All posts by Stefan Geens

The Wikileaks blame game — who released what, exactly?

The story of how the unredacted version of the US diplomatic cables ended up in the wild really is a disgraceful farce — a tragedy of errors, with plenty of blame to go round. Nigel Parry has a great round-up and Micah Sifry also weighs in.

There’s one thing I am not inclined to blame Assange for, however: It’s been misreported just about everywhere that Assange and Wikileaks released the fully unredacted cables themselves, as per their tweet:

WIKILEAKS RELEASE: Full Cablegate2 database file (torrent) http://file.wikileaks.org/torrent/cable_db_full.7z.torrent

The above downloads a SQL file. They also made a 60GB HTML version available, in addition to the SQL database version above. I downloaded both files, and searched them for previously redacted cables which I had read when they were released. In these BitTorrent files, however, those cables are still redacted. It’s only the remaining, previously unreleased files which are left unredacted.

The online resources showing this partially redacted version of the cables are cablesearch.org and cablegatesearch.net. (Both these links go to the same cable from 2006 where a Chinese official asks the US to censor Google Earth imagery in China (without success). In both cases, the name of the official is redacted.)

The completely unredacted version of the cables is the file hosted by Cryptome, and it is this version which the cables.mrkva.eu online search tool queries. (Here is the same cable about Google Earth as before. It reveals the name of the official.)

So it appears that Wikileaks is not directly responsible for “unredacting” the previously redacted material that is now floating around. The source of that lies elsewhere. Is this a distinction without a difference? I’m not sure; Wikileaks did after all tweet a link to the cables.mrkva.eu search tool. Perhaps in the current chaos Wikileaks is not even sure what it is releasing.

So who bears the preponderance of the blame, then? Right now I’m leaning towards The Guardian’s David Leigh for his apparent technological ineptitude in not knowing that encrypted files don’t come with temporary passwords — perhaps he watched too many James Bond films, where messages self-destruct on camera. By Parry’s account, Leigh couldn’t even unzip a file on his own. It’s not surprising then that he’d put the password to the unredacted original trove of cables in his book, published in February 2011. It’s colossal cluelessness, and I hope he’s sleeping badly for all the vulnerable people he’s put at risk.

Julian Assange is also to blame, primarily for being so cavalier with the information, entrusting it to people who are not capable of keeping it safe (or perhaps not being clear enough to Leigh about the nature of the file in question). As a result, intelligence agencies have likely had access to the unredacted cables for some time now.

The damage this has done is real. I would not want to be the Chinese person in this 2010 cable, a nephew of a Politburo Standing Committee member, who told US diplomats that cyber attacks against Google in China were being coordinated by his government. That cable was previously redacted, but now shows his name.

Nor would I want to be the Chinese person in this 2008 cable, published by Wikileaks a few days ago in its unredacted form, where he tells US diplomats:

Xxx himself is a leader of an underground church in Shanghai. He recently returned from a secret meeting of leaders of underground churches from Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Wuhan, and Nanjing. Participants in the meeting reported that there has been an increase of governmental scrutiny and pressure because of the Olympics.

Getting his real name is now as easy as clicking on the link above. If these people, and others like them, find themselves harassed or arrested as a result of this débâcle, then I’m afraid that on balance, the Wikileaks experiment in radical transparency has made the world a worse place — and all through the sheer ineptitude of all parties concerned.

Wikileaks own leak ushers in the era of radical transparency

As the story emerges about how Wikileaks’ US diplomatic cables came to be available in an unredacted, unencrypted form this week, potentially harming the safety of many informants and other vulnerable people, one obvious lesson is again in evidence:

People are the weakest link in any encryption system.

The potential for human error is constant and unswerving, and so the odds were always that eventually, somehow, somebody would screw up — even somebody as security obsessed as Julian Assange was not exempt. It’s a common cliché to posit that “information wants to be free”; perhaps it is more accurate to say that for information, being encrypted is an unstable state — either the password is soon forgotten or taken to the grave and the information disappears from the universe, or else some blunder eventually allows it to escape to the world at large. For information, in the long run, it’s more “Live free or die”; there is no stable intermediate state. Conspiracies are short-lived at best because humans are fallible; those Knights Templar successfully defending the Holy Grail across the millennia exist only in bad fantasy fiction.

The 500MB BitTorrent file that contains all the cables unzips to around 60GB of HTML files — my computer’s been at it for over 8 hours and counting. I can’t not rifle through this trove now that it is in the wild, of course. Previously, I was frustrated that I couldn’t just do text searches on all the content for my own ad hoc investigative reporting, although I understood and approved of the reason why. Now that this information is in the open, we can’t just let those with nefarious motives read them — we all need to read up, so that there is some hope for a silver lining. (If I find anything relevant to Dliberation’s remit, I’ll blog it of course.)

It looks like we will after all have to adjust to living in a global society where radical transparency is an expected outcome, whether from customer database leaks or whistleblower actions. For a while, as The Guardian and others released redacted versions of the cables, we thought Pandora’s box could be opened just a sliver. We were wrong.

Flash mob rule

Much has already been said about the looting spree that afflicted London and other British cities last week, so I’ll stick to just one observation:

These incidents were traditional flash mobs in every sense but for their destructive intent. All flash mobs — be it a “spontaneous” pillow fight in central Stockholm or a frozen Grand Central Station in New York — share the same dynamic: Social (or semi-social) media are used to gather a group at a pre-defined semi-secret location to engage in a common synchronized activity.

In the case of the London incidents, the looters discovered that this dynamic can be co-opted to overwhelm local law enforcement through sheer numbers at a certain place and for a certain time, thus facilitating looting.

Law enforcement has always been a little skittish about flash mob projects, precisely because there was that “what if” scenario looming — what if the group act was anti-social in its intent, instead of social? Now we know it works very well. And so do the looters.

Resources update: Akvo, EuroDIG 2012…

As suspected, attending this past weekend’s Sweden Social Web Camp unconference in Southern Sweden led to a wealth of discoveries — of likeminded people, worthy causes and new ideas. As a direct result, some new additions to the database:

Under Tools > Tools:

Akvo.org • Non-profit builds open-source web and mobile tools to improve how development aid is allocated and reported. @akvo

(One of the people I connected with is Akvo’s Thomas Bjelkeman-Pettersson. We ended up running a session together on “Open Data, Open Systems, Open Source: Better democracy?” That’s a rhetorical question, BTW:-)

Under Institutions > The Internet and society:

The Centre for Internet & Society in Bangalore • Critically engages “with concerns of digital pluralism, public accountability and pedagogic practices in the field of Internet and Society, with particular emphasis on South-South dialogues and exchange.” @cis_india

Under Blogs > The politics of digital networks:

Falkvinge &co. on Infopolicy • A founder of Sweden’s Pirate Party hosts a community discussion around information policy. @Falkvinge +Rick Falkvinge

Under Tools > Conferences:

EuroDIG 2012 — the Pan-European dialogue on Internet governance • In Sweden: “An open platform for informal and inclusive discussion and exchange on public policy issues related to Internet Governance between stakeholders from all over Europe.”

Resources update: CMCS, Mapping Digital Media

Added today to the Resources section of the site:

Under Tools > Online journals, book series, essay series, manuals, reference texts:

Mapping Digital Media • “Background papers on a range of topics that are important for understanding the effects of new technology on media and journalism.” Commissioned by The Open Society Media Program.

Under Institutions > Global media reform, citizen journalism, civic media:

Center for Media and Communication Studies (CMCS) at Central European University in Budapest • Research center with expertise in fields including new media and technology, media and civil society, and fundamental communications rights. @CMCSatCEU

PDF 2011, and a first post

The seeds of this blog were planted over a year ago, when I found myself more and more fascinated by the implications of a global society where almost all content is digitally stored and transmitted. At the time, the topic felt a little niched, but in the intervening year the news has been invaded by Wikileaks, cyber attacks against major corporations, tightening internet censorship in China and elsewhere, and the emergence of social media-savvy revolutionaries in the Middle East.

Ironically, the topic is itself now ripe for close and constant surveillance; this is what Dliberation.org is for. And there is no better time to start such a project than at Personal Democracy Forum, edition 2011.

Forget Twitter and Facebook; this is a satellite TV revolution

(Originally posted pseudonymously on Ultimi Barbarorum, January 28, 2011.)

Today’s lesson: The internet and mobile telephony are not robust technologies when it comes to withstanding state intervention. States can and do pull the plug on them when they sense an existential threat. China turned off the Internet in restless  Xinjiang for 9 months in 2009-2010, and Iran and other countries turn off sms and mobile internet use when it suits them. Today, Egypt’s authorities tried to dampen a popular uprising by shutting down both its Internet and mobile telephony.

This is sobering, but points the way to how such draconian measures can be circumvented by those intent on accessing independent news: By not relying at all on terrestrial infrastructure such as cell towers and Internet cabling, falling back instead on direct satellite communications.

By necessity, this set-up reverts to a broadcast/receiver relationship, with international broadcasters like the BBC and Al Jazeera able to invest in satellite video phones as a back-up in case authorities turn off other means of broadcasting live. The Egyptian people, meanwhile, have ubiquitous access to satellite television — as anyone who’s been to Cairo can attest after just a brief glance across the rooftops:

Satellite dishes on Cairo rooftops.
Satellite dishes on Cairo rooftops.

There is no way to restrict the reception of such broadcasting — there is no way for Mubarak to prevent Egyptians from watching satellite broadcasts of Al Jazeera short of turning off the electricity. This fall-back on satellite reception is not something widely available in all countries. In China, for example, it is cable television that is ubiquitous, a terrestrial mode of communication, that can and is blacked out at will by the Chinese authorities — most recently whenever CNN broadcast news of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize.

While I am sure that much of Egypt’s older cohorts are glued to their televisions tonight, I wonder if turning off the Internet and mobile telephony earlier today didn’t have an effect opposite to what Mubarak’s regime intended: Egypt’s urban youth, suddenly without their main means of diversion or entertainment, had only the streets to go to. For once, there was no Twitter or Facebook or YouTube to distract them. All that was left to do was to go out and vent their rage.