WikiLeaks: telling it like it is

The battle over WikiLeaks is all about information – who owns it, who controls it, who needs it – and about one man’s idea to set it free.

ON JULY 30, 2010, WikiLeaks uploaded a file named ”insurance.aes256” to the internet. It was 1.4 gigabytes, big enough to hold a mountain of leaked documents, and encrypted with a 256-character key strong enough to have the US National Security Agency’s approval for use to secure classified documents.

It was also copied to dozens of USB sticks and mailed out to a cadre of WikiLeaks supporters around the world. In a letter enclosed with the USB sticks, WikiLeaks said that ”insurance.aes256” contained an encrypted archive: ”Distribution will make sure that no matter what happens, this information will be disclosed to the media and consequently the general public. It will also serve as insurance for the well-being of our project and us.”

The file was uploaded four days after the WikiLeaks publication of the Afghan war logs and five weeks after the arrest of Private Bradley Manning, the US Army soldier alleged to have leaked military and diplomatic secrets. WikiLeaks has not detailed what secrets are locked away behind the AES256 algorithm, but the signal is crystal clear: if you bring down WikiLeaks, the encrypted file, together with all its contents, will be released into the wild.

Is it any wonder that Julian Assange – the founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks – has been called everything from the ”James Bond of journalism” to a ”cyber-terrorist” to ”the most dangerous man in the world”?

Judging by past WikiLeaks actions, Assange’s opponents – primarily the US government, with what appears to be the tacit support of the Australian government – should take the threat of insurance.aes256 seriously. Since WikiLeaks went live less than five years ago, Assange has consistently shown himself to be a man unlikely, perhaps unable, to walk away from a fight. Arguments on the merits of Assange’s crash-or-crash-through style of leading WikiLeaks are peripheral. At its root, the battle over WikiLeaks is all about information – who owns it, who controls it, who needs it – and about one man’s idea to free it through the creation of an electronic commons.

This tug-of-war over who controls our information has repercussions beyond the confines of cyberspace. Every day, the users of electronic communications leave behind an El Dorado of data. Last year, YouTube users uploaded 35 hours of video every minute; during the popular uprising in Egypt in February more than 23 million photographs were uploaded to the Web from Cairo’s Tahir Square; and by 2013 it is estimated that internet traffic will hit 55 exabytes per month – the equivalent of 10 billion DVDs of information. In this age of corporatised nations and multinational corporations, that data will not only be closely monitored and mined, it will also be stored for as long as there is enough electricity to power a hard drive. What we are facing is a digital future that is both tantalising and troubling.

For ”tantalising”, consider the case of University of Western Australia archaeologist David Kennedy. Kennedy made headlines earlier this year when he discovered 2000 potential archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia by sitting in his Perth office, logging on to GoogleEarth, and carefully studying the information contained in the satellite imagery.

For ”troubling”, consider the virtual omnipotence of Google. As Kennedy’s virtual forays into Saudi Arabia illustrate, the secret of Google’s success is the elegant way it retrieves and presents the treasures of the digital world, covering everything from video to images to web pages to books to email to satellite maps. However, as Siva Vaidhyanathan points out in The Googlization of Everything (2011), Google’s core business is consumer profiling. Make no mistake, our daily lives are being recorded and turned into information that could – without proper controls and safeguards – become nothing more than tools for commerce and control.

The desire to control information is not new; as Sir Francis Bacon wrote in 1597, ”knowledge itself is power”. What is new is the changing nature of information itself. Just as the invention of the Gutenberg press transformed Western civilisation from an oral to a predominantly written culture, the internet is transforming our global civilisation from a written to a hybrid written-oral-visual culture. What could once only be passed on via word of mouth or handwritten proclamation or the printed page can now be broadcast instantaneously via text, audio or video and stored for a digital eternity.

What is also new is that at present the media seems unable to fulfil its democratic role of finding the stories that need to be told, and telling them. For instance, it is likely that at least one journalist, The Washington Post‘s David Finkel, saw the raw vision of a US Apache helicopter shooting more than a dozen people, including two journalists, in Iraq in 2007. That vision later became WikiLeaks’ ”Collateral Murder” video. Why, then, did Finkel report only from the perspective of the US soldiers? What did Assange see that Finkel missed? Has the mainstream media become so embedded that it can no longer see the story?

WikiLeaks is a product of our time and would not have succeeded without the climate created by the corporatising of information and the ”war on terror”. Governments increasingly want to control information, corporations increasingly want to own information and the media is increasingly unable to give the public the information that they need. WikiLeaks, as an electronic commons for free information, is a way around that undemocratic information lock.

By the time he launched WikiLeaks in 2006, Julian Assange had stopped hacking but he was still known and respected within the hacker world. The exploits of the young Assange – together with other members of the Melbourne hacking cohort – are brilliantly covered in Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness, and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier (1997), the cult book written by Suelette Dreyfus and Assange, and re-released to cash in on the notoriety of the WikiLeaks founder. It is a time capsule of the Australian hacking scene in the 1980s and 1990s, before the rise of truly criminal hackers, when often socially isolated young men (and, sometimes, women) hacked their way into computer networks not to cause harm, but to map the boundaries of the fledgling electronic world and to create a new community.

The hacking culture of that time was defined by an ethic, which according to Steven Levy in his seminal book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984) covered six core values: access to computers should be unlimited; authority cannot be trusted and should be decentralised; hackers should be judged by their ability to hack; beauty and art can be created on computers; computers can change lives for the better; and ”all information should be free”.

These values are undeniably countercultural, which is why Stewart Brand, publisher of the hippie ”how to” manual, the Whole Earth Catalog, immediately saw hackers as kindred spirits, lauding them for liberating a technology and for ”reorganising the information age around the individual”. I cannot agree with this utopian belief. Admittedly, my point of view is shaped by my experiences in politics and government. I have worked as both a departmental and political media adviser and speechwriter for Victorian governments led by four premiers: Joan Kirner, Jeff Kennett, Steve Bracks and John Brumby. In that time I have become intimately acquainted with the ways in which journalists and political leaders work with and around one another. Generally speaking, it is a game of cat and mouse: the leader tries to ”get up” his or her story of the day, and the journalists try to advance their own. The leader might front up to a radio interview or media conference and have to answer whatever questions come along, while endeavouring to wheel back to their preferred issue. All too often, the exercise has nothing to do with informing the public.

Most of these interludes between politicians and journalists have no shelf life, but then there are some that just won’t go away. December 2, 2010, is a case in point for Julia Gillard. That was the day the Prime Minister had a quick-fire radio interview with 4BC’s Gary Hardgrave, during which she was asked about WikiLeaks. Here is what Gillard had to say: ”I absolutely condemn the placement of this information on the WikiLeaks website. It’s a grossly irresponsible thing to do, and an illegal thing to do.”

In hindsight, that interview was Gillard’s Bill Henson moment. Like Kevin Rudd’s attack on the noted photographer over the depiction of a partially nude teenager, Gillard had seriously overreached. In striving for a good sound bite, she had branded WikiLeaks an illegal operation. Given her position and the fact that WikiLeaks is, in fact, a media outlet, those words amounted to an attack on the freedom of the Australian press from the Prime Minister.

In The Most Dangerous Man in the World, what investigative journalist Andrew Fowler presents is at least circumstantial evidence that elements of the Australian government have colluded with US authorities over WikiLeaks. He writes: ”I have been reliably told that ASIO played an active part in the investigation into Assange, trawling through his life and activities in Australia. But what must be just as worrying for him, and has also never been revealed before, is the fact that the inquiry also included officers from ASIS, Australia’s overseas intelligence agency, which has strong ties to the US.”

If what Fowler says is true, ASIO and ASIS are in dangerous waters. Assange is a journalist who has done nothing more than what any investigative journalist would have done – namely, find a story that someone didn’t want told, and tell it. As such, he deserves the protection of Australia’s intelligence agencies, not a witch-hunt.

The world’s media is in the middle of a prolonged identity crisis brought on by the rise of the internet, fracturing audiences, and falling revenues. Over the past decade – just as the world has faced a series of economic, social, environmental and political crises that demand informed reporting – the quality of news coverage has declined as a result of job losses, increased workloads and an over-reliance on stories generated by the public relations industry.

Newspapers are haemorrhaging. Australia’s newspapers and magazines shed about 700 jobs in 2008 and 2009. In the two years to 2009, the US newspaper market fell by 30 per cent, losing 166 mastheads and 35,000 jobs. In Britain newspapers declined by 21 per cent.

ALTHOUGH Australia’s newspaper industry has fared relatively well, with a decline of just 3 per cent in 2008 and 2009, quality has suffered. According to a 2008 survey of Australian journalists themselves, half of our reporters and editors believed news reporting was worse than it was five years before.

The media’s identity crisis may be partly to blame for the fact that it missed the lesson of WikiLeaks. Why haven’t the major media organisations established their own versions of WikiLeaks; online platforms where whistleblowers can anonymously upload leaks? Assange’s former deputy, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, has already done so, launching a WikiLeaks copycat called OpenLeaks.

The irony is that Julian Assange – a man who has made it his mission to take information out of the hands of the money changers – has himself become a commodity.

Hollywood has decided to give the WikiLeaks founder a double dose of the Mark Zuckerberg treatment, with not one but two motion pictures in the pipeline. It is difficult to say how those movies might end: with legal vindication in Britain or Sweden, followed by a long flight home to the bosom of inner-city Melbourne; or with a sex offence conviction, followed by a one-way ticket to Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay? The stakes are that high, the alternative third acts that contrasting.

Judging by the books upon which those films will be based, Assange can expect two vastly different portrayals. One production house optioned Fowler’s even-handed The Most Dangerous Man in the World. However, Steven Spielberg’s studio, DreamWorks, has optioned two anti-Assange books – Domscheit-Berg’s Inside WikiLeaks and Leigh and Harding’s WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy. As WikiLeaks tweeted when it learnt DreamWorks’ plans: ”This is how bullshit ends up being history.”

Joel Deane was principal speechwriter to Victorian premiers Steve Bracks and John Brumby. This is an edited extract from A Bomb In Every Download: Julian Assange and Digital Eternity, published in the May edition of Australian Book Review.

http://www.theage.com.au/national/wikileaks-telling-it-like-it-is-20110503-1e6ob.html

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