Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Julian Assange is a Terrorist (and I mean that in a good way)

Politicians want to classify Julian Assange as a terrorist. Insane? Only at first glance.

I've been reading about something that Assange wrote a few years ago, which basically lays out his plans for Wikileaks. It's actually a pretty neat read. Summary: Assange sees today's American government as some kind of corporate conspiracy (can't argue there), and he wants to throw sand in the works of the conspiracy by increasing the cost of secret communication (without which any conspiracy dies). He intends to do this through random attacks on government secrecy, with the goal of forcing an expensive overreaction, which will end with governments being less secretive.

My first reaction: This dovetails perfectly with a blog post that I've been meaning to write (but will probably never get around to) about the tradeoff between trust and robustness in a networked system. It's actually a really cool tradeoff - trusting another entity in a decentralized system can be viewed as a dodgy optimization, which will usually work but occasionally crashes dramatically. (Bonus: the tradeoff even has a mathematical basis, in the FLP result!) Julian Assange is giving us a real-world demonstration of this principle, by poking at the relatively cosy relationships between governments and forcing them to shift into a less useful but more secure configuration.

My second reaction: You know how the .gov has been making a lot of noise about info-terrorists, even though they have no idea what that even means? DDoS kiddies are usually held up as an example of what to watch out for, but that stuff is so trivial that I'm surprised we waste our time talking about it. Julian Assange, on the other hand, is the real deal, and he's not even terribly sophisticated. He is using the power of the Internet, and the power of the (relatively) unrestricted flow of information, to do something radical to the state.

My third reaction: Oh, man. The government doesn't know how bad this could have been. If Wikileaks had wanted to publish this stuff anonymously, it wouldn't have been terribly difficult for them to do so. The technology already exists, and has for years; it's just a matter of using it effectively. They don't like their diplomatic cables being made public as it is; imagine how much it would suck for them to have a few thousand cables appearing every month, and to be completely unable to track where they were coming from. You know how I said that Assange wasn't terribly sophisticated? If he were, he'd be doing exactly what he's doing now - we'd just have no idea who he was.

Last reaction: I can't help but worry that Julian Assange is gearing up for a dramatic exit from this world. He is simultaneously making himself extremely visible, and making a lot of very powerful enemies. Wikileaks has already published an insurance file; that's not the sort of thing you do unless you expect to have a reason to use it. If Assange does end up assassinated, that may be all the proof we need that something like Wikileaks is desperately needed in today's world.

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