Home News The digital world is a powder keg. Julian Assange lit the fuse.

The digital world is a powder keg. Julian Assange lit the fuse.


On the morning of April 5, 2010, a tall, silver-haired man walked up to the stage at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. For four years, he had been running a little-known news website in Iceland, trying and failing to find a sensational scoop. Many of the 40 or so journalists in attendance (myself included) had barely heard of him.

Still, it’s hard to ignore his pitch. Three days ago, we received an email promising a “never-before-seen confidential video” containing “dramatic evidence and new facts.”

But even that hype may underestimate what happened after Julian Assange pressed play. The nature of evidence—the volume and granularity of digital evidence, and the pathways through which it came to light—was about to change.

Previously, information leaked to the public by insiders was largely limited by paper. In 1969, Daniel Ellsberg spent an entire night secretly copying a secret study on the Vietnam War that became known as the Pentagon Papers.

Now, thousands of these documents—pictures, videos, spreadsheets, emails, source code, and chat logs—can be dragged and dropped onto a USB drive and spread around the world in seconds. Any security system can be breached if only one insider with enough privileges or one hacker with enough talent is found. Sources can be obscured. The only thing missing is a middleman—someone who can find the leak, publish it, and take the heat after it’s released.

Assange’s video has an inflammatory title, “Collateral Murder“It started with Still photos In the photo, a son holds a photo of his late father, a driver for Reuters. Then, leaked video of the 2007 airstrike showed a US helicopter shooting and killing a Reuters photographer and driver on the streets of Baghdad.

One American soldier drawled, pointing at a man hundreds of feet below — a Reuters employee killed in the attack — and uttered an obscenity. The video seems to contradict this A Pentagon spokesman explained the strike as part of a “combat operation against a hostile force.” Within hours, Al Jazeera, MSNBC, and the New York Times reported the news.

Then came a series of stunning revelations, some from Assange’s website WikiLeaks and others from other media, which continue to this day: WikiLeaks, in conjunction with the US government, has released a trove of State Department cables. era (2010-11), NSA disclosures by Edward Snowden (2013), Sony Pictures hack (2014), drone files (2015), Panama Papers (2016), hacked Democratic National Committee emails (2016), details of U.S. offensive cyber programs (2017), Hunter Biden’s laptop (2020), and Facebook files (2021), to name a few.

Looking back, it’s easy to see Assange as the father of the digital revolution of leaks. At the time, he was more like a brilliant enabler who managed to place himself at the center of several currents that began to converge around the millennium.

“In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were people breaking into systems and stealing files, but those hackers were not ideologically inclined toward hacking and leaking,” said Gabriella Coleman, a Harvard anthropology professor whose new book, Weapons of the Geek, will include two chapters on the history of hacking and leaking.

Assange was the first to figure out how to bring his work to a broad audience in traditional news media. Guilty Plea Back in Australia, it’s clear that his larger legacy — the uneasy fusion of illegal hack-and-leak tactics with the influence and credibility of a prominent American publisher — is still unfolding.

On Wednesday, Assange pleaded guilty to conspiring with one of his sources, Chelsea Manning, to obtain and publish government secrets in violation of the Espionage Act. Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Free Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said the verdict could have far-reaching consequences.

“This is the first time in modern American history that publishing true information has been criminalized,” Wizner said. “It hadn’t happened before, not necessarily because of the law. It might have been because of habit. That habit hinges on the relationship between the media and the government, the understanding that while their views of the public interest may differ, they share a fundamentally American sense of the public interest. Then WikiLeaks came along. Their view was that American imperialism was the greatest threat to world peace. That view of the public interest was so different from that of the U.S. government that it put pressure on the old consensus.”

At the most basic level, Assange’s activities are very similar to those of traditional news media. He collects and publishes factual, newsworthy information. But his goals are different.

Rather than claiming to be neutral or objective, Assange presents himself as a warrior, sworn to fight for the cause of radical transparency. He refuses to accept that even democratic governments require a certain level of secrecy in order to function. Instead, he seeks to “change regime behavior” by making secrecy itself untenable. In its place is “the people’s will to truth, love, and self-realization.”

This is a utopian vision that is more of an excuse than an argument. One of the contradictions in Mr Assange’s criminal case is that His freedom depends on It was the behind-the-scenes diplomatic dealings that he had worked so hard to ridicule and expose over the years.

James Clapper, who dealt with the aftermath of many hacker leaks as President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, denied in an email interview that Assange’s leaks had changed people’s views on the ethics of U.S. intelligence agencies. Instead, he said WikiLeaks had only reinforced the views of factions that already believed U.S. spy agencies were “evil.”

“I don’t think this will change anything,” he said.

Still, Ms. Coleman said the history of leaks continues to be written, in part by people like Distributed Denial of Secrets and leakageLike WikiLeaks, these sites collect and publish large amounts of digital leaks. But they have higher standards for editing information and vetting sources.

As for Assange, he is “running a very bold experiment,” Ms. Coleman said. “There are bound to be successes and failures. But you need people who are brave enough to try it.”

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