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April 08, 2007

Whistleblowing, De-Spooked

[litbrit considers the possibilities]

I'd been sorting through e-mails that had piled up since Good Friday and browsing a few newspapers and blogs when I stumbled onto news of an intriguing new concept in ___-pedias. It's actually a whistleblowerpedia, and the founders are calling it Wikileaks.

Wikileaks is developing an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis. Our primary interests are oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the west who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their own governments and corporations. We aim for maximum political impact; this means our interface is identical to Wikipedia and usable by non-technical people. We have received over 1.2 million documents so far from dissident communities and anonymous sources.

   

We believe that transparency in government activities leads to reduced corruption, better government and stronger democracies. Many governments would benefit from increased scrutiny by the world community, as well as their own people. We believe this scrutiny requires information. Historically that information has been costly - in terms of human life and human rights. Wikileaks will facilitate safety in the ethical leaking movement.

[.....]

Wikileaks was founded by Chinese dissidents, mathematicians and startup company technologists, from the US, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa.

Our advisory board, which is still forming, includes representatives from expatriate Russian and Tibetan refugee communities, reporters, a former US intelligence analyst and cryptographers.

There are currently 22 people directly involved in the project and counting.


Wikileaks is serious stuff (if it's entertainment value you're after, you'll want to visit Conservapedia), and the untraceable, uncensorable site has a mission: to open up government and corporations to public scrutiny and accountability--and I do believe they mean on a worldwide basis--and in so doing, eliminate fraud, malfeasance, deception, and criminality. The lowdown from Trust Me:

Wikileaks is an uncensorable version of Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis. It combines the protection and anonymity of cutting-edge cryptographic technologies with the transparency and simplicity of a wiki interface.

Principled leaking has changed the course of history for the better; it can alter the course of history in the present; it can lead us to a better future.

Consider Daniel Ellsberg, working within the US government during the Vietnam War. He comes into contact with the Pentagon Papers, a meticulously kept record of military and strategic planning throughout the war. Those papers reveal the depths to which the US government has sunk in deceiving the population about the war. Yet the public and the media know nothing of this urgent and shocking information. Indeed, secrecy laws are being used to keep the public ignorant of gross dishonesty practiced by their government. In spite of those secrecy laws and at great personal risk, Ellsberg manages to disseminate the Pentagon papers to journalists and to the world. Despite facing criminal charges, eventually dropped, the release of the Pentagon papers shocks the world, exposes the government, and helps to shorten the war and save thousands of lives.

The power of principled leaking to embarrass governments, corporations and institutions is amply demonstrated through recent history. Public scrutiny of otherwise unaccountable and secretive institutions pressures them to act ethically. What official will chance a secret, corrupt transaction when the public is likely to find out? What repressive plan will be carried out when it is revealed to the citizenry, not just of its own country, but the world? When the risks of embarrassment through openness and honesty increase, the tables are turned against conspiracy, corruption, exploitation and oppression. Open government answers injustice rather than causing it. Open government exposes and undoes corruption. Open governance is the most cost effective method of promoting good governance.

Worrywart that I am, though, I'm concerned about things like NSA intrusion: the site may indeed accept anonymous and untraceable contributions of documents, but would the US Government find some way to hold the site's owners accountable--or even demand de-encrypting of Wikileaks' records--if sensitive information were leaked that either a) led to a disastrous incident of some sort or b) caused serious embarrassment to a member or agency of the US Government, or to a corporation entrusted, as a contractor, with carrying out the duties thereof (or, hell, any corporation that's simply--ahem--a friend of the government?)

That said, the idea and its implications are breathtaking, groundbreaking, and bold. Great ideas tend to be that way, though the proof will come after the launching. Do check out the Wikileaks site and its proposed mission and modus operandi--I'm terribly curious to hear what readers (especially the lawyerly and techno-talented sorts) think about this one.

April 8, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

I wish I knew more about the technical aspects. I'm curious about how protected the organization is from prosecution, subpoenaing, etc. and also whether this will be a website that could somehow escape the "Great Firewall of China" and other efforts at internet censorship in oppressive countries.

Posted by: Sam L. | Apr 8, 2007 9:40:39 PM

I don't think they'll be able to operate from within the US. They'll get sued too much. I'm not sure where they'd be entirely safe; servers have to exist somewhere. But we'll see.

Posted by: Sanpete | Apr 8, 2007 10:04:11 PM

Some neutral observations--


Yes, there are any number of possible liability issues -- trade secrets, state secrets, tortious interference with contract in the event there is a non-disclosure agreement within a corporation, and if there is something incorrect, potentially there are libel or "false light" invasion of privacy actions.

But you can't sue what you can't catch.

The success of this will depend on their technological prowess, their willingness to take risks, and, most of all, the ability of sympathizers to constantly mirror and disseminate the sites again and again.

Breathtaking.

Posted by: R/W | Apr 8, 2007 10:15:02 PM

Yes, there are any number of possible liability issues -- trade secrets, state secrets, tortious interference with contract in the event there is a non-disclosure agreement within a corporation, and if there is something incorrect, potentially there are libel or "false light" invasion of privacy actions.

But you can't sue what you can't catch.


So, it appears that you are advocating breaking all these laws. Is it OK for ME to break these laws or only the organizations that you deem worthy?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Apr 8, 2007 11:10:13 PM

R/W nowhere advocates breaking the law, merely makes the unassailable point that you can't prosecute someone you can't catch.

As for litbrit's question about demands for de-encrypting the records: you can't decrypt what you don't keep. Nobody sane would keep any record of what ip addresses accessed the site.

Also, they mention the use of tor. Tor is a set of anonymous proxies where each user not only sends her data through several different hosts, but acts as a relay for others. You can't really subpoena everybody on the internet who might run a proxy, and even if you did, they wouldn't know who had used their computer to send what traffic where.

The tools for true untraceable anonymity on the internet exist, but you still need to be a rocket surgeon (or a brain scientist) to use them. I doubt the government could stop it at this point, but there's a chance companies that own the infrastructure still could.

Posted by: MikeJ | Apr 8, 2007 11:34:11 PM

Fred
You misunderstand. I am not advocating breaking the law or contributing to this organization in any way. I am contributing to the discussion of what would happen in they were pursued because I think it is an interesting phenomenon. Did not mean to take sides.
Forgive me if my choice of words contributed to your misunderstanding.

Posted by: R/W | Apr 8, 2007 11:49:58 PM

I should add that you do bring up a good point -- leaks by themselves are just a tactic and are not inherently linked to any political orientation. Anti-abortion activists have been using similar tactics for years to intimidate abortion providers. And it is not clear from litbrits post whether this organization (?) employs any screening or has any ideology over and above the free flow of information. And even if this organization (?) screens its material, its success would surely be a boon to similar entities with very different goals.
It is definitely unpredictable.

Posted by: R/W | Apr 9, 2007 12:14:53 AM

Why not just use the same methods they've used to fubar normal speech methods?: flood it with semitruths and disinformation to the point of worthlessness.

Posted by: yoyo | Apr 9, 2007 1:58:36 AM

there was a very nice quotation on the wikileaks site you offered a link to:

Three things cannot hide for long: the Sun, the Moon and the Truth."
~ Siddhartha

Posted by: jacqueline | Apr 9, 2007 5:49:34 AM

My concern is that yoyo's got it. Easy for the usual suspects to flood the site with false documents, names and addresses of people they don't like, big piles of nothing...

As long as the establishment folks are better-funded and well-organized, they can render a site like wikileaks useless. (Unless there's some kind of vetting or moderation in place, in which case the liability issues become that much more complicated)

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Posted by: judy | Sep 28, 2007 5:26:59 AM

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