My following review appeared in this week’s Sydney Sun Herald:
Suelette Dreyfus and Julian Assange
(Random House, $24.95)
During a rare public appearance in March, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange told a packed audience at Cambridge University that the internet is the “greatest spying machine the world has ever seen”.
Although he praised the ability of the web to inform and challenge the established order, he said to students that, “it is a technology that can be used to set up a totalitarian spying regime, the likes of which we have never seen.”
Assange’s message was clear: Wikileaks had provided invaluable information on a range of issues that society had not previously known but repressive states could equally use the same tools – YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and others – to track and arrest dissidents. We have seen this happen in the last months in Egypt, Libya and across the Arab world.
These two books – one written by a former confidante of Assange at Wikileaks and the other by a colleague who penned this definitive hacking tome in the late 1990s – offers insights into the ideology behind the whistle-blowing website and why it’s touched such a raw nerve in the halls of power.
During a recent interview on ABC TV’s Q&A, Prime Minister Julia Gillard dismissed Wikileaks, argued that there is no “moral purpose” behind the leaks and accused Assange of believing in an “anarchic, here it all is, just have it” ideology.
Gillard could not have been more mistaken. Reading Underground, an updated edition of the 1997 release, co-written with Dr Suelette Dreyfus, we are taken into a world of global hackers whose “youthful curiosity was more about adventure than serious crime.”
Assange has a very clear moral code, one that is much less fawning towards American power than displayed by Gillard.
We read about the Australian Federal Police attempting to understand the motivation of young men (and it was mostly men) who were determined to prove that corporations and universities should not chose what remains private from the public. These are classic David vs. Goliath tales, with the US military, NASA and law enforcement agencies realising that the internet revolution could not be so easily tracked like communication technology before it.
The context for the times is the end of the Cold War with the continuation of the “Secret State [as] the world’s most powerful western spy agencies were reinventing themselves to spy on their own citizens instead of Russian KGB agents”.
A decade after September 11, 2001, the levels of official snooping massively exceeds the relatively innocent period of the 1990s. Little accountability takes place. As Assange discussed at Cambridge university, governmental monitoring of social media is now ubiquitous.
It was revealed in March that the US military was working with a private company to covertly influence Facebook and Twitter and institute fake online personas to spread pro-Washington propaganda and allegedly stop terrorism.
Wikileaks would not believe a word of this program, questioning the reasons anybody should have the right to obtain information on potentially billions of global citizens.
Former Wikileaks collaborator Daniel Domscheit-Berg would surely share this scepticism. His book is a curious combination of personal attacks on Assange – “So imaginative. So energetic. So brilliant. So paranoid. So power-hungry. So megalomanic” – and a passionate defence of the need to provide transparency in democracies.
He was, in his own words, Assange’s best friend and they fell out terribly. His book is like a scorned lover explaining what went wrong (from his perspective).
Although it’s undeniably interesting to read a close account of Assange and his supposedly unhealthy ego, the validity of the analysis has been denied by the Wikileaks founder. Domscheit-Berg explains the ways in which the website developed into a multi-million dollar operation. He wanted it to be “the most aggressive press organisation in the world, public and visible’’. Assange supposedly preferred an “insurgent operation”, to avoid the ever-increasing number of enemies who wanted to shut the site down.
Domscheit-Berg writes that Assange said that living underground was the best way to avoid detection. His paranoia was arguably justified, considering the leaked documents from the UK and US governments that outline ways to destroy Wikileaks and crush its credibility.
The Wikileaks story has just begun.