Data Structures, Wikileaks, and What Comes Next
Back in late November of 2010, fresh off a series of high-profile leaks, Julian Assange teased another bombshell from Wikileaks, a massive data dump that could "bring down a bank or two." He made his claim in the course of a cover-story interview with Andy Greenberg, Forbes Magazine's data and technology reporter, and over the days that followed, rumors of Bank of America's involvement sent that bank's stock into a tailspin.
Months passed, however, and the leak never materialized. Eventually the story fizzled out and disappeared entirely, seemingly a dead-end tangent in the Wikileaks saga. But the reporter, Greenberg, was left wondering: what on earth happened to the leak? His search for the answer led to his new book, This Machine Kills Secrets: How Wikileakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World's Information. I got a chance to talk briefly with Greenberg when he stopped by my local bookstore to promote his book, and he offered some chewy food for thought on the points where data structures intersect with history.
Greenberg started out by charting a short history of crypto-activism, discussing the founding of early leak site Cryptome.org, the U.S. military's role in the rise of TOR, and Jim Bell's effort to build a "Kickstarter for assassinations." Then he read an excerpt from his book about meeting Assange -- excerpted at the bottom of the page -- and fielded questions from the audience: Did Assange's outsized image and personality contribute to Wikileaks' media influence? (Yes.) What did he think of Bradley Manning? (Manning was "morally motivated," but he "screwed up" by leaking material he hadn't read.)
Later, I asked Greenberg how he saw Big Data technology like Hadoop impacting whistleblowers like Wikileaks.
"Cryptography," he said, "is really the technological hinge on which Wikileaks turns." But in his view, data scientists were the "current rock stars of the technology world" for a reason: both data science and whistleblowing hackers were responding to what he called "the fertile soil" of information overload. Wikileaks and Hadoop are both responses to the same environmental stimulus, the same signature fact of our contemporary world: massive volumes of information are increasingly and readily available to collect, store, and understand. So what are we going to do with it?
Once you're a rock star, of course, you get a lot more red carpet invitations. In March 2011, both Hadoop and Wikileaks were nominated for the top prize at the Media Guardian Innovation Awards, for "having the potential to change the face of media innovations." Hadoop won, with the judges citing it as a "Swiss army knife of the 21st century."
You have to wonder what that kind of tool might mean for someone like Julian Assange. Denser troves of secrets, perhaps, as well as bigger, more complicated systems for collecting, storing, and understanding personal data. Those systems could work against Wikileaks, making anonymity more difficult; they could also help whistleblowers make sense of ever-larger datasets. SiliconAngle reports that "WikiLeaks built a general-purpose, multi-language political data-mining system that can handle massive databases such as the Syria Files." According to Greenberg, this allowed the organization to process and disseminate volumes of information that, thirty years earlier, "would have taken three months of photocopying." How might larger and more deft databases affect their approach?
You also have to wonder: What will be the next rockstar response to our planet's wealth of information? We may be seeing the start of a certain democratization of big data technologies, as they grow more and more available -- in the form of a service -- to small businesses. Might this trend toward mass availability facilitate a rise of citizen data aggregators? And how would that affect the art of secrets and their unveiling?
I'd love to hear your thoughts. In the meantime, here's an excerpt from Andy Greenberg's This Machine Kills Secrets: How Wikileakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World's Information.