The highs and hazards of hacktivism


INTERNET: PADRAIG REIDYreviews This Machine Kills Secrets By Andy Greenberg Virgin Books, 370pp. £12.99

IN 1997, an engineer named Jim Bell posted a 16,000-word essay on the mailing list of the Cypherpunk group, proposing a system of “assassination politics”. Building on similar ideas floating around the world of hackers and cryptographers, Bell proposed a system whereby people could gamble anonymously on the date of the death of a politician or public figure. When that figure subsequently died, the winner could collect his winnings, again anonymously. In other words, crowd-sourced contract killing.

In the paranoid post-Waco atmosphere of the American libertarian right, Bell felt he had come up with an effective way of preventing any individual gaining too much power. “Chances are good that nobody above the level of county commissioner would even risk staying in office,” Bell wrote. “Just how would this change politics in America? It would take far less time to answer, ‘What would remain the same?’ No longer would we be electing people who will turn around and tax us to death, regulate us to death, or for that matter send hired thugs to kill us when we oppose their wishes.”

The idea is frighteningly simple: you make people more trustworthy by making them more paranoid. The violent aspect of the concept appalled many of Bell’s fellow hackers and cryptologists, but the core concept had its appeal.

Almost 10 years later, Julian Assange set up Wikileaks, with a similar mindset. Assange’s thinking, described by the Forbes magazine journalist Andy Greenberg in the fascinating This Machine Kills Secrets: How Wikileaks, Hacktivists and Cypherpunks Aim to Free the World’s Information, goes like this: “Secretive institutions and authorities rely on internal communication. If they can be shown that their information can be hacked, downloaded and distributed by anonymous figures who need not fear repercussion, their instinct will be to stop sharing information internally, eventually leading to the break-up of the system.

It’s an appealing idea, and not far removed from that which motivates more run-of-the-mill freedom-of-information campaigners. The difference is that freedom-of-information campaigns tend to idealise good government rather than no government at all. And it is an idea that is very much of the computer age.

When Daniel Ellsberg, distraught at the actions of the US government in Vietnam, decided to leak the Pentagon Papers, he found himself involved in an 18-month project of late-night reading, redaction and photocopying. (The redaction was necessary to conceal the classified nature of the material from curious copy-shop workers when he took the papers to be printed in the hope of distributing copies to senators.) Bradley Manning, the US army private allegedly behind the greatest Wikileaks scoops, had no such ordeal. Thanks to modern technology, he was able to download what he himself has described as “possibly the largest data spillage in American history” in the time it took to listen to Lady Gaga’s Telephone.

What followed was spectacular, with a succession of major stories throughout 2010, culminating in “Cablegate”, when thousands upon thousands of US diplomatic documents formed the basis for week after week of revelations for the world’s newspapers. In a later video appealing for funds, Assange would claim to have “changed the world”, hinting that the Arab Spring was down to Wikileaks.

Although this was somewhat overblown, the Tunisian cyberactivists Nawaat, who worked with Wikileaks, will admit that the “Tunileaks” they pulled from the data certainly hastened the end of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s reign. At the very least, it helped Tunisians to see that the broader political world was as aware of the president’s corruption as they were.

There has since been much error and recrimination. Unredacted cables fell into the hands of a deeply dubious character named Israel Shamir, who is believed to have given sensitive information to the goons who run Belarus’s unreconstructed KGB. An Ethiopian journalist was forced to flee after unredacted cables revealed his activities to the government there.

Former allies of Wikileaks (at the Guardian, the New York Times and indeed my own organisation, Index on Censorship) found Assange increasingly difficult to deal with. Senior Wikileaks people, including Daniel Domscheit-Berg and the mysterious engineer of the site, known as “the Architect”, fell out with Assange, believing that the system was not secure enough and that Assange was unworthy to be trusted with so much sensitive information. And there are still the sex-crime allegations for which Assange faces extradition to Sweden, even in spite of the political asylum granted by Ecuador. Meanwhile, Pte Manning awaits military trial in the US.

The Wikileaks story is well known, but the problems the model has faced are not unique to the hacktivist movement described in this gripping book. The movement sits somewhere between journalism and espionage, and carries with it the central dilemma of those two oldest professions: the balance of trust and paranoia. On a whiteboard in the common room of the university where I studied journalism was scrawled a simple two-word motto, “Be Cynical”. But at some point journalists, hackers and spies must put their trust in someone. Hackers and leakers continue to try to overcome this problem through ever more ingenious encryption methods, but no amount of anonymity can entirely remove the human aspect from the process of spreading information.

For all the technical detail (which Greenberg excels at explaining), this book is still about human feats and failings, idealism, trust and betrayal. Hacktivism will continue, and there will be a new Wikileaks, but the brightest ideas and the finest machines will always be the work of humans who, in the end, can only put their faith in each other rather than technology. The cyber variety is no different from any other Utopia: no place at all.

Padraig Reidy is news editor of Index on Censorship