A funny thing happened on the way to the publication of our book, The Dark Side of Software Engineering. Something came up at the last minute that we desperately needed to cover, but we were too late. By the time the news on this matter broke, the book itself was close enough to publication that there was no way we could include anything in it to cover this particular subject.
The subject, as you might imagine if you have been paying attention to things on the Dark Side fringe of the computing profession, was Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and, specifically, the WikiLeaks release of many thousands of lines of information gleaned from US government files. If there was ever an episode that deserved coverage in our book, one might think this was it.
We proposed some arguably non-intrusive ways to handle such an addition in the soon-to-be-published book, but our production manager held firm -- there were to be no such last-second changes to the book content. But she suggested an alternative. And what you are reading is that alternative.
Since we can’t put anything else into the book, she said, why not create an online blog that can be essentially an addendum to the book. So this is that blog.
First, some definitive things about our subject.
WikiLeaks is a website founded by the Australian citizen Julian Assange. Assange is currently in England, where he is fighting allegations of rape brought by two women in Sweden. (Those allegations are controversial.) WikiLeaks itself is based in Sweden, where its servers occupy an underground former nuclear bunker near Stockholm.
At this point in time, WikiLeaks is still functioning, and Assange is out on bail fighting extradition on the rape allegations. The storm about what the company and the man have done, meanwhile, continues swirling around the world.
Putting all of this in the context of our book raises some interesting issues. First of all, our book is divided (only somewhat!) neatly into several Dark Side categories, such as subversion, lying, and theft. But where do Assange and WikiLeaks fit within those categories?
Even in an online addendum, we needed to find a compatible place to cover this subject. There is a section in the book about hacking, and that is one logical place to cover the subject of WikiLeaks. However, the fact of the matter is that, although Assange was once a hacker, according to his biographies, he is no longer one. The material he releases via WikiLeaks is obtained from others who access it. In a sense, then, he serves as a sort of information-distributor, or perhaps a hacker-distributor if the information was first accessed by a hacker. So, does that qualify him to be discussed in our chapter on hacking? (Note -- we define "hacker" in our book as "someone who gets illegitimate access to computer systems and data.")
The other possible place to insert a discussion of Wiklieaks is in our material on whistle-blowing. In fact, many journalists, especially those who are sympathetic to Assange’s cause, regularly refer to him as a whistle-blower. But there is another problem -- we define a whistle-blower in our book (as others who work on the subject do) as "someone who exposes a wrongdoing in the hope of bringing it to a halt."
Does that cover what Assange is doing? In an oblique way it does -- but, at least in the case of the US government files that formed the substance of the WikiLeaks controversy in early 2011, what Assange is doing is exposing a whole lot of information in the hopes that some of it will "expose a wrongdoing" and therefore allow that wrongdoing to be "brought to a halt."
That's not quite a match to our definition, in that Assange’s actions constitute more of a fishing expedition than a deliberate exposé, but perhaps it is close enough? Or perhaps we should call him a "whistle-blower distributor," since he distributes the work of others who do the whistle-blowing? The distinction is important -- in our book, to the extent that we take sides on Dark Side matters, we tend to find hacking to be a bad thing, and whistle-blowing to be a good thing. So how we categorize the work of Assange leads us down a more complicated path, in that it leads us towards a conclusion about how we feel about Assange.
Now, what about this particular case, the one involving US diplomatic information, the one where WikiLeaks released huge volumes of that information to selected members of the world's press?
It is important to note at this point that the soldier who passed the information on to WikiLeaks had access to Secret, but not Top Secret, material, so the material released by WikiLeaks is not as crucial to the US government as the amount of ink spilled about the case might imply. (This also resulted in the fact that Assange had no way of knowing whether his actions were "exposing a wrongdoing" -- they simply exposed a lot of data/information -- and therefore it's difficult for us to classify him, once again, as a whistle-blower.)
As a further piece of background, the information WikiLeaks released -- information eagerly scrutinized by those on all sides of the matter -- has, to date, not produced any smoking guns or even surprises. Oh, there was a flurry of embarrassing diplomatic gossiping -- several someones said intemperate things about various world leaders -- but hardly anything that would expose a wrongdoing. Time passed, and it became more and more clear that what Assange has done may not be prosecutable -- as, to date, no significant harm has been shown in the information released -- but it also was not close to exposing a wrongdoing.
And there you have it, as of the time this blog was first considered at the beginning of February 2011, and even now, revisiting the subject 6 months later. Assange and WikiLeaks remain in a kind of legal and social limbo -- they are not being prosecuted by those who condemn Assange, but neither are they receiving adulation from supporters for the wrongdoings they have exposed.
There is reason, however, to wait for the other shoe to drop in this matter. Prosecution may be waiting in the wings. Wrongdoing may yet be exposed. And there is the side issue of the rape case against Assange in Sweden, which some say is a false accusation being used to pester Assange, while others say it is a legitimate case for which prosecution should be proceeding. (He is at present confined to a life of luxury in the home of an English supporter while the rape case is pending in Sweden, and his extradition to Sweden to face those allegations is pending in England.) Whatever may happen in the next several months (Assange is said to be writing his autobiography, and surely the rape case will come to a conclusion soon), the Assange/WikiLeaks matter is not going away.
Meanwhile, public opinion on this whole affair has been swinging in the wind. Initially, officials in both the US and Australia (where Assange was born) called for his prosecution, then later, as political opposition to those positions formed, backed away from those calls. The press is largely favorable regarding Assange, with many reporters calling him a "whistle-blower" and some even calling him a "Crusader." People march in the streets carrying pro- or anti- placards. Wealthy people vow their support for Assange. The US government and others try to undermine his financial viability. Supporters hack into companies that have constrained WikiLeaks' financing. No matter how you feel about this case, you have to admit that the imagination of a great section of the world’s population has been caught up in the matter.
How do we authors of the Dark Side book feel about all of this? To an interesting extent, we reflect the diverse and varied opinions of the world in general. Here's a quick viewpoint from Johann Rost on where we stand at this stage:
The political importance of anti-secrecy websites like WikiLeaks stems from the fact that such sites shift power away from governments and large companies and toward individuals and small groups. This shift of power means that large companies and governments will be held more accountable for what they have done. After the emergence of WikiLeaks and other anti-secrecy websites, governments will be forced to communicate politics more honestly to the masses than they did in the past.
Those readers who tend to trust their governments may regret this evolution. Others among us might have a "natural distrust" against all kinds of large organizations in general and governments in particular. They are probably among those who applaud WikiLeaks. However, these all are personal preferences and do not change the observation that WikiLeaks is simply a matter of fact. It is like with nuclear weapons: you may hate them or consider them necessary, but this does not matter. After Hiroshima no one -- truly no one -- could turn back the clock.
The current public discussion about WikiLeaks is polarized, generally depending on whether the respective author "likes" or "dislikes" the US politics of the last decades. Authors who love the US hate WikiLeaks; others who are skeptical about US politics applaud WikiLeaks. Such points of view might turn out to be short-sighted. This time the US got its documents leaked, but any other country or large organization could be next.
Without doubt, Assange is a very colorful personality: his biography, his lifestyle, his brainchild WikiLeaks -- simply everything with him is unusual and extraordinary. Together with his worldwide popularity, it is anything but surprising that more than enough has been already written about him -- and whatever else there may be we shall see in the upcoming film by Steven Spielberg. Therefore, it is not necessary to add more details and opinions here.
We may consider WikiLeaks well managed or chaotic. WikiLeaks might turn out to be legal or illegal -- courts in various countries will decide this. WikiLeaks might survive, or it might fold before too long. This all does not matter, because the idea of anti-secrecy websites will certainly survive. It was too impressive an idea -- and is still too impressive an idea -- to die.
It makes no difference if Assange ends his days in Guantanamo Bay, or as a celebrated hero, or somewhere between these extremes. No matter if WikiLeaks collapses or not. Others will come. They will understand Assange’s mistakes -- and they will understand why WikiLeaks was so successful. They will come with new business models, with a changed legal base, with new technology to protect the sources. They will come out with a kind of "WikiLeaks 2.0" that fixes all known vulnerabilities of the current WikiLeaks -- even if we can't yet know the final name of this future WikiLeaks 2.0, or if Assange will be the boss, or somebody else.
So the really interesting question is: How will politics change if anti-secrecy sites like WikiLeaks come to stay and become a permanent fact of our political life? Will anti-secrecy websites really shift power away from governments toward individuals and really hold governments more accountable? We will know the answers in a -- thinking on a historical scale -- relatively short time.
And here's the comparable Robert L. Glass viewpoint:
When I first heard what Assange had done, I wanted him prosecuted. After all, the soldier who apparently presented hacked material to Assange had no doubt been guilty of a crime, so why shouldn’t Assange be guilty of aiding and abetting that crime? And, I assumed (I think as everyone else assumed at that point) that some vitally important information had been released, information that could make Assange guilty of more than just aiding and abetting. If, for example, his information releases "outed" a spy, then that is an offense prosecutable at a much more serious level.
Time passed, and my views moderated. There seemed to be no smoking gun, no serious exposés -- nothing that was released presented a more serious case for Assange to answer to. The US Department of Justice seemed to be having the same problem. No charges appeared to be forthcoming against Assange because no seriously harmful information had been released.
But something else increasingly bothered me at this point. The world's views seemed to change to support Assange. The press, as we mentioned above, more and more saw Assange as a whistle-blower, an admirable discloser of hidden information. People carried placards in the streets proclaiming that it was important that "the truth" be released to the public. And I found new reasons to be upset -- now with the Assange supporters, not just Assange.
There is an assumption in the words on those placards that information obtained from government documents is somehow "the truth," whereas official government information released to the public may not be. I have a problem with that. It seems to me that, if a government lies to its people, it may just was well tell those lies in documents as tell those lies in official information releases. In other words, I don't think there is any reason to believe that WikiLeaks releases contain more truth than any other information source.
And that's where we'll leave the Assange/WikiLeaks matter for now. We will be back, we are sure, as more facts come to be known about this intriguing case. Watch this space!
Meanwhile, we'd welcome any comments you'd care to make on this matter.