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Writer Andy Greenberg Takes Us Into the Hidden World of "Wikileakers, Cypherpunks and Hacktivists" In New Book

Screen shot 2012-10-17 at 2.43.42 PM.pngForbes reporter Andy Greenberg went looking for a story and nailed it. This Machine Kills Secrets: How Wikileakers, Cypherpunks and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World's Information is a globe trotting exploration into the heart of the contentious world of brilliant, eccentric and erratic game changers who have taken the tools at hand and turned them into powerful weapons that can -- and have in some cases -- altered the course of history. Julian Assange, Anonymous, Blacknet, Cryptome.org, Openwatch, Lulzsec are just some of the players in this book, essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the thinking of some of the most important (and least known) people making news today. We talked with the author about his new book, his thoughts on Julian Assange and why he thinks Wikileaks has done more good than harm.

David Hershkovits: How prevalent is hacking, and how much more can we expect in the coming years as young people become more proficient and conversant with coding?

Andy Greenberg: Well, I think we've already seen this enormous explosion in hacking as a subculture that started out as this Illuminati thing where just a few guys had the elite skills. Hackers called each other 'leet' and the whole idea of it was to be elite. And I feel that hacking has become something else -- there is so much that hackers can do that doesn't require elite skills anymore. You see this in Anonymous. I would say that most hackers in Anonymous, the biggest hacking group or movement that exists today, don't have really special skills. So I do think that hacking has become popularized or democratized.

DH: Yeah, almost mainstreamed. That's part of what appealed to me about your book because I'm always fascinated by subcultures that cross over, where you can identify and find the originators and watch what happens.

AG: I think this is really something different though, than just hacking. Hacking is not new. We've seen these huge dumps of secrets from companies that have been happening since the nineties. This is more the fruition of the cypherpunk movement, which I think is different than just hackers. That's why in the subtitle I try to separate them out, the hacktivists or hackers with politics, and then the cypherpunks, who are not just trying to break things, or steal information. They are trying to build systems with cryptography that are like automated systems for dumping information. Jim Bell, the Assassination Politics guy talked
about using cryptography to build a system that would actually kill people, but he wasn't a hacker. He didn't even want to steal information or break systems, he really wanted to build a system, like a new institution, that would take down the government and replace it with this other system of justice he envisioned. As crazy as that was.

DH: Where does Julian Assange [of Wikileaks] fit in?

AG: I think that Assange definitely believed in creating a system to get the information out. He started out as a archetypal hacker, an explorer on the Internet by himself, exploring the halls of the Pentagon's secret servers. But at some point he seems to become interested in building things instead. That's the progression that you see from hackers to cypherpunks to Wikileaks and beyond. Eventually he builds this crypto system called Rubberhose, and then he has this insight about Wikileaks: He's going to stop stealing information like he did as a teenager, and instead just build a system that will do it for him. This turned out to be so much more effective than anyone even imagined. Wikileaks is the transition between hackers who steal things and hackers who build these systems, and OpenLeaks wanted to be the next step. Guys like Daniel Domscheit-Berg and the Architect [two engineers who left WikiLeaks to create OpenLeaks] thought Assange was just hacking things together and just kind of building this sloppy, informal system. It happened to be incredibly effective but they wanted to build something that's so much more polished.

DH: Assange became a star of the movement. Has this created friction with the others?.

AG: Assange says he wants to make himself a lightning rod for the organization, and that he makes a public persona just to take the heat off of everyone else, but it's become clear at this point that his own personal story is much more important to him than the story of Wikileaks.

DH: The New York Times, for example, celebrates the whistleblower but they're on a campaign against Assange. Is there a difference?

AG: I think what Assange did was somewhat with good intentions, but it's been tainted in so many ways. I absolutely believe he has some of the same motivations as a whistleblower, but I think he also has the motivations of a prankster, or a hacker who wants to upset the system as a whole. He wants to shake things up and tear things down, the corrupt world as he sees it. I think he's always seen himself as an underdog fighting this enormous, corrupt machine, and that has led him to a paranoid, permanent struggle against "The Man." Assange was always looking for the biggest battle he could find, not necessarily the cleanest one, but the one that would be the messiest, and the biggest, and that would cause the biggest splash. And you could see in Wikileaks's history, he just kept seeking out a bigger foe to take on. Until, you know...

DH: He tried to take on practically every government in the world.

AG: In the initial Wikileaks mission statement, he talked about taking on Middle Eastern and Asian corrupt governments. But I think at some point Assange got bored of that. He did expose wrong-doing by those governments but that wasn't enough for him. He wanted to take on bigger and bigger targets, until the morality of what he was doing became messier and messier.

DH: In his defense, people say that the information released has not lead to any deaths or disasters other than just to create a lot of stories in the media. Nothing's really changed.

AG: I agree with that, and I think that was true until Wikileaks accidently leaked the unredacted State Department Cablegate database last year. And at that point it becomes much tougher to know what happened as a result of that. I mean, there was definitely journalists and people in sensitive situations who had to be located, or feared for their lives, or were harassed. I'm not sure there were any deaths as a result, but I'm not sure that's the bar we want. Don't get me wrong, I believe that Wikileaks has done more good than harm, and I guess that's a hard thing to say these days, since they've released so much, but they helped to cause the revolution in Tunisia and they did help to end the war in Iraq. [They] helped to create a new political system in Iceland [and] they helped to change the swing of a Kenyan election. Those things are incredibly important.

DH: When Assange recently made a statement from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where he has sought refuge, were you surprised that he included the release of [American imprisoned for leaking military secrets] Bradley Manning as one of his demands.

AG: Oh, I think that's the bare minimum of what Wikileaks could be doing for Bradley Manning right now. His supporters would probably say he is not stealing the spotlight, but it's probably taking his creative skill to make sure he is in the headlines again and again. This struggle to keep Assange out of prison has completely obscured the fact that Manning is in prison and that his defense is not even really trying to fight the charges that he has released information. He doesn't have great prospects of a free future. It's true that it's complicated for Assange to mention Manning when he ought not to be implicating Manning as the source, but I do think that Manning deserves attention. And just to mention -- Wikileaks has never, in fact, donated the amount of money that it promised to Manning's defense.

DH: Do you think government attempts to clamp down on the Internet will ever work? And will there always be hackers, no matter what they tried?

AG: When the political institutions of the world decided Wikileaks was a threat, you just saw all of the machines of power got into gear and shut Wikileaks down. Wikileaks funding was cut off. PayPal, Bank of America, Visa, MasterCard all cut off Wikileaks funding. Amazon kicked them off their servers. That was a sad lesson of Wikileaks. It turns out governments do have the power. Extra legally they can just ask Amazon to take down your site, and Amazon will do it, which is a disturbing thing. I think Wikileaks could rise again, or another group like it, but it turned out to be harder to build something subversive on the Internet than I think a lot of people thought.

DH: Well there's no laws in place to protect us.

AG: Right. There is no free speech law that can prevent Amazon from saying actually we'd rather not host you, you violate our terms of service, get out.

DH: Twitter and Google, for example, regularly get subpoenas to turn over information.

AG: Right, exactly, and that's an enormous issue. You can see there are these forces of crypto-anarchy that are still really powerful and in many ways, more powerful than ever. But at the same time we also see governments flexing their muscles and fighting the forces of the internet and manhandling web companies. I mean, there's definitely a conflict brewing right now.

This Machine Kills Secrets: How Wikileakers, Cypherpunks and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World's Information is out now.

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