Dr Joseph Fitsanakis
(Department of History and Political Science, King College, USA and Senior Editor at intelNews.org.)
Note: Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis has written this original article specifically for RIEAS.
The WikiLeaks cablegate revelations appear to be subsiding in the new year, and so is the public debate about their meaning and consequences.
And yet, as calmer moods prevail, now is the appropriate time to probe the WikiLeaks phenomenon. To do so constructively, it is necessary to move beyond a mere political assessment of WikiLeaks. The question of whether the website, its founder, and its hundreds of volunteers, are criminals, heroes, terrorists, or dissidents, cannot even begin to be answered until WikiLeaks is understood, first and foremost. By ‘understood’, I don’t mean empathize. I mean comprehending WikiLeaks as an ideological paradigm, a technological vehicle reflective of the personal philosophies of its members, but also representative of a much wider sociotechnical trend.
According to its mission statement, WikiLeaks was founded in 2006 as a whistleblower clearing house with a “primary interest in exposing oppressive regimes”, by publishing documents of “of political, diplomatic, historical or ethical interest [that are] not already publicly available” elsewhere. By 2007, it had already received a million documents of various classifications, from sources located in over a dozen countries. What enabled WikiLeaks from the very start to stand out from other similar online ventures has been its sophisticated communication formula that protects the identity of sources.
It would be futile to attempt to paint with a single ideological brushstroke the complex and loose network of political advocates, computer hackers, mathematicians and technologists that is WikiLeaks. The WikiLeaks community is undoubtedly an amalgamation of the varied —often competing— philosophical viewpoints of its members. But it would be reasonable to suggest that the broader operational principles of the website fit within the conceptual framework of crypto-anarchism. Crypto-anarchists espouse the use of strong encryption to enhance individual privacy, while at the same time opposing its use by state and corporate entities, which they consider inherently oppressive and conspiratorial.
The personal philosophy of Julian Assange, the self-proclaimed “heart and soul” of WikiLeaks, is characteristic of crypto-anarchism, but with a strong focus on activist realism, rather than the theoretical idealism that typifies many crypto-anarchist doctrines. Having studied physics and mathematics, as well as cognitive neuroscience and philosophy at the university level, Assange’s activist beliefs combine both technical and political concepts. His main concern is with the notion of conspiracy, which he uses in a strict technical sense. He views conspiracies as closed systems of decision-making and executive action that operate in isolation from outside input, thus negating the structural interconnectedness that ensures political transparency. According to this quasi-cybernetic institutional analysis, state and corporate structures have a natural propensity to authoritarianism, which they largely achieve by employing conspiratorial modes of political deliberation. The mission of WikiLeaks, therefore, is to dismantle the inherent conspiratorial nature of political decision-making, by undermining the secretive character of what are seen as authoritarian institutions. According to Assange’s weltanschauung, this can be achieved through the systematic disclosure of classified data, which has the tendency to introduce a mathematical sense of justice to a previously isolated system of controlled information.
There is nothing particularly novel in this view of information control. Assange’s thinking rests on conceptual themes that date back to the ancient Greeks. What makes the difference in the case of WikiLeaks is that there are growing numbers of individuals within state structures who are willing to supply the whistleblower website with sensitive information. Moreover, the mode of information control exercised by these state structures is too antiquated and too bungled to seriously prevent such unauthorized disclosures. This certainly applies to the US Department of Defense, one of America’s most mismanaged government agencies, which suffered the largest document leak in its history when WikiLeaks released the Iraq and Afghanistan War documents, in the second half 2010. It has since emerged that close to three million (!) US government employees had routine access to the leaked documents, and that audit logs to monitor access to these documents were nonexistent.
Another important element that renders WikiLeaks so powerful is the medium of information sharing, namely digitization. The onset of the digital environment has revolutionized the speed, efficiency and convenience with which information —both open and restricted— can be accessed, replicated, and shared. As information security expert Bruce Schneier stated in December, the United States “government is learning what the music and movie industries were forced to learn years ago: it's easy to copy and distribute digital files”. Therefore, “just as the music and movie industries are going to have to change their business models for the Internet era, governments are going to have to change their secrecy models”. Essentially, these new models of information control will have to be built around a new reality, in which secrecy can be undermined by small networks of decentralized, transnational actors commanding limited technical resources.
In light of the above, it is important to understand WikiLeaks, not as an individual venture, but as part of a new reality. In this new reality, the figure of Julian Assange is primarily symbolic, rather than instrumental. No matter his fate, whether he is extradited to the United States, imprisoned, or even assassinated, as several pundits in Washington have proposed, it will not affect the wider trend that WikiLeaks represents. Nor will it impact the continual distribution of the leaked information that is in the hands of WikiLeaks volunteers. The information will continue to be shared even if WikiLeaks is completely wiped out, mostly through the dozens of mirror sites around the Internet, copycat websites, or even the hundreds of BitTorrents circulating online, which contain the entire WikiLeaks document archive.
Julian Assange or WikiLeaks are therefore not the issue here. The issue is the wider destabilization of traditional modes of information control, of which both Assange and WikiLeaks are part. Therefore, as state officials the world over deal with the aftermath of cablegate, the relevant debate should steer away from individuals or websites, and focus instead on the broad picture: there is too much classified information being shared in a digitized format with too many individuals, at a time when digital data is becoming progressively easier to replicate and share.