Tue, Aug 02, 2016 - Page 9 News List

A decade after its founding, WikiLeaks is alienating friends

While some might think WikiLeaks’ methods are unethical, most people are focused on the information

By Joshua Brustein  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Yusha

It has been 10 years since Julian Assange cofounded WikiLeaks, the Web site that has gone on to serve as the world’s most prominent digital repository of leaked government information. The organization has been celebrating a decade of existence over the past week by putting on display everything that makes its brand of radical transparency so powerful and problematic.

On June 23, Debbie Wasserman Schultz stepped down from her position as US Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairperson because WikiLeaks obtained and published a trove of embarrassing e-mails from the organization.

On June 25, an academic named Zeynep Tufekci wrote a scathing article about another recent WikiLeaks data dump, which included 300,000 e-mails related to the Turkish government. In the article — entitled “WikiLeaks Puts Women in Turkey in Danger, for No Reason” — Tufekci said that there was nothing newsworthy about the e-mails, but that WikiLeaks had exposed massive databases containing private information about nearly every woman in the country.

On Tuesday last week, US intelligence officials said that the Russian government was almost certainly responsible for the DNC hack, and the New York Times reported that Assange timed the release of the leak to maximize the political damage to US Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton.

On Wednesday last week, WikiLeaks released more information obtained from the DNC, this time a series of voice mails.

On Thursday last week, Edward Snowden, who exposed the US National Security Agency’s surveillance program and a natural ally to WikiLeaks if there has ever been one, criticized the organization for its insistence on releasing all information it receives in completely raw form.

WikiLeaks, never one to pull a punch, went on the offensive.

In its view, the US Democrats were corrupt and desperate to distract; Tufekci was a shill for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; the New York Times’ story was “entirely false”; and Snowden was maneuvering for a pardon from a future Clinton administration.

WikiLeaks has also recently used its Twitter account to post a seemingly anti-Semitic remark, and to pick a fight with Twitter’s chief executive officer over the company’s decision to shut down the account of a controversial right-wing commentator associated with online harassment.

So it has been a weird stretch, but WikiLeaks has always been a weird phenomenon. Its prominence grew from the ability to accept and display leaked information online without either exposing its sources’ identities or succumbing to attempts by governments to censor its output.

This was a seemingly simple task that required technical chops that most media companies lacked, according to Alex Howard, a senior analyst at the Sunlight Foundation, an advocacy group pushing for government transparency.

“It was hugely significant, the technical capacity to enable whistle-blowing, and then to keep the documents in question online through distributed networks and mirroring. That continued to be WikiLeaks’ contribution,” he said.

The organization has been less sophisticated in figuring out what to do with this kind of information. There is a long-running tension between the positive impact of exposing things that powerful organizations want to keep secret and the negative implications of making private personal data public.

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