with Tina Klopp
trans. Jefferson Chase
Hey there, I picked up my copy of Inside Wikileaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website from Pandemonium bookshop in Toronto’s Junction neighborhood.
Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a computer security specialist, was, in partnership with Australian computer hacker Julian Assange, instrumental in establishing the notorious Wikileaks website. In case you haven’t heard, Wikileaks is a website which provides a secure channel for whistleblowers to anonymously submit documents and make them available to a readership. The website began publishing in December 2006, however it did not truly begin garnering global notoriety until its release of the ‘Collateral Murder’ video in April 2010. Collateral Murder put the disassociated cruelty of the US war in Iraq on display, and it served to elevate Wikileak’s profile to a global platform. In late 2010, Domscheit-Berg split with Wikileaks due to a variety of differences with Assange (many of which are detailed in this book).
Inside Wikileaks is Domscheit-Berg’s memoirs of working at Wikileaks, from his first meeting with Assange in 2007 at a Chaos Computer Club conference, to his acrimonious split with Assange in September 2010. Additionally, Domscheit-Berg discusses his post-Wikileaks project, OpenLeaks, which provides whistleblowers with an anonymous and secure channel for the submission of documents, but also facilitates the passage of those documents to media outlets who can then verify and contextualize their content. Much of the book describes Domscheit-Berg’s tense relationship with Julian Assange, which began as a genuine friendship and, according to the author’s telling of events, dissolved into authoritarian paranoia and egomaniacal cruelty that flowed in only one direction.... from Assange to Domscheit-Berg.
The tone of the book is a sustained whine. Domscheit-Berg sounds bitter and maybe a little ashamed that he put up with Assange’s punishment for so long. Assange would insist on claiming all of the credit for the project, Domscheit-Berg would retort that Assange should have realized he didn’t need to make such claims to him in the first place because he didn’t want any credit anyway! All Daniel ever wanted was for Julian to be nice to him, and that comes across pretty strongly throughout the book. This may make the book sound like Domscheit-Berg’s petty revenge rant against Assange, and to a great extent, that IS what this text consists of. There are some feature’s of Domscheit-Berg’s complaining that are, however, genuinely interesting.
Assange’s public persona is of a well dressed, well spoken man. Domscheit-Berg paints a different picture of Assange, the pre-media-personality Assange who dressed poorly, had bad personal hygene and diet, was intellectually vain to the point of forming intense jealousies, dismissive of others ideas, and held bizarre attitudes towards women. This Assange was essentially a hacker stereotype and I know from my own adolescence spent in the hacker scene that there’s enough of real people who match this paradigm to justify its continued endurance. It is not surprising (considering....) that Assange’s back-stage presentation fits this as it meshes with aspects his front-stage self-presentation. Assange’s intelligence is often emphasized in media about him, with commentators often stating something to the effect that whatever room Assange is in, he’s likely the most intelligent person in it. There’s no question that Assange is an intelligent person, but he has yet to prove his sublime genius with an exceptionally intelligent public statement, but this superintelligence is part of his self-mythologizing.
The other interesting revelation of Domscheit-Berg’s Inside Wikileaks is of Assange’s reliance on security through obscurity for Wikileaks. Wikileaks has claimed that it is run by an international network of dissidents and radical computer programmers, however Domscheit-Berg has stated that for most of his run with the project, it was primarily him and Assange at the controls. That Wikileaks had an international network of servers was an untruth, that their security was impenetrable was untrue, and so forth. Much of what Assange said about the Wikileaks organization and technical infrastructure was intended as misleading. David Leigh, one of the Guardian journalists who was working with the Wikileaks Cablegate documents, published the password Assange had given him to access those materials in a book. Leigh claimed that Assange had told him that the password was temporary. The password was, in fact, not temporary, and in response to this revelation Assange had published all of the unredacted CableGate documents at once. What Domscheit-Berg reveals about Assange’s network security practices, however, lends credibility to Leigh’s assertions about Assange’s file password.
Daniel Domscheit-Berg, ultimately, comes off as a man who loved Assange and is now hurt by how his former friend treated him. Inside Wikileaks is a look into the website operations, but its also a plea for sympathy. Domscheit-Berg wants us to understand that Assange was not the only personality behind the project (despite his assurance that he constantly deferred to his friend for the sake of maintaining his monstrous ego), and he wants us to side with him. He portrays Assange, at times, as one of the greats, and at other times, as an absurd person, an Ubu Roi of radical politics and technological-social transparency.
What amazes me with Inside Wikileaks, is how deeply encoded the arrogance of the ideology of technological supremacy is in Domscheit-Berg’s own telling of the story. At one point he’s expressing disbelief and disappointment in the fact that journalists were never interested in the technical operations of Wikileaks, and elsewhere he half-heartedly acknowledges that the fact that Wikileaks system of anonymous submission meant that they couldn’t authenticate documents was an issue to some extent. A criticism I’ve heard levelled against the website is that whistleblowers need to be reassured that they’re doing the right thing, and they want to see that the risks they have taken have positive effects. Wikileaks is set up as a cold, technical process, and it cannot provide either of these features. Hence, CableGate/Collateral Murder leaker Bradley Manning looks to Adrian Lamo (the Roy Cohn of the computer underground) for reassurance and now the latest good news in his life is that the prosecutors of his case will not seek the death penalty.
Domscheit-Berg's book appears pathetic at moments, particularly when he's showing how awful and mean Assange was. Beyond the points I highlighted for this profile, however, his book does include numerous other interesting details about the operations of Wikileaks that are relevant to research conducted from a variety of perspectives.