Sunday, July 1, 2012

Whistleblowing and Publishing: Doing it Wrong

Visit the comments section on any news story about Bradley Manning or Julian Assange, and you'll hear a story repeated over and over by devoted supporters: Bradley Manning is a heroic whistleblower who fulfilled his highest duty as a soldier by revealing war crimes being kept hidden from the American people, and Julian Assange is the brave publisher who shared the shocking truth with the world.  Both are now being unfairly persecuted because the revealed truth threatens the criminals in power, who will surely torture and execute Assange, if only they can get him to Sweden first.

The problem with this story is that none of that is true.

Manning is accused of exceeding his authorized access to government computer networks to copy hundreds of thousands of classified files, which he then gave directly, without reading, to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.  Manning's supporters will tell you he had no other choice, he had to get the truth about war crimes out to the American people somehow, and WikiLeaks was the only way he could be sure of doing that.

Leaving aside the question of how Manning could possibly have known of crimes shown by documents he didn't actually read, many of his supporters seem completely unaware that soldiers who discover wrongdoing actually have a lot of options to report it.  It's a false dichotomy to claim that Manning's choices were to either keep silent or slip the data to WikiLeaks.  Perhaps non-American supporters can't be expected to know obscure American laws such as the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, but Manning, like any US soldier, would certainly have been aware of it.

When informed of the reporting options that Manning had, his supporters often dismiss them out of hand, claiming that America is so corrupt that if Manning had used the legal whistleblower options, the truth would've been covered up or he would've faced retribution.  The recent experience of Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis proves that's completely untrue.

In an excellent post on the Empty Wheel blog, Davis's actions are shown in stark contrast to Manning's.  Davis became aware of wrongdoing through the normal course of his duties, he didn't just appoint himself an investigator entitled to hack into and explore whatever files he was curious about.  Once aware of wrongdoing, Davis wrote reports of exactly what was wrong and the evidence that backed his claims, then he submitted them through the same legal channels that were available to, but ignored by, Manning.  These include military Inspectors General, members of Congress, and armed forces investigators, but not random foreigners who happen to run leaking websites.

Davis's reports of wrongdoing were published in the New York Times, Armed Forces Journal, and Rolling Stone, exposing the truth to the public just as well as any WikiLeaks release.  Instead of being arrested and facing a court martial, Davis was invited to speak to members of Congress, who used his information to support their efforts to end the war.  Crucially, because Davis's reports were legal, the focus of the media was on their content, not the fate of the man who revealed them.  By choosing to take the illegal route, Manning ensured that any revelations from his leak would be mere footnotes in the story of the largest theft of classified data in history.

WikiLeaks itself, and Julian Assange, are the subjects of a grand jury investigation which Assange is convinced has already led to a sealed indictment against him.  He bases this belief solely on the contents of one private email written by an executive of the research company Stratfor, even though Stratfor admits its policy is to sometimes give contacts false info in order to see where that false info later turns up, a leak-detecting strategy they call the "Barium Meal." 

Assange was so eager to spread the story of the alleged sealed indictment that WikiLeaks published the email referring to it, along with thousands of others from Stratfor, despite the fact that they were not leaked at all, but stolen by hackers, and despite the fact that Stratfor is not a government agency, so revealing its secrets can't be justified under WikiLeaks' stated mission to "open governments" and show the public what's done in their name.

Assange's fear of a sealed US indictment is the reason he gives for refusing to submit to questioning in Sweden over accusations of sexual misconduct.  Because Sweden once, in 2001, repatriated two Egyptian terror suspects who were later tortured, Assange supporters claim Sweden has a "history" of cooperating with the USA in secret renditions for torture, and that this would be his fate if he went there.  The fact that this incident, one case eleven years ago, caused a huge scandal in Sweden resulting in payments of damages to the victims and changes in Swedish law meant to prevent any such thing ever happening again, and that President Obama signed an executive order ending the use of torture as an interrogation method, is brushed aside by Assange supporters as irrelevant.

Many commentators have pointed out that none of the other publishers who printed the stolen cables are worried about indictments against them, as the First Amendment protects publishers who merely print classified information that is given to them by sources, just as Rolling Stone published the classified version of Lt. Col. Davis's report without facing any charges.  These commentators assume Assange's fear of a US indictment is just a ruse, and that what he really fears is spending up to four years in prison if convicted of sex crimes.  His desperation to avoid this, going as far as taking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, seems nonsensical, as his living conditions within the tiny embassy, sleeping on a mattress on the floor with no outdoor recreation, are actually more restrictive than they would be in Swedish prison.

However, just as Manning is not really a whistleblower who knew of specific crimes and reported them the only way he could, evidence indicates Assange may not really be an innocent publisher who did nothing more than print material, with no need to worry about a US indictment.  At Manning's pretrial hearing in December, prosecutors alleged that evidence recovered from his computer shows Assange collaborated with Manning in stealing the files, and that Assange even offered assistance in cracking an encrypted password to facilitate the theft.

This game-changing evidence was widely reported, yet the implications seem to have been largely ignored amid the complexities of Swedish extradition and US court martial proceedings.  Manning's trial will not take place until late fall or winter, but when it does, the evidence which was summarized at the pretrial hearing will be explored in full and judged on its merits.

While it's extremely unlikely there is a sealed indictment against Assange at the present time, grand juries can take over three years to make a decision, and given this new evidence it's likely there will be an indictment against Assange at some point.  Those who continue to support Assange even if he's accused of much more than innocent publishing can take comfort in knowing that an indictment means, by definition, Assange will face a standard civilian trial with due process and the usual agreements not to seek the death penalty as a condition of his extradition.  He will not face any of the extraordinary measures used in the war on terror, or any of the hardships of a military brig or court martial.

Supporters of Manning and Assange are fond of saying history will judge them, smugly certain the final analysis will be a tale of the unjust persecution of heroes.  Looking at the evidence and the choices made, it seems likely history will indeed applaud heroic truth-tellers from this era, but their names will be Davis and Rolling Stone, not Manning and WikiLeaks.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Problem with Masks

"There are no girls on the internet" is an old joke that reflects a harsh reality.  Though today the number of female users is rapidly increasing, especially on social media, in the early days of the internet women were a very small minority, and this is still true in some areas, such as the hacking and information security communities.  Women who braved the early male-dominated internet faced an intimidating environment, where we could expect to be greeted with "Tits or GTFO," and to be seen as curiosities like dancing bears, rather than being accepted as ordinary members of a community.

Some of us coped by finding communities dedicated to fighting for equality in real life, where males made active efforts to welcome women.  Others coped by becoming excellent at skills respected by the men in their communities.  Still others coped by adopting a protective coloration, deliberately portraying themselves as cartoonish caricatures of women.  When your persona reinforces the stereotypes men hold of women, you're not seen as a threat.  Nobody has to confront or change their unconscious bias in order to accept you, they're free to be amused by the funny dancing bear without the discomfort of wondering what the bear really thinks of them.

The Den Mother, the Submissive Sex Kitten, the Crazy Bitch who can't control her emotions and thus isn't responsible for her actions, these one-dimensional personas can be very successful in protecting a woman in a male-dominated online environment.  By putting on these masks, she may mingle with the worst dregs of the internet unscathed.  She may even be successful in surrounding herself with "White Knights," willing to take down any enemies she points her dainty finger at.  There is a power in this coping strategy, there's no denying that.

The downside of this choice is twofold.  First, when someone deliberately reinforces a stereotype, it makes life harder for everyone else who has to deal with confronting that stereotype.  Second, when people wear masks continually for years, they run the risk of becoming what they pretend to be.

Critical thinking and logical persuasion are not skills that can be maintained while wearing such vapid masks.  These mental skills require frequent exercise through honest debate and the challenge of interacting with others as an equal, without appealing to sexuality, focusing on personal traits instead of the arguments made, or pretending to be so incompetent that normal standards of reasoning should not apply to you.

Avoiding the challenge by infantilizing yourself, responding to serious questions with crude ad hominem insults and childlike expressions, such as "giggles" and silly plays on words, is not only unconvincing, it's self-harmful, denying yourself the vital exercise necessary to maintain the mental skills of a reasonable adult person.

Over time, responding to criticism or questioning in a stereotypically infantilized way becomes a reflex, and the ability to respond any other way atrophies, leaving the person behind the mask unable to construct a convincing, reasonable response to anything, even serious allegations of wrongdoing.  If the facts are on her side, she cannot express them in a coherent way, and must rely on appeals to emotion instead.  If she is guilty, she cannot correctly assess which lies would be believable or avoid telling contradictory stories.

When cyber crime spills over into the real world with attacks meant to subvert the democratic process and coerce elected officials through threats, a persona that requires the wearer to be friends with everyone, unable to choose a side, becomes a huge liability.  It's no virtue to be friends with everyone if that includes those who use fascist tactics to silence opposition and who would replace the rule of law with arbitrary vigilante retribution.  At a certain point, refusing to choose a side is choosing to condone intolerable acts, and "I'm just a woman, how could I know right from wrong?" is not a valid excuse.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Connection in the Chaos

Nihilists point out that our entire planet is utterly insignificant compared to the size of the cosmos, and one human life barely registers to the Earth as a whole.  We're gone in less than the blink of an eye, in geological time.  While we're here, so many people waste their time on petty amusements, pointless drama, watching fake reality shows instead of expanding their minds or exploring their potential.  Artists are driven to create, tearing out pieces of their souls to forge into works which will be seen by few and understood by even fewer.  The disturbing and discomforting are despised, the familiar and nonthreatening enjoy mass popularity.

What, then, is the point of even continuing to exist?  Why not get it over with and jump straight to the inevitable conclusion of every life?  Or if some inner drive prevents us from doing that, why not blur the lines of a pointless reality, dull the crushing weight of life's meaninglessness with whatever intoxicants we can?

A Christian would answer that this life is a gift, given by a powerful and awful Being, willing and capable of inflicting eternal torment if we fail to show appreciation for it.  We must go on living, terrible as it is, to avoid the worse pain of punishment for trying to escape.  We must do as our Creator bids, because we are owned, like toys, with no right to decide our fate.  An atheist would assert that no such Creator exists,  or would deserve worship if it did.

A Buddhist would say life only becomes suffering when we let ourselves become attached to material things, which are all destined to be lost sooner or later.  They say there is a permanence deep inside that we can connect with, if we still our minds and let go of everything outside.  But then why are we even here, in this place of temporary things?  What is the point of offering these distractions, and wouldn't we be better off with all our senses silenced?

A life devoted to science or math leaves a greater impact than most.  Schoolchildren know the names of the great minds whose theories, written centuries before, led to a world where instead of chopping wood and drawing water, we can sit in comfort, connected to the world.   Radio transmissions fan out across the galaxy, saying "We were here," even if there's no one out there to receive the message.  But in the end, scientists die as suddenly and inevitably as anyone else.  They peer into the foundation of the universe, but it cannot save them.

When we are all alone, these seem like ironclad arguments, no loopholes to the misery.  Then out of the blue, sometimes, there's a connection.  Even across the net, with only words and images, we touch each other and are irrevocably changed.  A voice rises above the babble and exposes the absurdity of worrying about the inevitable, or the past.  Against our will, we're swept away by laughter, confronted with the present moment, the only thing that's really real.

The mathematician Paul Erdos said math is like a great book written by the creator of this universe, and solving problems is like glancing at its pages.  Everything in that book is already written and unalterable; we can only discover it, not write new lines.  If we want something truly new, we must find it in other people.

We can't predict the course of any life.  A man might be born with enough intelligence to be a great engineer, the son of an expert in computer science, but choose to devote his life to making people laugh.  Another might be raised in poverty by a single mother and grow up to be a president.

Even those who think they've failed at life, by some arbitrary measure of fame or wealth, may never know how much their unique perspective touched someone else.  Their mind, their voice, their whole personality could be the sun that lights another's life.  They may not see how they enliven everyone around them, but the loss is obvious when they are gone.  Every one of us lives through a unique series of events, creating a point of view that can never be replaced or duplicated.

All these moments will be lost "like tears in rain," of course, but so will everything else in this physical universe.  There's no such thing as permanence, and yet there's no such thing as the future or the past either.  Each moment is the only moment that exists, and that is what makes them precious.  Even if we are facing a bleak future, with seemingly no hope of recapturing some joy of the past, those moments happened, and at the time they were the whole truth.  They belong to the story of the world forever, even after the people who lived them are gone.

The only certainty is that the future will not unfold as expected.  Every moment, events are set in motion with consequences we can't predict.  The complex web of interconnection may lead to a global economic crash, or an innovation that changes everything.  A nuclear reactor may melt down, or a lab may find the cure for cancer.  A beloved is suddenly gone, or a new adventure begins.  We decide how we react to this constant stream of surprises, retreating inward, lashing out in rage, or throwing up our hands and laughing helplessly.  We don't know ourselves what we'll choose, until the moment comes.  Finding out what happens next is what makes existence worthwhile.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Anonymous, WikiLeaks, and Stratfor: Sealed Indictment or Radioactive Leak?

In late December 2011, Anonymous hacked the website of Stratfor, a research and analysis company popular with students and journalists for its free newsletters providing perspective on current events, as well as in-depth and custom reports for paid subscribers.  This was no ordinary Anonymous attack, not just a DDoS to take the site offline temporarily, or a deface to promote an Anonymous video, this hack was a very thorough invasion that stole the entire archive of Stratfor's internal emails, as well as the credit card details of its paid subscribers.  Anonymous then used the credit cards to make a flamboyant series of donations to charity, supposedly totaling $1 million, as part of what they called "Op Robin Hood."  Of course this ultimately hurt the charities involved, as they had to not only return the stolen money but pay transaction fees to do so.

The motive for targeting Stratfor was never clear.  At the time, the only explanation offered by Anonymous was a desire to shame Stratfor for being a "security company" with lax security, but Stratfor is not in the business of computer security.  They focus on actual real-world national security, such as threats of war between nations.  Stratfor's policy of making most of its analysis freely available seems like something Anonymous would admire, not see as evil.  Stratfor isn't known for supporting Israel or holding any other political views that might draw Anonymous ire either.  The whole attack seemed like a lot of work and risk for no apparent reason.  Hacking a bank would make more sense for playing Robin Hood, and hacking an actual computer security company would make more sense for an "AntiSec" goal of exposing incompetent security experts.

Anonymous confirmed that they gave the stolen data to WikiLeaks, which announced this week it will release over 5.5 million internal Stratfor emails.  WikiLeaks justified their actions in releasing this stolen (not leaked) data by calling Stratfor a "shadow CIA," much to the amusement of pretty much everyone who has ever read Stratfor's newsletters.  WikiLeaks' release of these emails at first seemed like Anonymous throwing them a bone, giving them their first major release since the arrest of Bradley Manning, just a desperate bid to remain relevant.

Today, however, a very compelling reason emerged for Julian Assange to want the Stratfor emails: one of the emails allegedly contains a statement, made by a Stratfor employee in January 2011, that the company has a copy of a sealed indictment from a US grand jury charging Assange with crimes.  The existence of such an indictment has never been confirmed, though many people believe there probably is one, given Assange's alleged involvement with Manning's massive data theft.

The likelihood of Stratfor being privy to such an indictment, if it exists, is debatable, but judging by the excited tweets from the @WikiLeaks Twitter account, it seems clear that WikiLeaks staff completely believe the indictment does exist and Stratfor has a copy.  The question now is, when did WikiLeaks come to believe this, before or after the hack?  Eleven months certainly seems like enough time for such a sensational piece of information to make its way from the email recipient to Assange, and for a hack to be planned and carried out.

Is this the ultimate scoop, a random hack that just happened to reveal that a source within the US government is secretly sharing sealed court documents from the most high-profile espionage case of the century with a private think tank, apparently simply so they could gloat about it in one email?  Or is it more likely that a Stratfor employee emailed someone this shocking tidbit as part of their known strategy of sometimes giving false information to people they suspect of being leaks, referred to within the company as a "barium meal"?

Could it be that this particular "barium meal" provided the motive for hacking Stratfor?  What would you do if you were Julian Assange, and you heard through the grapevine that Stratfor had a copy of your indictment, or at least detailed discussions about it, sitting on their less-than-impervious servers?  Would you call on your old pals Anonymous to help you get it?

It's too soon to know what really happened, but it seems like a leak (whether true or false) about Stratfor holding a copy of Assange's indictment would finally provide a plausible motive for a hack that never made sense before.