And the Firewalls Came Tumbling Down
‘This Machine Kills Secrets,’ by Andy Greenberg
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.
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. And, as if this challenge were not grand enough, Greenberg also tries to explain the highly complex technologies that have made a project like 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. (In the interests of transparency, let me add that Greenberg once interviewed me for Forbes, and he uses some of those quotations in the book.)
According to Greenberg, what most observers fail to appreciate about WikiLeaks is the anonymity its document-submission system provided to would-be leakers. This anonymity was not God-given but hard-earned; it would be impossible without a software tool called Tor, which, in yet another ironic twist, emerged from research financed by the United States Navy. It’s unlikely that tools like Tor would be widely used by today’s whistle-blowers if the geeks did not outwit the government in their most significant policy tussle to date.
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. Greenberg, to his credit, has ventured far 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. He’s at his best when on the road — driving through a volcano-ridden Iceland, flying a decrepit Soviet plane with nine hackers, swimming in the Black Sea with fearless Bulgarian journalists. Even seasoned observers of WikiLeaks will find something new and interesting in this book. Who knew that Assange modeled WikiLeaks on Nicolas Bourbaki — a collective pseudonym for a group of very talented mathematicians active in France since the 1930s? Or that Birgitta Jonsdottir, the Icelandic politician who collaborated with WikiLeaks, used to sell Kirby vacuum cleaners in New Jersey?
Alas, as the book unfolds, reportage seems to all but displace analysis, with Greenberg documenting minor squabbles between 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. Who would want to leak documents to a honey pot run by some secret government agency? Who would want to help analyze them? So trust and prominence are essential — but they are also hard to achieve if the leaking platform itself remains completely anonymous.