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
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.
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.
One of the few unambiguous lessons of WikiLeaks is that early success can
easily devastate the leaking platform, for such success will normally be
followed by political trouble. Encryption technologies are of little help
here. Their greatest impact is on the leakers, not on those processing the
Even with regards to the leakers, however, the situation is far more complex
than Greenberg lets on. He draws elaborate comparisons between the cases
of Bradley Manning and Daniel Ellsberg, arguing that digital technologies
have expanded the scale and the speed of leaking and made it easier to cover
the tracks. But have 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 wont adapt in due time?
While the former view dominated most of the early responses to WikiLeaks,
it seems excessively cheerful in retrospect. Its 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 Greenberg doesnt 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 analyzing who on their network had retrieved the footage in question.
Likewise, just this past June, the director of national intelligence, James
Clapper, ordered that all employees at federal intelligence agencies who
take lie detector tests also answer a specific question about their leaking
practices. Very little about the heavily policed contemporary workplace suggests
that leaking will become easier.
Greenberg does sense that an anti-leaking backlash might be in the offing:
his early revolutionary rhetoric all but disappears as the book progresses.
He even documents some recent efforts to automate the process of identifying
potential whistle-blowers on government networks. But here the reporter in
Greenberg is too attached to the human side of the story -- it is, after
all, ironic that Julian Assanges former hacker friends are now employed
by the American government to make leaks impossible -- 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 counterrevolution in disguise.
For every machine that kills secrets, there are at least two that keep them