In Alex Gibney’s film Wikileaks: We Steal Secrets there were scenes of a modest house in Reykjavjik where Julian Assange and some selfless Icelandic volunteers were working on making a video of Americans killing Reuters journalists and other civilians in Iraq.
It turns out one of the selfless volunteers was an Icelandic snitch, Sigdur Thordarson, who had got bored with being a hacktivist and wanted to move on to something else.
“Unlike many drawn to WikiLeaks, Thordarson does not seem to have been principally motivated by a passion for the cause of transparency or by the desire to expose government wrongdoing. Instead, he was on the hunt for excitement and got a thrill out of being close to people publishing secret government documents.”
Adolescent capacity for mischief to alleviate boredom can end up destroying whole infrastructures for kicks, while taking a few drugs.
Thordarson got into contact with another hacking organisation called LulzSec which among other achievements had brought down the CIA website and asked them to investigate the Icelandic government’s attitude towards Wikileaks. He then became an FBI informant himself, and as one of the main men in LulzSec had also been recruited by the FBI, the Feds could then verify his credentials and use him as a Wikileaks insider.
Wikileaks and the Anonymous style hacking groups seem to be like far left political groups in that they are always being infiltrated by forces of the state, there’s a blurred line between what you could call productive engagement and sheer vandalism in their activities and they are full of in-fighting.
There does however seem to be very little ideological glue holding the hacktivists together. It’s a kind of Against the Man, Fuck the Headmaster attitude. Quite a few of the hackers graduate to becoming security experts for large companies and governments. On their CVs they list under Achievements:-
- Broke into Bank of England website and covered it with insulting pictures of Mark Carney
- Released rogue algorithm onto Amazon database, so those ordering Harry Potter books received 50 Shades of Sado-masochism and vice-versa
- Hacked Richard Dawkins’s twitter account so he sent out tweets of the Thought for the Day kind, like “At the end of Ramadan, we feel a spiritual closeness to.. ” or “the time of Easter is a reminder of”
and those credentials get you a solid job as a gatekeeper for Big Company Inc or Big State Surveilliana.
In our new digital world the state can often find and even turn the hacking known knowns but there are a mass of known unknowns and unknown unknowns in cyberspace. For an upbeat look at how the rogue Digimeisters like Assange and Snowden are the challenging usurpers of the digital world, have a look at this brilliant essay by Bruce Sterling:-
If you’re NSA, as so many thousands are, you’ve known from the get-go that the planet’s wires and cables are a weapon of mass surveillance. Because that is their inherent purpose! You can’t get all conflicted, and start whining that Internet users are citizens of some place or other! That is not the point at all!
Citizens and rights have nothing to do with elite, covert technologies! The targets of surveillance are oblivious dorks, they’re not even newbies! Even US Senators are decorative objects for the NSA. An American Senator knows as much about PRISM and XKeyScore as a troll-doll on the dashboard knows about internal combustion.
Julian Assange. Yeah, him, the silver-haired devil, the Mycroft Holmes of the Ecuadorian Embassy. Bradley Manning’s not at all NSA material, he’s just a leaky clerk with a thumb-drive. But Julian’s quite a lot closer to the NSA — because he’s a career cypherpunk.
If you’re a typical NSA geek, and you stare in all due horror at Julian, it’s impossible not to recognize him as one of your own breed. He’s got the math fixation, the stilted speech, the thousand-yard-stare, and even the private idiolect that somehow allows NSA guys to make up their own vocabulary whenever addressing Congress (who don’t matter) and haranguing black-hat hacker security conventions (who obviously do).
Sterling makes the point that Assange and Wikileaks had more clout than all the human rights groups put together when it came to rescuing Edmund Snowden:-
the solemn signatories of the recent “International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance.”
… Obviously, a planetary host of actively concerned and politically connected people. Among this buzzing horde of eager online activists from a swarm of nations, what did any of them actually do for Snowden? Nothing.
Before Snowden showed up from a red-eye flight from Hawaii, did they have the least idea what was actually going on with the hardware of their beloved Internet? Not a clue. They’ve been living in a pitiful dream world where their imaginary rule of law applies to an electronic frontier — a frontier being, by definition, a place that never had any laws.
He sums up:-
Digital, globalized societies — where capital and information moves, and where labor and human flesh doesn’t move — they behave like this. That is what we are witnessing and experiencing.
Sterling may overstate the uncontrollability of the net. But most of us with a job know these days if the network goes down, we stop producing. That the security of our bank accounts may be jeopardised. That computers trading derivatives on miniscule profits can go awry and destroy the economy. It’s a sense of vulnerability. We’ve most of us wandered into our shanty towns at the edge of Digital City, but we have no idea who the mayor is, who the Council is and who runs the police.
Having read all about Alex Gibney’s film Wikileaks: We steal secrets I went to see it, and recommend that everyone does. It was also great seeing a documentary in the cinema where you can’t be distracted, as when you watch something on the telly or the I-player at home.
The film shapes itself round the story of two men, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. At the beginning Assange appears admirable. He’s a dedicated anti-establishment hacker and also a charmer, full of humour. You see him rising from smart-arse hacking in Australia – breaking into government systems because he can – to uncovering corrupt banking in Iceland. He and a couple of co-activists seem like heroes when they work together in a tiny house in Reykjavik to make a video of American soldiers killing Reuters journalists. (The event had already been documented but it was the video that made the public impact).
Meanwhile Bradley Manning, an American soldier roasting in Iraq, is a figure of pathos. In a civilian niche working with his considerable computing skills and hanging out with sympathetic friends he would have been fine. But he is a fish out of water, or as he says, “The CPU is not made for this motherboard”. He finds himself, an effeminate guy with a conscience, in a highly macho environment holding a job which gives him to access to the reality of the war that the USA is carrying out in Afghanistan and Iraq. His sense of isolation, working on his computer in the desert and being horrified at the revelations of civilian casualties, is painful to watch. He starts leaking the material and that increases his loneliness. So he confides in a soul mate he met on-line, Adrian Lamo, who shopped him.
Everyone knows how these stories have panned out, with Assange stuck in the Ecuadorian embassy dodging rape charges and Manning on trial in a military court for aiding the enemy. As for Adrian Lamo, type his name on Google and you’ll get “snitch”.
Assange’s story is a comedy of ironies. He, a hacker with monikers, became a media celebrity with his face on Time magazine. A transparency absolutist, he pressured his assistants to sign non-disclosure agreements. A pure anti-power activist began misusing his own power. He became an activist rock star who attracted groupies – and, it’s alleged, treated them as rock stars have often treated groupies.
Gibney got an interview with one of the women who made the rape allegations and of course like any woman who annoys males throughout the digital world, she was hideously targetted with rape threats and the usual vile stuff by some sites that would see themselves as progressive revolutionaries.
The most likable character to appear is James Ball, who volunteered to work for Wikileaks, got to know Assange’s modus operandi, and observes that Assange had the delusions of those working for a greater cause – that if they do wrong, it’s all right. If he tells a lie, something he’s prone to do, it’s a noble lie. One of his on-line names was “Mendax”.
Wikileaks: We Steal Secrets is a fascinating story that suggests various themes. It sets up a dozen signposts that could be followed, as distinct from the Adam Curtis style, which acts like a SatNav bossing you along the journey of the theory with your only view being billboards of footage selected to illustrate the point. When Gibney’s witnesses talk about their experiences of transparency, of the power of the state and the organisations that challenge the state, or the flow of information that can empower the small as well as the large, they point to ideas that all could be profitably explored and which are as complex and as in the shades of grey as Wikileaks itself – though some of the USA’s activities are as black as can be.
Gibney touches briefly on Anonymous, the vigilante/resistance (depending on what they have done to you) loose group of hackers who did a DDoS sabotage of PayPal, Visa and MasterCard when the US governemnt was leaning on them to block donations to WikiLeaks. Anonymous form a power base of their own, and though they were right enough to sabotage illegitimate force by the USA government, they can start chucking their digital grenades at any net organisation who has displeased them politically – and your only redress is in fact via the government. (They have now dumped Wikileaks since it became the Julian Assange show).
So this is the new world of the internet, where Assange was a warlord (or bandit, or outlaw) carrying out skirmishes against the empire. It’s only been in common use for about twenty years. The industrial revolution must have been like that. Suddenly there are new cities, and fast transport, whole different ways of working and whereas the average person once only knew their immediate neighbours, they could now seek out the like-minded. We have only just started to guess how the digital revolution is affecting political as well as cultural and personal life. For Manning of course it was a disaster. He made a friend online, and was betrayed online, and to those who don’t spend half their life online “friend” and “betrayal” where you have never met in the flesh may make no sense – but in fact they are emotional tangibilities in the digital world.
Assange knows the internet like a spy knows safe houses and the weak points of the fortress, and how a mechanic knows a car, and this specialized knowledge is one reason for his egomania. His life swimming in the digital world did give him a slightly fantastical way of engaging with the real world, and his superior knowledge of one system gave him an over-estimation of his political judgement, with a callousness about collateral damage as bad as a government’s. He had his own political view of the war in Afghanistan, and those Afghans who collaborated with the Coalition forms were traitors (to the Taliban?) so never mind if they were killed by careless redacting of the leaked cables.
In fact, a cruel and unusual punishment for Assange would not to be cooped up in a flat in Knightsbridge with wi-fi, but to be given freedom to roam the United Kingdom – with no internet access. That would be virtual, and real, banishment.
Dave Osler got seven. I got nine. Test your knowledge in this jolly quiz:
Goodbye, papier-mâché head. You made me laugh, anyway.
How the hell is it that in the course of today no less than three people have linked to Shiraz from…here?
The highlight of my Christmas was not meeting up with my long-lost relatives, or tucking into some horrible turkey and vile vegetables…it was catching a TV showing of Galaxy Quest, a fillum that makes me laugh out loud. I’d kept quiet about this for some years, prefering to adopt an image of being a Bergman kinda guy (that always used to impress the chicks), until the novelist Lionel Shriver admitted, in the Graun, that she likes it (“In tandem with my enthusiasm for ‘Dumb and Dumber’, my enjoyment of this goof-ball film certifies once and for all that I have no taste”).
So now, I’m out…I LOVE THIS FILLUM!!
The fact is, I laughed ’till I cried :
I recently read on Andy Newman’s hilariously misnamed “Socialist” “Unity” website, an attack upon my goodself, closing with this, from the site’s proprietor, Mr Andy Newman, hisself!:
“Jim: I would consider being called ‘reactionary scum’ a compliment from your lips. The AWL are a cancer in the labour movement, and you personally are the most malignant part of that cancer.”
Andy Newman (16 December 2007, @ 8.14 am).
Well, you have to get out of bed early to beat Mr Newman to it, eh?
Anyway: I have no particular objection to Mr Newman’s attack…except for this: he then, immediately switched off the “comments” facility on his blog, so that I couldn’t reply.
This from someone who quite happily allows a physically violent thug like Ger Francis, and a mentally-unstable woman-beater like Ian *******/******* (who needs help) to contribute on a regular basis to his blog…
Nooman: you’re a wanker:
Any thoughts, readers? For myself, I actually think they were right to kick out Hoveman and the other Galloway groupies. However it also seems to me that they’re trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted. Possibly we’re witnessing the collapse of the last of the “big three” trot groups from the 1970s and 80s, following the explosion of the WRP and the implosion of Militant. Also one wonders whether the rats are about to leave the sinking ship in light of the crisis. This thread’s open – feel free to comment if you wish.
Just wanted to point out my utter contrition at that Dick Dastardly of the Left, Mr Denham’s gross misuse of my nickname to engage your pure and holy self in debate on your blog. I have chastised him most thoroughly. Here’s a little song by way of recompense (I couldn’t find any frankincense or myrrh as befits your unsulliable purity):
I’ve previously mentioned my email address, which you can also use to contact Jim or TWP if you want (no private sexual advances to them please as I have to see it first, although I’ll take any offers going). However, it’s now also permanently in the sidebar for your ease of use. Anything odd, weird, comments, arguments, guest posts, all welcome. In particular if you’re a Nigerian pretending to be Sani Abacha’s widow, and you’d like to offer me a million quid to help remove your husband’s ill-gotten gains from the country, then I want to hear from you. Get writing!