Review of This Machine Kills Secrets: Julian Assange, the Cypherpunks, and Their Fight to Empower Whistleblowers by

Book cover for This Machine Kills Secrets: Julian Assange, the Cypherpunks, and Their Fight to Empower Whistleblowers

I read this book on my flight back to England (the second one, since I missed the first one by that much). The plane is one of those newer models that has entertainment units in the back of every seat, and to my surprise they had different movies on offer from those available when I flew back to Canada a few weeks ago. One of those movies was The Fifth Estate, which also tells the story of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. So this review will also be a bit of a review of that movie. But I’ll save you the suspense: This Machine Kills Secrets is way better than the The Fifth Estate.

Andy Greenberg doesn’t just tell the story of Julian Assange. He tells the story how the global climate that allowed WikiLeaks to coalesce came itself into being. For this, he stretches back to Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. He discusses the origins of public key encryption and PGP, of the cypherpunks, Tor, and all the predecessors who paved the way for Assange and WikiLeaks. Greenberg explores the tension between the government and anti-establishment groups. Each group wants to keep or expose certain secrets. Is there ever a time when leaks are acceptable, even if they are unlawful? What if such leaks place people in danger? Or are we truly living in a post-privacy age, where there should be no secrets and everything should be open?

I like the narrative technique that Greenberg uses here: each chapter typically consists of two stories, and he alternates between these stories, developing them in parallel. For example, in chapter 6 he describes both the ascension of Birgitta Jo’nsdo’ttir to the Icelandic parliament and the genesis of Bivol and BalkanLeaks at the hands of Atanas Tchobanov and Assen Yordanov. He discusses Jo’nsdo’ttir’s involvement in politics and how she becomes involved with WikiLeaks; meanwhile, explains how Tchobanov and Yordanov’s desire to replicate WikiLeaks on a smaller, more contained scale has met with success because of their commitment to the anonymity of their sources. By switching back and forth, Greenberg creates an interesting pacing that keeps the chapters feeling fresh, even when they are very long.

This is not a long book, but it contains a wealth of information. With each chapter, Greenberg delves further into the tools and social movements that emerged in the crucible of the early 1990s Internet. It all starts with Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, which Greenberg contrasts with the more recent leak by Chelsea Manning. From here, Greenberg traces other instances of leaking, as well as the technology and related hacking movements that make such leaks possible. He mentions Anonymous and the HBGary hack. But, most importantly, he places WikiLeaks in context of other leaks and thus explains how WikiLeaks forever changed what it meant to leak confidential or classified information.

WikiLeaks, Greenberg argues, arrived on the world stage at the perfect time. Technology had advanced to a point where a massive leak, orders of magnitude beyond the Pentagon Papers, was quite feasible. Thanks to the Internet, it was not only easy to distribute leaked documents but virtually impossible to remove them from circulation once they had been distributed. (This is particularly evident as Greenberg describes the circumstances whereby the complete, unredacted set of State Department cables became widely available after someone leaked the encrypted file and Assange unwittingly allowed his password to that file to be published.)

But WikiLeaks is also somewhat of a special case. It has encouraged copycats, which have met with varying degrees of success. But the tenets of leaking and anonymous whistleblowing have not exactly become cemented within our culture. WikiLeaks itself has a much lower profile these days, still smarting from Assange’s more personal controversies. Greenberg doesn’t pull the punches, cataloguing the fall from grace, as it were, for WikiLeaks and Assange, as well as the difficulties faced by those like Domscheit-Berg, who strives to create a successor to WikiLeaks in OpenLeaks.

This Machine Kills Secrets is much more nuanced and much more detailled than The Fifth Estate. The movie only focuses on the relationship between Assange and Domscheit-Berg. It begins when the two first begin working together and ends shortly thereafter. There is no mention of OpenLeaks and very little in terms of language or explanation about WikiLeaks--in short, there is very little to differentiate this movie from generic hacker movie fare. It does nothing to place WikiLeaks into the historical context of leaking and civil disobedience. Maybe the only good thing it does is demonstrate the conflict between those who want to leak everything, unedited, and those who feel a duty to prevent needlessly endangering people mentioned in leaked material. (Plus, I enjoyed seeing Alexander Siddig, Laura Linney, and Stanley Tucci in that subplot.)

This is a must-read for anyone interested in cryptography, hacking, security, and leaking. Pick up this new edition if you can--this was on my to-read list from when it first came out last year, prior to Snowden’s megaleak. This new edition has Greenberg’s thoughts on Snowden included as an afterword, and it really helps to put the rest of the book in perspective. I’m glad it was included, because otherwise the book would have felt a little obsolete in light of how Snowden’s megaleak has changed things--or not changed things. Because, as Greenberg is quick to point out, the story of leaks has not yet finished. We aren’t living in a post-leak world. We’re still living in the middle of this revolution, and it’s too early yet to tell which way it will go. That’s up to us.

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