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Reading “This Machine Kills Secrets” is like being drawn into a 21st-century morality play in which all of us are implicitly involved. The author Andy Greenberg, a Forbes reporter, lists the characters (in order of appearance) in the beginning.

In the prologue, we meet the archetypal character Julian Assange, the 39-year-old WikiLeaks founder, in London — at the height of his powers — who “had gotten accustomed to the feeling of his thumb on the eject button for the world’s institutional information.” By then, WikiLeaks had already spilt 76,000 secret documents from the Afghan war and another 391,000 from the war in Iraq, the entire shadow histories of the two wars, in what was the largest classified data breaches of all time.

Three weeks after the author’s meeting with Assange, the once-secret State Department cables began flowing out of WikiLeaks. As Greenberg goes on to illustrate, “Cablegate changed the world”. The revelations indirectly paved the way for the Arab Spring, spreading populist anger, first in Tunisia, and then to Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere. Muammar Gaddafi, in a televised speech, warned Libyans not to read WikiLeaks, insinuating that the whistle-blowing website “publishes information written by lying ambassadors in order to create chaos”. Nine months later, Gaddafi was ousted from power, hunted down and killed.

The leaked cables revealing a massacre of Iraqi civilians also forced President Obama to completely pull out American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.

But from that high point, Assange and WikiLeaks has been contained and muzzled by powerful governments and big banks though a combination of criminal prosecution and a cutting-off of finances from donors. Assange’s boast to the author, of a major exposé that will “take down a bank or two”, never materialised. Greenberg says he wrote this book, in part, to find out about this “leak” that got away.

He sets out on his mission in writing the book — seeking the history and future of an idea: digital, anonymous leaking.

Greenberg has had unrivalled access to all the major players — Assange, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (former WikiLeaks associate who split with Assange to set up his own digital whistle-blower group, Open Leaks) and WikiLeaks’s secretive engineer known as the Architect, who has never before been interviewed.

Greenberg travels around the United States to piece together the cypherpunk network in the country and then to Iceland, Sweden, Bulgaria and Berlin seeking out the pioneers as well as those who seek to build the next big WikiLeaks.

“This Machine Kills Secrets”, as the author asserts, “is a book about the forces that coalesced to make WikiLeaks happen. And it’s also about how those forces are working to make it happen again.”

It tracks the ideals, the means, and the movement that WikiLeaks represents, extending from its predecessors to the ideological descendants it has radically mobilised.”


The crypto wars

What Greenberg illustrates is that the technology for new forms of whistle-blowing, which uses elaborate cryptographic code to hide leakers’ identities while publishing the secret data of government agencies and corporations, has been evolving for decades. Years of trial and error and testing of anti-government provocation has gone into the recipe that Assange unleashed.

Apart from the exhaustive history of digital cryptography, the book profiles many other players across the world — WikiLeakers, hactivists and cypherpunks — providing insights into their personalities and ideological underpinnings that motivate them in this cat-and-mouse game to set information free.

Ironically, one of the world’s most widely used and perhaps most secure anonymity programmes called Tor (The Onion Router) came out of the US military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), which also created the prototype of the internet. Tor is the tool that WikiLeaks used to effect the largest-ever public data-breaks against the military and the State Department. Tor provides the setting where data packages are exchanged in the “shadows”. To be effective, Tor had to be shared with everyone — even those who would use it against the very institutions that created it.

The cypherpunks, hacktivists and even Tor’s creators lived by the mantra “Cypherpunks write code”. They did not want to waste their time arguing with politicians in the physical world about the rules of the digital one — create the digital world and, with it, your own rules, they exhorted each other.


The future

Clay Shirky, professor of new media at New York University, speaking at the Personal Democracy Forum in January 2011, suggests that perhaps the future of secret-spilling lay in a multinational leak-laundry. He predicts that “there will be a massive push for globalisation of control of secrets …” But Shirky also warns that it will fail — “but that is the struggle we’re going to see today”.

Cyber security is being stepped up across the globe. Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, formerly a spokesperson for a prominent American hacker group, now leads the cybersecurity division of Pentagon’s Darpa, working on a project to find a method of rooting out rogue insiders (known as CINDER or Cyber Insider Threat).

Meanwhile, in Iceland , Member of Parliament Birgitta Jonsdottir spearheads a business model based on transparency and justice. She has taken up the mission to make Iceland like the “Switzerland of Bits”, and set up the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI) — the next step in a decentralised and global media movement, an Arctic anchor for whistle-blowers and muckrakers.

And there are other places in the world where the WikiLeaks model is being morphed regionally or by specialist groups, for example, BalkanLeaks, founded by reputed Bulgarian investigative journalist-duo of Atanas Tchobanov and Assen Yordanov.

“This Machine Kills Secrets” is an important work that seeks out the connections between media, technology and personal freedom.


This Machine Kills Secrets
How WikiLeakers, Hacktivists and Cypherpunks Aim to Free the World’s Information
By Andy Greenberg,
Virgin Books, 370 pages, £12.99