Wednesday, December 15, 2010

WikiLeaks and Informatics

French version

WikiLeaks causes two diametrically opposed reactions: for some it is a criminal enterprise that puts democracy at risk. For others, there is nothing new in the documents that WikiLeaks publishes. But if these opinions are both negative, they clearly contradict each other: how could WikiLeaks put democracy at risk if it publishes nothing new? Those who express both critics are ridiculous.

Sarah Palin thinks Julian Assange is as dangerous as Osama bin Laden. Rush Limbaugh says that “back in the old days when men were men (…) this guy would die of lead poisoning from a bullet in the brain”. Joe Lieberman told reporters of The New York Times, who publish comments on the news published by WikiLeaks, are bad citizens. Newt Gingrich thinks Assange engaged in a military attack against the United States.

In France, Nicolas Sarkozy says that WikiLeaks provides "the highest degree of irresponsibility". The Minister Eric Besson believes that it "endangers the diplomatic relations". The Prime Minister Francois Fillon accuses it of "theft and deal in stolen goods"...

In order to clarify this, I went on and spent a few hours reading the news that the U.S. embassy sent to the State Department.

Wikileaks holds 251,287 cables it publishes steadily since November 28, 2010. On December 20 1,788 cables were published.

*     *

I found that this reading contradicts the two opinions mentioned above: these mails contain things that are both interesting and new, and their publication increases rather than damages the prestige of American diplomacy.

They show that U.S. diplomats are intelligent, competent and balanced. Their cables are written for helping help those who are unfamiliar with a foreign country to understand it, to know the intentions of its leaders and the issues to whom they are sensitive.

These diplomats write very well. Their vocabulary is simple and they clearly explain complex things: their cables are masterpieces of pedagogy.

Do the French diplomats have the same talent ? I do not know, but I fear that the national taste for literary pretension takes them sometimes away from the efficient simplicity, this summit of art that Americans often reach.

*     *

Their cables begin with a summary that will allow the reader in a hurry to know if it is worthwhile to delve into details. The development follows a plan marked by subtitles that will help him get straight to the topic of interest.

The description of the facts is objective, the interlocutors are quoted verbatim and vividly. Analysis, explanations and hypotheses are separated from the observation of facts. Finally a concluding paragraph exudes a general lesson.

I noticed the notes of interviews with leaders of the French Left before the presidential elections of 2007: Michel Rocard on October 24, 2005, Ségolène Royal on February 8, 2006, Dominique Strauss-Kahn on May 16, 2006. I also noticed the report of a conference of Francois Hollande at the "Cercle des Ambassadeurs" on June 30, 2005, the report of May 15, 2009 on organized crime in Israel, the portrait of President Zelaya by the ambassador in Tegucigalpa (Honduras) on May 15, 2008, that of President Mugabe by the ambassador in Harare (Zimbabwe) on July 13, 2007 etc.

It is interesting to see how the leaders of the Left appear one after the other at the U.S. Embassy and multiply declarations of friendship. The ambassador is watching and weighing: "Hollande does not project as a leader implementing a clear program of action (…) He did not demonstrate the confidence or talent for galvanizing others to action that voters look for in a candidate. His comments on issues focused on general diagnoses, not concrete remedies. (…) which raises the question as to whether Hollande is preparing Jospin's return, even if unconsciously". Strauss-Kahn is "the most capable and qualified candidate among the Socialists, [but] he lacks the fire in the belly that would propel him to victory. He is one of those who would clearly be better governing than campaigning -- and therefore may never get the chance to govern".

*     *

I'm far from having finished this reading that I recommend to everyone interested in international politics.

It reminded me of a passage from a book by Henry Kissinger (I quote from memory): "When I was no longer in the administration, I read the newspapers only because I had no more access to reports - and then I did not know anything was happening. "

For once, the citizen can look over the shoulder of the rulers. This opens a narrow window through which we would be wrong not to cast a glance - especially we French, who are so willingly opposed an alleged "secret défense" whenever an investigation could thwart a powerful person.

*     *

It is difficult to attack legally Assange without violating the freedom of the press : if it is possible to prosecute those who like PFC Bradley Manning have committed leaks, the law protects the journalists who publish the documents.

So somebody sought perhaps other ways. I don't know what happened in mid-August between Assange and the two ladies who accuse him, but if those he thwarts wanted to hatch a stunt they couldn’t do it better.

As this alone may not be sufficient, the U.S. justice tries to attack Assange by showing that he conspired with Manning ("Les États-Unis souhaitent poursuivre Assange en justice", Le Monde, 20 décembre 2010).

*     *

What happens on the side of computing is much more interesting. This case is indeed a consequence of the computerization of society, and of the fact that one often organize information systems regardless of the behavior of humans.

After September 11, 2001 the U.S. intelligence agencies discovered gaps in their communication: information was not flowing well between the CIA, FBI and NSA, or even within each agency (see Le système d'information du FBI).

It was therefore decided to establish a maximum exchange of information between various departments, each agent having access to the documentation of others. Eventually 2.5 million people were empowered to access all that the U.S. produce as confidential or secret documents (Manfred Ertel et al, "Der etwas andere Krieg," Der Spiegel, December 13, 2010, p. 94).

When the secret is shared among so many people, the likelihood of leaks is high: in fact, leaks are mechanically inevitable after a certain time.

It also happens that the deployment of the Web gave birth to an ideology of transparency (is this a good or a bad ideology? I will not enter in this debate here). This ideology uses naturally the Web, as well as the computerized defensive weapons that U.S. Agencies had neglected: security, encryption etc. It was also probably inevitable that the leakage would be discharged at one time or another in the channels of this ideology, even without a conspiration.

To protect confidentiality, one should have put in place a supervision that sorts documents, ensures selective dissemination (each agent having only access to what can be useful for his work), manages the clearances and control uses. It was obviously "easier" to make everything available to everyone - but it was insanely risky ... and probably ineffective, the agents being overwhelmed by the mass of documents.

*     *

In the week following December 1st WikiLeaks has been successively withdraw an accommodation by Amazon, the domain name by EveryDNS, the way to collect donations via PayPal, Mastercard and Visa accounts. The maneuver was consistent and quick: it aimed to destroy WikiLeaks or at least – it's the same – to suppress its presence on the Web.

But the Web reacted. Some Anonymous, WikiLeaks supporters, attacked “enemy” companies and politicians by a denial of service attack, the Operation Payback saturating their sites using the LOIC (Low Orbit Ion Cannon) application . In the logical space of the Web, an armed satellite is ready to disintegrate the opponents of WikiLeaks by sending a flood of data!

Amazon refused to host WikiLeaks? Never mind: mirror sites are proliferating. They number 2194 on December 20 (see

All of this is guerrilla warfare, but here's a nuclear deterrent: Assange put in mid-July on the Internet the file "insurance.aes256", so named because it sees it as a life assurance. This file was encrypted by AES256 ("Avanced Encryption Standard 256") with a 256 bits key: the most powerful supercomputer would take decades to decrypt it.

The size of this file (1.4GB) would suffice to contain several novels and it has been downloaded worldwide. Nobody could read it, but when it pleases Assange can disseminate the key. He announced he or its employees would do it if anything fatal happened to him or to WikiLeaks.

Nobody knows what is in insurance.aes256: maybe all the cables from U.S. diplomats unfiltered and containing all the names in clear, maybe revelations about Guantánamo or the Bank of America ...

Hence Assange will retain his power even if in jail, even if dead. We may like or dislike this guy – people say he has a bad temper - but we must recognize that he has innovated in strategy as much as Bonaparte did in his time. Hence the potential of the Web is deployed for better or for worse: counterfeiters have already used the same type of method for disseminating false news.

The threat is real but nations are only too inclined to defend their interestsas much - or the idea they have of it. Shouldn't we make the Internet a country obeying the rules of democracy with legislative, executive and judiciary powers, an elected parliament, an arsenal of laws, a government, some courts and a police?

No comments:

Post a Comment