Monday, December 20, 2010

Information, disinformation and changing the rules...

Information, disinformation and changing the rules

The controversial leader of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange.
Leon Neal/AFP Photo/Getty Images
At first glance, ‘Cablegate’ – the mass leaking of US embassy cables to five of the world’s newspapers, including the Guardian here in the UK – might seem a bit of a disappointment to the conspiracy theorist, laying bare the unsurprising duplicity (and bitchiness, one might add) of diplomacy but revealing nothing of grand-scale world-domination plots or evil puppet-masters behind the operations of international diplomacy. The US government's heavy-handed response, however, has provided plenty of grist to the conspiracy mill, while the escalating war between secrecy and transparency must have implications for conspiracy theory’s future.

So far, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have been broadly supported by conspiracy theorists – support that the arrest of Assange and apparent pressure on WikiLeaks from the US government is likely to encourage. WikiLeaks has been applauded on conspiracy forums as a paragon of disclosure and a shining example to the cowardly US media: as one poster on put it: “The American media is a whore, whereas the courageous blood of warriors runs through WikiLeaks’ veins.”

But WikiLeaks is not above suspicion. There were stirrings after the release of the Afghan war logs, which, posters suggested, was a disinformation campaign meant to hide the involvement of the US and UK in drug smuggling; or else it was a covert attack on Pakistan to please India and Israel. Now with the release of the embassy cables, it is Israel that is again drawing the attention of suspicious minds. It's a Mossad plot, runs the argument, to make Iran look like the bad guy, so advancing the clash of civilisations scenario. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself blames the US for the release of the cables, claiming it’s all a ploy to undermine him. The idea is gaining credence on conspiracy forums. Users point to the cables’ pro-American tone (apparently oblivious to the fact that they were written by American diplomats), and speculate that the 'leak' is in fact a false flag operation à la 9/11, a pretext either for bringing forward an imminent war on Islam or curtailing freedom of speech. In a neat think-twist beloved by conspiracy theorists everywhere, further evidence for this comes from the fact that the leak was allowed to happen: Washington is too clever and powerful to have been outwitted by WikiLeaks; the very fact of disclosure proves that disclosure to be false. [1] Out on the wilder fringes of conspiracydom, more exotic theories speculate that the Russians, George Soros, demons or aliens are really behind the whole affair.

But while many conspiracy theorists might support Assange, he has made clear his contempt for them, saying “Many weirdos email us about UFOs or how they discovered that they were the antichrist while talking with their ex-wife at a garden party over a pot-plant.” And this despite Assange sharing similar character traits (paranoia, self-righteousness, a conviction of his own unique intelligence, individual-against-the-system rhetoric) [2] and having as an ultimate goal the dissolution of all conspiracies.

This one-time hacker isn’t simply a freedom of information activist, though: He wants to reorganise society and speaks of “radically shifting regime behaviour”. And while identifying his primary targets as oppressive regimes such as those in China and Russia, he has also said that exposing secrets could “bring down many administrations that rely on concealing reality – including the US administration”. Many commentators have argued that the material Assange has chosen to leak reveals, in fact, an openly anti-US agenda.

Where Assange differs from many other conspiracy theorists is in seeing the operation of the state – any state – as, by definition, a conspiracy: states, along with big business, constitute conspiratorial institutional hierarchies, or “patronage networks”. Laying out his philosophy in two 2006 tracts, “Conspiracy as Governance” and “State and Terrorist Conspiracies”, Assange wrote: “Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behaviour as conspiratorial.” He explains such conspiracies as being predicated on the communication links between members; disrupt these links, he says, and you will induce fear and paranoia, forcing the organisation to turn in on itself, making communication less effective – meaning it is less able to think or conspire and thus hold on to power. “If total conspiratorial power is zero, there is no information flow between the conspirators and hence no conspiracy.” Secretive and unjust organisations are to be made more secretive and unjust in order that they might implode: “When we look at an authoritarian conspiracy as a whole, we see a system of interacting organs, a beast with arteries and veins whose blood may be thickened and slowed until it falls, stupefied; unable to sufficiently comprehend and control the forces in its environment.”

Like many anarchists, Assange has been less forthcoming about exactly what would replace the current system. His idea seems to be of a collection of individuals, each free to experience emotions and enjoy full self-actualisation. [3] Ironically, it would seem that this most tech-savvy and plugged-in of men would like this to happen in a Rousseauesque rural idyll. As he wrote on his personal website, “I’d take a deep book, a backpack of food and a tent and go walking for three months along the .au or .nzdecalibrate by disconnecting behaviour and reward and failing to provide the sense data that our biological mental and physical structures have evolved to require.”

The contradictions of Assange’s position have not gone unremarked. His own organisation is highly secretive and depends on encrypted channels of communication between individuals. The lack of transparency of WikiLeaks’ own funding has also raised eyebrows, not least those of John Young, who set up document-leaking site Cryptome in 1996 and helped found WikiLeaks before leaving over concerns about its hubris, size, and the money if was seeking to raise (he is still broadly supportive of the site, despite remarks comparing it to a cult, government or spy organisation which were interpreted by the more conspiracy-minded as clear proof of WikiLeaks being a CIA-front).

WikiLeaks, one might argue, enjoys just the kind of power without accountability of which Assange is so critical. His attempts to cut the communication links of his enemies could themselves be seen as a form of censorship. Assange has argued that the ends justify the means – that he and WikiLeaks members might get “blood on our hands” from publishing, for example, a document about electromagnetic devices used by soldiers to prevent IEDs from being triggered, but that the ultimate goal makes that a price worth paying. To some, this makes him as morally compromised as those he’d like to expose, and his own authoritarian style, control freakery and grandstanding seem out of line with his ideological pronouncements and the ethos of the hacker community from which he emerged.

Still, while not everyone agrees with his personal style and subversive ambitions, he has certainly fired up the freedom of information debate. As we go to press, it seems no one is quite sure whether, legally speaking, the leaking of secrets in this manner is wrong. Assange himself, of course, is in no doubt. In 2008, after lawyers demanded that WikiLeaks take down the Scientology manuals it had posted online, Assange retorted: "WikiLeaks will not comply with legally abusive requests from Scientology any more than WikiLeaks has complied with similar demands from Swiss banks, Russian offshore stem-cell centers, former African kleptocrats, or the Pentagon."

As the Justice Department desperately tries to put together a case against Assange, an infowar is raging in cyberspace. Whether under the direct control of Washington or not (there is, after all, the First Amendement to consider), forces are conspiring to take WikiLeaks down. Amazon, which hosted its servers in the US, withdrew services on the grounds that the site was breaking its terms and conditions, as did domain name firm EveryDNS; Visa, Mastcard and PayPal (who claimed to have acted under US government pressure, then retracted the statement) suspended all payments to the site. All of these companies subsequently suffered revenge attacks by hackers, in a series of DDoS (distributed denial-of-service) attacks orchestrated by the collective Anonymous under the moniker 'Operation: Payback'. Declaring “the major shitstorm has begun”, Anonymous (which describes itself as "an anonymous, decentralised movement that fights against censorship and copywrong") is also attacking the sites of other assorted WikiLeaks ‘enemies’, including Joe Lieberman and Sarah Palin, and it threatened Twitter after suggestions, which Twitter denies, that #wikileaks was being prevented from trending. WikiLeaks has itself been bombarded with DDoS attacks, apparently by hackers favourable to the cause of the US government. WikiLeaks will be incredibly hard, however, to take down permanently, largely because of the complexity of its infrastructure. It has its content on many servers and hundreds of domain names; it is woven through the Internet, and where it has physical locations these are spread between different countries and frequently have to be traced back through third parties. There are also now hundreds of mirror sites, and an encrypted file released by WikiLeaks and containing all the embassy cables is now being furiously copied and shared via peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent.

Even if Assange were to be silenced or WikiLeaks shut down, the genie is out of the bottle. Other document hosting sites – Cryptome, IndoLeaks, BalkanLeaks – already exist, and more will spring up to take WikiLeaks’s place. More widely, the ranks of those fighting for transparency are swelling: for instance, Peter Sunde (one of the founders of The Pirate Bay), is attempting to create a new root server to compete with ICANN, the system which controls the internet's domain name system and can take down domains considered to be breaking the law; Iceland has passed the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), which seeks to create a legal safe haven for journalists by combining all the source-protection, freedom of information and transparency laws from around the world.

This is a war about secrecy in an Internet age: is secrecy desirable, and if so, is it possible? Who wins the war is of great moment to the conspiracy theorist. If the forces for concealment triumph, increasingly lurid conspiracies will flourish, even if hounded to the edges of the net. But Assange’s focus is not on what is revealed so much as on the process of revealing; and if the movement for transparency comes out on top, the traditional conspiracy theorist may have to choose between joining in the practical fight for disclosure or clinging to pet theories in the face of mounting lack of evidence and becoming an irrelevance.

In that case, the Internet, commonly held to have been a boon to conspiracy theory, could become, in some senses, the agent of its collapse. The other possibility is that a growing avalanche of leaks eventually exposes the existence of some nefarious New World Order scheme to take over the world, proving the conspiracy theorists to have been right all along…

1 This, for example, from gem_man on abovetopsecret, is typical of posts in this vein: "I'm also starting to think that Wikileaks is a disinfo agent of the US government. Disseminate some truth and sprinkle them with lies. The US government can easily embargo the Wikileaks website but they don't do it. The other purpose of Wikileaks is to give the US government some public support in suppressing the information flowing in the internet. They can always say that they have to regulate the internet because the internet is a threat to national security."
2  "When my eyes see phrases like 'right thing to do', 'appropriate' etc, I wonder what unstated world view I am meant to share. These phrases smell of that unusually putrid whip; social sanction. But every man has experienced social sanction as the direct manifestation of morons baying at the moon, nodding and calling the result consensus.”
3  From "Do not be concerned about when one is to do good, who defines good, etc. Act in the way you do because to do otherwise would [to be] at odds with yourself. Being on a path true to your character carries with it a state of flow, where the thoughts about your next step come upon waking, unbidden, but welcome."


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