12:46 pm Sep. 11, 20121
Julian Assange's refusal to bring his story to a satisfying conclusion must be an endless source of frustration for the directors behind the half-dozen Assange biopics currently under way (to say nothing of his legal moves against them).
Why can’t he just fly to Sweden and let them finish their screenplays already? How long can a man order takeout in an Ecuadorian embassy before he goes nuts and runs out the front door?
Unluckily for Hollywood, what Assange does next is almost as important as what he’s already done. But for Andy Greenberg, author of the new book This Machine Kills Secrets: How Wikileaks, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information, Julian Assange is only one aspect of the larger story he’s interested in telling. That story is the history of information leaking, from the Pentagon Papers to the dozens of “leak”-named organizations that have sprung up in the wake of Wikileaks, including Britileaks, Indoleaks, Frenchleaks, and Porn Wikileaks. Greenberg, a staff writer for Forbes who conducted one of the earliest in-person interviews with Assange (pictured above), delves into the life and motivations of the mercurial white-haired Australian, from his gypsy-like upbringing through his wild arrival on the international stage. In the book, however, Assange is at risk of being overshadowed by the vivid and eccentric characters that provided the foundation upon which Wikileaks was built.
These characters include the so-called Cypherpunks, the group that in the 1990s developed early encryption tools in the hopes of taking power from governments and corporations and returning it to individuals in the digital era. Rather than rely on published accounts, Greenberg seeks out members of the group individually, providing a series of moving and deeply complex portraits. Early on in Santa Cruz, he encounters Tim May, the reclusive former Intel physicist and crypto-anarchist who developed one of the earliest prototypes for anonymous leaking. In New York City, he spends time with John Young, the ornery activist behind Cryptome.org, a kind of precursor to Wikileaks founded in 1996. He even tracks down The Architect, the mysterious engineer who developed an enhanced submission system for Wikileaks, before falling out with Assange.
In all, Greenberg has created a seriously riveting read by asking some of the biggest questions of our time, like whether information should be free and what exactly constitutes a secret. In a recent phone interview, Greenberg discussed Julian Assange, the concept of “public secrets,” the fear of being hacked by the people you write about, and more.
What’s your relationship to Julian Assange?
I interviewed him back in 2010, and spoke with him several times after that—often when he’d call to yell at me about a story. When we first spoke, he struck me as kind of a nerd, honestly. There was some slightly embarrassing stuff, and Forbes, understandably, wanted as many of those details as possible. But the point really was: Assange pulled off the biggest unauthorized material breach in history, and then handed it off to the biggest newspapers in the world. Which is why I thought Bill Keller’s story in The New York Times Magazine was pretty unfair, and just bad sportsmanship. He wrote about how Assange smelled bad, you know, that he was a mess. The Times was bullying him. Of course, some of it was great. But they took his stuff and then tossed him out and made fun of him. Although, to be fair, Assange tossed them out to a degree as well.
Wikileaks claimed that all information should be free. Is that the same thing as saying there should be no secrets?
Well, I absolutely believe things need to be kept secret. And I think even Assange understood that some things need to be kept secret. Even when he was indiscriminately publishing thousands and thousands of Iraq and Afghan war documents, he redacted parts of them. And in the later leaks—the Syria leaks, for example—he was very careful to publish only a few of them at a time. Obviously certain things need to be kept secret: sources, names, innocent people who could come to harm. And though I know there’ve been stories to the contrary, Assange’s actions seem to illustrate that he tried to protect sources, too. The silliest thing of all would be to say there should be no secrets. Assange’s whole secret weapon was that he protected the identity of his sources. To say there should be no secrets—that Bradley Manning should be identified, say—would be a contradiction. The whole idea of Wikileaks is that people can anonymously publish institutional secrets. You protect personal privacy and the whistleblower, and you destroy institutional secrecy.
So where do you draw the line between what should be kept a secret and what shouldn’t?
Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who left Wikileaks for Openleaks, told me that’s the hardest question in the whole leaking movement. The thing with Assange is that, at least in the beginning, he had no fear. He was arrogant enough to think he could draw that line himself. And he absolutely made mistakes. But I think few people had the opportunity, or the guts, to make those kinds of decisions.
How closely are you following Assange’s current situation?
I’ve been following it, and it’s my job to write about it sometimes. But it’s not a technology story anymore. Assange is now a celebrity story—and a political story, since he has a legitimate fear of being extradited from Sweden. The questions I’m really interested in—like how did he do it, was Wikileaks about him or the technology, can it be replicated—are questions that have very little to do with whatever sex crimes questions he faces or Sweden, or whether he’ll make it to Ecuador.
Anonymous, the global hacker movement that made news for protesting against Scientology and crashing the websites of credit card companies that refused to transfer money to Wikileaks, have been called both a political and a criminal organization. Do you take a side?
I think they’re very political. To call Anonymous criminal is like saying that Occupy Wall Street is criminal because a lot of them get arrested. Their modus operandi is not credit card fraud, or the behavior of people I’d call criminal hackers. The main difference exists between white hat hackers and black hat hackers. White hat hackers hack things in the lab and then show how they did it, helping clients find and patch holes in their networks. Black hat hackers hack secrets, break into stuff, steal things, and don’t intend on informing their victims. That’s the distinction. When the NSA created a computer worm called Stuxnet and hacked into Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility, for example, that was absolutely black hat activity.
The evolution of digital anonymity software is a big part of the book. Did you use a lot of it when interviewing subjects in the story?
Since I met most of the characters in the book in person, I wasn’t concerned about concealing their identities. But in the past, I’ve used the anonymity software Tor when interviewing people. And for certain characters in the book, I wound up using a lot of encryption software. When I spoke with Jacob Applebaum, who was a friend of Assange’s, he insisted we encrypt all communications. One of the lessons of Wikileaks, I think, is that journalists should know how to use privacy tools. And they should teach their sources how to use them, too, to render them cryptographically protected. When you see that Obama has prosecuted more leakers under the Espionage Act than any president, it ought to make you think: Maybe I should take a hint and protect my sources.
In writing about hackers, were you worried they might try to hack you if they didn't like your reporting style, or if they don't agree with the way you present them in the book?
The whistleblower site Cryptome.org, run by John Young, who’s a character in the book, has already leaked the table of contents and the cast of characters. [Laughs] But otherwise, no. I write about this every day, and I feel like I give everybody a fair shake in the story. There are times when I write about someone who has done something criminal, and perhaps I’m even a bit snarky, and then I’m worried. But I can’t let the fear of being hacked prevent me from writing about this stuff. As Wired wrote, those are the “table stakes” of writing about hackers. You have to be willing to assume that risk. I mean, there are people who go out to war and risk their lives. So for me to be nervous about someone hacking my Twitter account, or god forbid hacking my email and getting access to all my secrets—that’d be horrendous, but I’m not exactly risking my life.
What were the coolest parts of researching and reporting this story?
I did get to hold the actual server that had Cablegate on it inside an underground data center in Sweden. That was pretty cool. I also drove into a cloud of volcanic ash with Birgitta Jónsdóttir, the activist and spokesperson for Wikileaks who is also a member of parliament in Iceland. And I went to something called Chaos Communications Camp, an international gathering of hackers in an airfield outside Berlin. We flew into the camp on this tiny 1950’s propeller plane. It was some of the most fun I've had in my life.
More by this author:
- John Holmstrom talks about founding and editing 'Punk,' the chronicle of late-'70s New York
- Ups and downs of the Great New York City Chicken Frenzy