How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information

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* Book: This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information. by Andy Greenberg. Virgin Books, London, 2012


By Harry Halpin:

"The ideology of Wikileaks comes from an entirely different lineage than revolutionary movements of the 20th century, namely the largely under-appreciated thinking (and code!) of a certain breed of hackers known as cypherpunks. This hidden current is detailed in Andy Greenberg’s This Machine Kills Secrets: How Wikileakers, Hacktivists, and Cypherpunks Aim to Free the World’s Information, whose best-seller status shows that regardless of the censorship, Wikileaks is still very much on peoples’ minds. Far from dismissing Wikileaks, the task should be to understand the emerging ideology inherent in the slogan “freeing the world’s information” and the particular tight coupling to digital technology inherent in this new ideological formation. The ideology of Wikileaks emerged slowly from the cypherpunks mailing list for over twenty years ago, an online conversation of a global group of hackers who put their faith in the power of an obscure branch of mathematical computer science – cryptography – to change the world. Within the historical trajectory of Wikileaks outlined by Greenberg, if one reads carefully, one can detect both the power and limitations of their utopian project.

Surprisingly for a journalist from Forbes, Greenberg provides a fairly well-written history of Wikileaks’ origins. Cryptography is a subtle and beautiful area of study in mathematics premised upon the astonishing discovery that it is possible to hide a message so that it can never be revealed except to its intended sender. The beginning of cryptography can be traced to Shannon’s formalization of information as the sending of messages over a channel by a sender and receiver.2 Using encryption, the message being passed through the channel – such as an email over the Internet – is transformed so that it is unreadable by an adversary: a transformation from what is termed “cleartext” to “ciphertext,” and so the “cypher” in “cypherpunk.” Encryption then can be used to build an overwhelming variety of even more powerful systems; for example, techniques such as digital signatures can not only make the message unreadeable by adversaries but also non-reputable by its very sender, so that the identity of the sender is assured. A thorough exegesis of cryptography is available from books such as Bruce Schneier’s (unfortunately rather dated but still magisterial) Applied Cryptography3 or various high-quality online courses.4 Abstracting from the details, the key aspect of cryptography is that it is actually mathematically impossible to break strong cryptography within the lifetime of the universe,5 or as put by Assange, the universe “has that property that makes it possible for an individual or a group of individuals to reliably, automatically, even without knowing, encipher something, so that all the resources and all the political will of the strongest super-power on earth may not decipher it.”6 Greenberg provides a brief treatment of how a group of obscure academics produced a veritable cornucopia of theoretical results that soon led to practical systems for hiding messages, many of which have been over the years often considered illegal by the United States government.

Work on cryptography reached its academic zenith in David Chaum’s “Security without Identification: Transaction Systems to make Big Brother Obsolete” that brought up both the possibility of using cryptography to build a world of that went beyond hiding messages between known parties by providing actual anonymity for the sender and receiver of messages.7

Academic cryptographers then sparked an ideology founded on an explosive – and perhaps uniquely American – mixture of high technology and libertarian individualism. Tim May’s “Crypto-Anarchist Manifesto” begins with a sarcastic twist on Marx, “A specter is haunting the modern world, the specter of crypto anarchy.”8 Fueled by the technical wonders of cryptography rather than any all-too-human social agent, the goal of the crypto-anarchist revolution would not be the abolition of private property, but the end of all taxes: “Computer technology is on the verge of providing the ability for individuals and groups to communicate and interact with each other in a totally anonymous manner…these developments will alter completely the nature of government regulation, the ability to tax and control economic interactions, the ability to keep information secret, and will even alter the nature of trust and reputation.”9 Far from being an anarchist in the sense of Bakunin or the Black Bloc, May and the nascent cypherpunks created an extreme version of market libertarianism that would make even Margaret Thatcher churn in her grave, a future where the state would be replaced by a global anonymized market. One advocate of this cryptographic utopia, Jim Bell, fleshed out the ideas of the Crypto-Anarchist manifesto’s logical conclusion: the creation of assassination markets through which people could nominate ill-doers (ideally government employees according to Bell) for assassination, with a crowdsourced monetary reward being delivered to the assassin via Chaum’s anonymized cash.10 According to Bell, soon all corrupt government officials would be assassinated, leading to a crypto-libertarian paradise with no state, no armies, no war, and free economic exchange ran by anonymized transactions. The young Julian Assange was also taking part in the cypherpunk mailing list, but thinking of less blood-drenched plans for changing the world. As noted by Robert Banne, “Unlike with Bell, the revolution Assange imagined would be non-violent. The agent of change would not be the assassin but the whistleblower. The method would not be the bullet but the leak.”11 Rather than avoid taxes, Julian Assange wanted a more just world, “I am not for transparency all round, or even democracy all round, but I am for justice…I believe we have an innate yearning for justice. We have an innate aversion to censorship. And the Web can speak to that.”12

Greenberg’s book then turns to Wikileaks and the technology – Tor – that helps run Wikileaks, and many of the crucial details are both historically and technically right. While cryptography is well understood, building anonymous systems is still very much a black art. An outstanding usable system that works today is the Tor Project.13 Ironically funded by both the U.S. government to keep its secret agents anonymous and the Electronic Freedom Frontier Foundation to support human rights activists, Tor works by onion-routing, where encryption is applied in layers like an “onion” through an open-ended network of routers. While normal Internet messages are sent more or less without any encryption and can be read by almost anyone as easily as a postcard, Tor works so that any particular relay can never know the content or destination of the message.

By creating a circuitous path – unsurprisingly called a “circuit” – – where the message are continually bounced around through relays from country to country, only a massively powerful observer who can observe all entry and exit points of the Tor network can determine the identity of the sender. Yet Tor lacked a “killer app” until Julian Assange hit upon the idea of Wikileaks, the first truly anonymous electronic publishing platform. A small group of hackers built a technical system for collecting leaks in co-ordination with the “hacking” of the Icelandic government by the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, which helped pass a set of laws protecting whistleblowers in order to make Iceland “the Switzerland” of the new world of information. Wikileaks includes a “hidden service” inside the Tor network that lets whistleblowers reveal corruption through uploading leaks, but with enough cryptography so that Wikileaks itself would be mathematically unable to tell who was behind the leak. The apex of the operation was that the Tor circuit to Wikileaks was routed through Iceland and other countries in order to provide a measure of legal protection.

The cypherpunk-based ideology of Wikileaks was ultimately one of openness and transparency, and thus a kind of extreme liberalism comes shining through instead of the absurd libertarianism of the original cypherpunks. The plan outlined by Assange on his own blog is straightforward: “The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie,” which in turn results “in decreased ability to hold onto power.”14 The purpose of the leaks was not the overthrow of governments, but their radical reform via the exposure of corruption that would otherwise by hidden from the public. As put by Assange, “Information would set us free.”15 The logo of Wikileaks reveals not only their strategy, but their ideology: Above, the dark and earthly world of repressive governments and corporate malfeasance, dissolving leak by leak, that would thus eventually transform into a shining new world based on justice and transparency. Again, as put by Assange, “The new world of the internet, abstracted from the old world of brute atoms, longed for independence ” but was “debased by its physical origins.”16 Cryptography – “a basic emancipatory building block for the independence of mankind in the Platonic realm of the internet” – could reshape society in the image of the free flow of information.

Wikileaks can then be formulated properly as a takeover of the pre-internet world by the internet itself: “as societies merged with the internet could that liberty then be reflected back into physical reality to redefine the state?”17 One finds a strange echo of metaphysical dualism at the heart of Wikileaks’ version of the cypherpunk ideology: a world of free information and perfect liberty on the Internet, and then this downtrodden material world of injustice and violence that existed prior to the Internet. Like the first trumpet of the angels in the Revelations of St. John, Wikileaks would announce that the City of the Internet was to replace the City of Man at long last. With enough information about injustice, wars would end and governments would topple, perhaps even without violence. And credit should be given where due, for despite its perhaps faulty computational theology, there is little doubt the revelations made possible by Wikileaks did give courage to the people of Tunisia to overthrow Ben Ali. Yet something went wrong for Wikileaks.

Within the classical liberal framing, the release of documents would be an act of spreading knowledge for the good of public discourse, The true nature of the freedom of information was revealed by the reaction of the United States government to the leak of U.S. diplomatic cables by Wikileaks. The leaks were not treated as the world’s largest data-driven act of free speech; the leaks were treated as an act of war. This over-reaction appeared almost farcical given the mostly harmless nature of the leaks, which revealed only that the United States indulged in the most predicable of espionage: spying on the United Nations, secret authorized murders of anyone associated with so-called terrorism, and the like – the usual talk in the air at any bar when the topic of the possible perfidy of the United States government is broached. Yet in return for “Cablegate,” the bank accounts of Wikileaks were frozen, Paypal blocked all transfer of donations, its domain names were taken down, its server space was revoked from Amazon, supporters were put on terrorist watch-lists, and Assange, blackballed by an accusation of rape, was forced to seek asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. With U.S. senators calling for his murder, one is almost surprised a drone is not sent to Assange’s hideout in London.

At the end of the book, Greenberg’s analysis falls particularly short, for he buys into an image of Assange becoming power-mad, paranoid, and eventually sloppy in face of this unexpected onslaught. Nonetheless, it seems Assange’s fear of deportation from Sweden to America is not unfounded; it is now a matter of public record that the American grand jury and military court investigating Wikileaks wanted to prosecute Assange by directly connecting him to Bradley Manning, something that Tor’s architecture makes impossible to prove.

Concluding his book, Greenberg places far too much faith in Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the former Wikileaks volunteer who destroyed a host of leaks in order to create a “more professional” Wikileaks he dubbed OpenLeaks, a project which ended up being mere vapourware. Where Greenberg is most prescient is in the fact that, regardless of the fate of Wikileaks itself, the act of leaking will eventually make a politics based on secrecy nearly impossible, as shown by Snowden’s leaks about the massive NSA surveillance apparatus.

Whilst Wikileaks was built on well-understood open-source software like Tor; what was truly impressive about Wikileaks was its co-ordination with newspapers. Wikileaks was not just interested in any information, but in information that would have a spectacular impact on the media in order – so Assange assumed – to change the course of political policy. It was on this social, and not technical, level that the United States government was eventually able to force the media to cast out Wikileaks, likely by pressuring every major European and American newspaper to simply ignore any new leaks. What the leaks did not drive the United States government into a state of paranoia, but instead led the United States to declare a state of war against Wikileaks, the world’s first “stateless” media organization composed of essentially a few servers and scattered individuals. This hysterical reaction by the U.S. government was not so hysterical after all; for the act of war revealed that governments understand all too well that the “ethereal” realm of information is vital to their maintenance of dominance in the all-too-material world. The reality is that the Internet did not reshape a new world free from the domination of power as the cypherpunks dreamed; instead, the power of domination has just adapted its form to the Internet: power flows through information.

The flow of information on the Internet was not necessarily going to lead humanity to a state of justice and liberty, but to a state of surveillance and war." (