By Tim Maurer
On Wednesday, the High Court in London rejected the appeal by Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, to block his extradition to Sweden. It is the latest twist in a story about money, fame, sex, underground hackers, and betrayal that has captivated the world. Yet, neither the ruling nor Assange is the big news in this story. According to Joseph Nye, Harvard University professor, “If Assange had never been born, something like this would have happened anyway […] it was in the DNA of the net”. The real news is that something like WikiLeaks can happen again.
WikiLeaks stands for a new technology that can be used by hacktivists, criminals, and governments alike. This technology has its vices and its virtues. It enables a single individual to ‘steal’ a large quantity of data at low, nearly equal to no, cost. Moreover, this data can go ‘viral’, spreading exponentially online, and become accessible to the public at large. The hacker network Anonymous is currently using this ability to threaten the Mexican Zetas drug cartel. Another example is how Anonymous recently exposed a ring of pedophiles . Or how Sony was hacked and saw its users’ data exposed earlier this year. Assange is therefore only important because he was the first to exploit the technology in this particular way.
Assange is a hacktivist, a hacker who pursued a specific political agenda. According to Daniel Domscheit-Berg, WikiLeaks former number two, Assange “professed to despise hackers because they weren’t politically motivated”. Assange’s thinking is expressed in his writings, for example, “When we look at conspiracy as an organic whole we can see a system of interacting organs. A body with arteries and veins whose blood may be thickened and slowed until it falls unable to sufficiently comprehend and control the forces in its environment.”
The fact that the releases in 2010 drew from classified material of the U.S. government seems to suggest that he specifically targeted the United States. However, in the view of Der Spiegel, a German magazine that was one of WikiLeaks’ media partners, “This fundamental confrontation does not target the administration in Washington alone, nor is it anti-American, but a matter of principle. The ideology … is a potential challenge for every state, for oppressive regimes more so than democratic governments.”
The danger, according to Der Spiegel’s interview with Herfried Muenkler, professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin, is if a democratically legitimized government is replaced as the guardian of state secrets by a group of individuals who are not accountable to sovereign citizens and can decide over such secrets at will. If people like Assange check the government, who checks people like Assange?
WikiLeaks as a symbol for a new technological reality poses larger questions. A detail often neglected is that WikiLeaks’ first releases in 2006 made public information that was already known to foreign governments. According to Assange, the first documents released by WikiLeaks were obtained from hackers who monitored and stole from Chinese hackers who had been using the Tor network to secretly transfer material.
The Guardian’s book on Wikileaks quotes Assange: “Hackers monitor Chinese and other intel as they burrow into their targets, when they pull, so do we. Inexhaustible supply of material. Near 100,000 documents/emails a day… We have all of pre 2005 afghanistan. Almost all of india fed. Half a dozen foreign ministries. Dozens of political parties and consultes, worldbank, opec, UN sections, trade groups, Tibet and falun dafa associations and … Russian phishing mafia who pull data everywhere. We’re drowning. We don’t even know a tenth of what we have or who it belongs to. We stopped storing it at 1Tb (one terabyte, or 1,000 gigabytes).”
WikiLeaks early releases therefore only brought into public light what already seems to be known in the shadow world of government espionage. This raises questions about cyber-security and foreign threats. According to James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, such economic and political espionage is the biggest cyber-security threat we face today. So how will this affect diplomatic relations? How will it affect trade negotiations? Will there be fewer conflicts because there will be fewer misperceptions? Will there be more conflict because actors will exploit weaknesses?
What can be done? Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig suggests, “If we can’t go back, how do we go forward? For each of these problems, there have been solutions proposed that … may not produce a world as good as the world was before (at least for some). They may not benefit everyone in the same way. But they are solutions that remove an important part of the problem in each case, and restore at least part of the good that is recognized in the past.”
It remains to be seen whether Assange stands for a new anarchist movement with a potent political force or for an ephemeral phenomenon. We also have yet to witness the impact of the new technology on international affairs in general. Ultimately though, it is comforting to know that it affects all of us: Der Spiegel notes that even WikiLeaks suffered a leak last year.
Tim Maurer, a 2011 MPP graduate of Harvard Kennedy School, is the author of “WikiLeaks 2010: A Glimpse of the Future?” and “Cyber Norms Emergence at the United Nations – An Analysis of the UN’s Activities regarding Cyber-security,” discussion papers published by Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is a non-resident fellow of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, Germany. All quotes of Der Spiegel were translated by the author.