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.