Why Wikileaks can’t Work

My main reservation about Wikileaks is that it looks self-contradictory to me. It has explained itself in the past, but what I’ve read doesn’t convince me.

Wikileaks about Wikileaks (from its cached webpage, as its website itself is apparently on and off again):

Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people. Better scrutiny leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies in all society’s institutions, including government, corporations and other organisations. A healthy, vibrant and inquisitive journalistic media plays a vital role in achieving these goals. We are part of that media.

Scrutiny requires information. Historically, information has been costly in terms of human life, human rights and economics. As a result of technical advances particularly the internet and cryptography – the risks of conveying important information can be lowered. In its landmark ruling on the Pentagon Papers, the US Supreme Court ruled that “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.” We agree.

Wikileaks surely has its merits. They apparently published a secret blacklist of banned websites in 2009, for example. There is no reason as to why such a list should be secret – if there is a need to ban websites at all.  That Julian Assange, sometimes said to be the founder of Wikileaks, is elusive is nothing condemnable either. Given the nature of his business, some personal elusiveness may actually be in order. And as for accountability within the organization, there is a statement by Wikileaks’ former spokesman on the one hand, and – apparently – silence from Julian Assange on the other. You can believe either side, or neither.

But one thing that strikes me is Wikileaks’ – or some of its activists’ – apparent indifference as to who profits from their work. The New Yorker described the system for submission of documents as an encrypted pipeline with encrypted submissions, kept anonymous by a modified version of the Tor network which sends Internet traffic through extremely private virtual tunnels. Hundreds of thousands of fake submissions are sent, too, to obscure the relevant documents. The author, Raffi Khatchadourian, quoted Assange as saying that there were still vulnerabilities, but that the system was “more secure than any banking network”:

Before launching the site, Assange needed to show potential contributors that it was viable. One of the WikiLeaks activists owned a server that was being used as a node for the Tor network. Millions of secret transmissions passed through it. The activist noticed that hackers from China were using the network to gather foreign governments’ information, and began to record this traffic. Only a small fraction has ever been posted on WikiLeaks, but the initial tranche served as the site’s foundation, and Assange was able to say, “We have received over one million documents from thirteen countries.”

I know hardly anything about such networks. Once I’m barred from watching a Bugs Bunny movie on youtube by German censorship (apparently because something in its details suggests that it could be nazi content), I’m basically at my wits’ end.

But I seem to understand that the activist mentioned in the above New-Yorker article didn’t care about Chinese spying activities, so long as he could skim the contents himself. All the same, Wikileaks did save the Dalai Lama‘s computer.

The Register (also in June, but strangely dated five days prior to the New Yorker article it refers to):

Assange responded to our inquiries by saying the New Yorker and Wired had each presented a misleading picture, without shedding much light on WikiLeaks use of Tor exit node interception.

The imputation is incorrect. The facts concern a 2006 investigation into Chinese espionage one of our contacts were involved in. Somewhere between none and handful of those documents were ever released on WikiLeaks. Non-government targets of the Chinese espionage, such as Tibetan associations were informed (by us).

Cool. That will have made a helluva difference.

Issues coming in through the mainstream media news, from German chancellor Angela Merkel being risk-averse (too true, especially when it comes to politics at home, but that’s no big secret anyway) to her foreign minister Westerwelle being short on substance (too true, too, but no secret either), to the note that some Arab leaders want to see Iran’s nuclear facilities bombed (an information which was conjecturable anyway), and the remarks by Chinese diplomats that one could abandon North Korea under certain circumstances may lead to some useless embarassments or unnecessary risks for a mideastern royal family, but little else.

A Californian blogger named Zunguzungu describes Assanges “philosophy”. If I get him (and Assange himself) right, Wikileaks doesn’t want to aim at specific secret projects by the conspirators (i. e. bureaucrats and big business). It wants to make confidential information impossible – and every leak may help to this end, although some of the conflict between Assange and his former spokesman seemed to stem from differences about what to publish.

But  if this would disable any confidentiality (which is doubtworthy – and it’s doubtworthy if one should wish for such a scenario), I think one of the Assange quotes (if genuinely Assange, or misquoted) defeats itself:

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

Wow. The Chinese Communist Party must be trembling with fear by now.

Maybe Wikileaks is a brave try to create a shortcut. It’s no convenient one – not for those who are running it. But even if successful in a way, it isn’t going to exact the biggest toll on the bureaucracies that are most secretive. On the contrary, it will hit those governments hardest which are least secretive, and the political systems of those countries where rule of law is most effective.

There is no effective shortcut. Only individual judgment and the preparedness to organize to accurately defined ends can be effective – but they require patience. It takes education, year after year. It takes preparedness to learn – not just of one organization, but by countless individuals. And – and that’s something the existence of Wikileaks should help us to understand – it will take media and journalists who take their tasks seriously, and who decide responsibly and who account to their readers.

It will take media and journalists who help the public to perform.

____________

Related
Malware Networks: Cooperation Appreciated, April 6, 2010

Update/Related
“Medvedev has sent Scouts to learn Wikileaks”, December 15, 2010

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14 Responses to “Why Wikileaks can’t Work”

  1. I think the problem with Wikileaks is that it only succeeds if it gets people to care about what conspirators are doing behind walls and doors.

    Right now, apathy is the downfall of Wikileaks. There are two main reactions right now:

    1. “We do the same, we don’t care.”

    OR

    2. “We’re angry, but we don’t care enough to do anything about it.”

    Neither help Wikileaks.

    Like

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