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There’s much to like about This Machine Kills Secrets, Andy Greenberg’s well-reported history of WikiLeaks and the many projects it has inspired, but one unintentionally hilarious quotation stands out in particular. “You can’t run this like a zoo where everyone can go and watch,” is how Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Julian Assange’s former lieutenant, defends his decision not to release the source code of OpenLeaks, his own challenger to WikiLeaks. Sunlight might be the best disinfectant, but even the most ardent advocates of transparency reach for the sunblock once it gets too bright.
Mr Greenberg, a writer for Forbes, has produced an exhaustive prequel to the never-ending WikiLeaks saga. Unlike some recent books on the subject, this one adopts a decidedly historical perspective and situates the ideas behind WikiLeaks in the heady debates about computing, privacy and civil liberties that have dominated many an online conversation in the last three decades. Mr Greenberg also tries to explain the highly complex technologies that have made WikiLeaks possible, introducing such hidden gems of geek cuisine as “salt hashing” and “onion routing”. By and large, he succeeds, and the resulting dish is delicious and not at all too technical.
During the so-called crypto wars that raged for most of the 1990s, the government wanted to keep secure encryption technologies all to itself, arguing that their widespread use would empower drug traffickers and terrorists. Its opponents, by contrast, wanted everyone on the planet to have access to encryption. The geeks won, paving the way for tools like Tor and sites like WikiLeaks.
Many of these “crypto” battles were debated on a handful of mailing lists, where Julian Assange was both an avid reader and an occasional contributor. Mr Greenberg has ventured beyond the online archives of those lists, meeting and interviewing many of the leading figures in those fights and even corresponding with one of them in prison.
Alas, as the book unfolds, reportage seems to all but displace analysis, with Mr Greenberg documenting minor squabbles between Mr Assange and just about everyone else, or celebrating yet another innovation in encryption rather than placing his characters and their tools in the broader political context. For all their disruptive potential, encryption technologies have not solved the dilemma that has plagued sites like WikiLeaks. That dilemma is this: to get leaks, a site needs to have a public profile and look trustworthy.
But once the anonymity cover is blown, the platform becomes vulnerable: its networks could be infiltrated by informers, its staff could be harassed and spied on, its online presence could be stymied by cyberattacks and legal hassles. Allowing whistle-blowers to leak anonymously is a crucial first step — but it might also be the easiest step. In fact, it may even instill the leaking platform with a false sense of invincibility and resilience.
Even with regards to the leakers, however, the situation is far more complex than Mr Greenberg lets on. We entered a truly new era, in which technology provides a robust infrastructure for leaking — a common techno-optimistic view advanced in many books about WikiLeaks? Or is the whole Cablegate episode just a blip in the long institutional march toward even greater secrecy — perhaps an instance of governments and corporations not taking their network security seriously but hardly a guarantee that they won’t adapt in due time?
While the former view dominated most of the early responses to WikiLeaks, it seems excessively cheerful in retrospect. It’s true that one set of technologies has made it easier to release the leaked documents to the outside world, but another set of technologies is also making it harder to get them off the corporate or government networks. A pertinent recent case that Mr Greenberg doesn’t discuss is that of Joe Muto, a former Fox News employee who, convinced of his anonymity, leaked some internal Fox footage to the popular blog Gawker. It took Fox less than 48 hours to out him — by analysing who on their network had retrieved the footage in question.
Mr Greenberg does sense that an antileaking backlash might be in the offing. He even documents some recent efforts to automate the process of identifying potential whistle-blowers on government networks. But here the reporter in him is too attached to the human side of the story to offer a comprehensive picture of the recent technological solutions to leaking. Once all of those technologies are factored into our analysis, it may very well be that the much-lauded revolution in transparency is just a counter-revolution in disguise. For every machine that kills secrets, there are at least two that keep them alive.
THIS MACHINE KILLS SECRETS
How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information
370 pages; $27.95
©2012 The New York Times News Service