorist” and is now vice president—Joe Biden.
In chapter on the Cypherpunks, Greenberg explains how a group that played a game Assange invented called “The Puzzle Hunt” grew into WikiLeaks. The game was a “campus-wide scavenger hunt punctuated with dozens of math and logic problems that drew in hundreds of students and still takes place annually on the University of Melbourne’s campus.” Assange dropped out of the university, but a year later he asked former colleagues if they wanted to join a new project.
“Are you interested in being involved with a courageous project to reform every political system on earth—and through that reform move the world to a more humane state?”
And a year later:
I am looking for people, courageous people, intelligent people to help develop and run and international leaked document analysis & essay competition.
WikiLeaks is only new, but we have already broken major stories in the international press that have achieved significant reforms likely to save tens of thousands of lives. Our problem? We’re drowning in leaked documents…
Greenberg provides a portrait of various individuals who he expects to contribute to the future of leaking. For example, he meets up with Birgitta Jonsdottir, the Icelandic parliamentarian. She worked with WikiLeaks when it was a rising organization and helped with the release of the “Collateral Murder” video. (This is why the US government has decided to subpoena her Twitter account records and other personal data.)
Jonsdottir has been instrumental in pushing the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, which she hopes will turn Iceland into a “legal haven for leakers, whistleblowers, and digital truth-tellers of every variety.” She wants to see more leaks organizations out there operating. And when the IMMI is in place, those organizations can move to Iceland for shelter from governments that may try to go after them.
The stories of Atanas Tchobanov and Assen Yordanov, “two Bulgarian investigative reporters who founded the independent media outlet Bivol and were inspired by WikiLeaks to create the Bulgaria-focused leak site BalkanLeaks,” are stirring. Both of these people have taken on the government of Bulgaria with coverage of secrets that has put their lives at great risk. And they played a role in uncovering how The Guardian was “cable cooking,” removing thousands of words from diplomatic cables it had been given.
The internal conflict within WikiLeaks is detailed through the various players. Jacob Appelbaum and the development of the Tor Project is extensively highlighted in a way that helps one understand how WikiLeaks could claim to protect the identity of whistleblowers.
It is a wide-ranging book. Greenberg makes it clear that it does not matter whether you support or oppose WikiLeaks. Secrets are abundant. They are growing in number. And those dedicated to sharing secrets for the greater good are coming out of the woodwork and many are hoping to improve upon what WikiLeaks did.
There is much more to discuss. Thank you for being here and please join in the chat with Andy Greenberg in the comments thread below.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]