Review of “Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet” and “This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information”

Article Information

  • Author(s): Harry Halpin
  • Affiliation(s): L'Institut de recherche et d'innovation du Centre Pompidou
  • Publication Date: 16th November 2013
  • Issue:
  • Citation: Harry Halpin. “Review of “Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet” and “This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information”.” Computational Culture (16th November 2013).


Review of Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet by Julian Assange with Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Müller-Maguhn and Jeremie Zimmerman, OR Books, New York, 2013, ISBN 978-1-939293-00-8 and This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World's Information by Andy Greenberg. Virgin Books, London, 2012

When our imaginary relationship to our conditions of existence becomes desynchronized with ongoing events, phenomena such as Wikileaks become impossible to comprehend. One snowy Berlin night after the Chaos Computer Congress in 2009, I rather accidentally ended up getting dinner with Jacob Appelbaum and a few other assorted computer security experts. In the context of a rather arcane discussion of routing problems in Tor, the topic of Wikileaks was broached. Not one to mince words, I warned Jake that Wikileaks was going to get him into deep trouble. He cracked a smile in return and said “We’re not dissidents, we’re meta-dissidents. We only provide tools to dissidents.” Alas, the FBI does not make such fine-grained distinctions. Now, the situation is grim; Jacob Appelbaum is on a terrorist watch-list, Julian Assange is trapped in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, and Bradley Manning is on trial after being in solitary confinement for far over two years. In the largest leak yet, Edward Snowden has revealed that the NSA is spying on all internet communications, and finds himself a man without a country despite the help of Wikileaks. The contradictions of Wikileaks are apparent to all; the hackers that wished to free the world’s information find themselves caged within fleshspace.

In a far cry from its heyday when a single revelation could “shave $3.5 billion from the company’s stock market value,”1 ironically today Wikileaks finds itself censored from mainstream news (at least in the United States and Britain), despite new leaks being revealed on a regular basis. This is no surprise, as its partnerships with major media outlets such as the Guardian and the New York Times have gone up in flames due to recriminations over redactions. The very organization of Wikileaks itself teeters on the edge of collapse under political repression and personal accusations, a pattern strikingly similar to the FBI’s systematic destruction of groups such as the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s under the COINTELPRO measures. Indeed, in the form of Sigurdur Thordarson, the FBI even had a paid informant inside Wikileaks to disrupt the organization. This seems strange, as unlike the Black Panthers, Wikileaks never called for the revolutionary overthrow of any government, as Wikileaks was merely providing a tool to spread information. To many outside observers the treatment of Wikileaks and Bradley Manning seems enormously disproportionate. Unless, of course, the repression in fact is in fact more revealing of the true state of global governance than the leaks themselves. Perhaps, Wikileaks actually was heralding a revolution, albeit an unknown revolution whose very contours are not yet clear.

There is strange silence from many of the usual bastions of progressive or even “revolutionary” politics on Wikileaks despite its being the most audacious technical challenge to the reigning order’s War on Iraq and beyond. Perhaps this can be understood, as the threat of secret grand juries and military trials would frighten most armchair radicals. Yet another reason for this strange lack of support is because Wikileaks does not fit cleanly into the known ideologies of the Left: social democratic, communist, anarchist, or any other recognizable revolutionary or reformist tradition. This does not prevent them from being understood by those who have no use for Left or Right: the vast majority of the support of Wikileaks and Manning are from youth, perhaps out of the sheer instinct of coming of age on the Internet. Every #occupy protest in the United States I visited was covered with more orange “Support Bradley Manning” stickers than anything else.

The ideology of Wikileaks comes from an entirely different lineage than revolutionary movements of the 20th century, namely the largely under-appreciated thinking (and code!) of a certain breed of hackers known as cypherpunks. This hidden current is detailed in Andy Greenberg’s This Machine Kills Secrets: How Wikileakers, Hacktivists, and Cypherpunks Aim to Free the World’s Information, whose best-seller status shows that regardless of the censorship, Wikileaks is still very much on peoples’ minds. Far from dismissing Wikileaks, the task should be to understand the emerging ideology inherent in the slogan “freeing the world’s information” and the particular tight coupling to digital technology inherent in this new ideological formation. The ideology of Wikileaks emerged slowly from the cypherpunks mailing list for over twenty years ago, an online conversation of a global group of hackers who put their faith in the power of an obscure branch of mathematical computer science – cryptography – to change the world. Within the historical trajectory of Wikileaks outlined by Greenberg, if one reads carefully, one can detect both the power and limitations of their utopian project.

Surprisingly for a journalist from Forbes, Greenberg provides a fairly well-written history of Wikileaks’ origins. Cryptography is a subtle and beautiful area of study in mathematics premised upon the astonishing discovery that it is possible to hide a message so that it can never be revealed except to its intended sender. The beginning of cryptography can be traced to Shannon’s formalization of information as the sending of messages over a channel by a sender and receiver.2 Using encryption, the message being passed through the channel – such as an email over the Internet – is transformed so that it is unreadable by an adversary: a transformation from what is termed “cleartext” to “ciphertext,” and so the “cypher” in “cypherpunk.” Encryption then can be used to build an overwhelming variety of even more powerful systems; for example, techniques such as digital signatures can not only make the message unreadeable by adversaries but also non-reputable by its very sender, so that the identity of the sender is assured. A thorough exegesis of cryptography is available from books such as Bruce Schneier’s (unfortunately rather dated but still magisterial) Applied Cryptography3 or various high-quality online courses.4 Abstracting from the details, the key aspect of cryptography is that it is actually mathematically impossible to break strong cryptography within the lifetime of the universe,5 or as put by Assange, the universe “has that property that makes it possible for an individual or a group of individuals to reliably, automatically, even without knowing, encipher something, so that all the resources and all the political will of the strongest super-power on earth may not decipher it.”6 Greenberg provides a brief treatment of how a group of obscure academics produced a veritable cornucopia of theoretical results that soon led to practical systems for hiding messages, many of which have been over the years often considered illegal by the United States government. Work on cryptography reached its academic zenith in David Chaum’s “Security without Identification: Transaction Systems to make Big Brother Obsolete” that brought up both the possibility of using cryptography to build a world of that went beyond hiding messages between known parties by providing actual anonymity for the sender and receiver of messages.7

Academic cryptographers then sparked an ideology founded on an explosive – and perhaps uniquely American – mixture of high technology and libertarian individualism. Tim May’s “Crypto-Anarchist Manifesto” begins with a sarcastic twist on Marx, “A specter is haunting the modern world, the specter of crypto anarchy.”8 Fueled by the technical wonders of cryptography rather than any all-too-human social agent, the goal of the crypto-anarchist revolution would not be the abolition of private property, but the end of all taxes: “Computer technology is on the verge of providing the ability for individuals and groups to communicate and interact with each other in a totally anonymous manner…these developments will alter completely the nature of government regulation, the ability to tax and control economic interactions, the ability to keep information secret, and will even alter the nature of trust and reputation.”9 Far from being an anarchist in the sense of Bakunin or the Black Bloc, May and the nascent cypherpunks created an extreme version of market libertarianism that would make even Margaret Thatcher churn in her grave, a future where the state would be replaced by a global anonymized market. One advocate of this cryptographic utopia, Jim Bell, fleshed out the ideas of the Crypto-Anarchist manifesto’s logical conclusion: the creation of assassination markets through which people could nominate ill-doers (ideally government employees according to Bell) for assassination, with a crowdsourced monetary reward being delivered to the assassin via Chaum’s anonymized cash.10 According to Bell, soon all corrupt government officials would be assassinated, leading to a crypto-libertarian paradise with no state, no armies, no war, and free economic exchange ran by anonymized transactions. The young Julian Assange was also taking part in the cypherpunk mailing list, but thinking of less blood-drenched plans for changing the world. As noted by Robert Banne, “Unlike with Bell, the revolution Assange imagined would be non-violent. The agent of change would not be the assassin but the whistleblower. The method would not be the bullet but the leak.”11 Rather than avoid taxes, Julian Assange wanted a more just world, “I am not for transparency all round, or even democracy all round, but I am for justice…I believe we have an innate yearning for justice. We have an innate aversion to censorship. And the Web can speak to that.”12

Greenberg’s book then turns to Wikileaks and the technology – Tor – that helps run Wikileaks, and many of the crucial details are both historically and technically right. While cryptography is well understood, building anonymous systems is still very much a black art. An outstanding usable system that works today is the Tor Project.13 Ironically funded by both the U.S. government to keep its secret agents anonymous and the Electronic Freedom Frontier Foundation to support human rights activists, Tor works by onion-routing, where encryption is applied in layers like an “onion” through an open-ended network of routers. While normal Internet messages are sent more or less without any encryption and can be read by almost anyone as easily as a postcard, Tor works so that any particular relay can never know the content or destination of the message. By creating a circuitous path – unsurprisingly called a “circuit” – – where the message are continually bounced around through relays from country to country, only a massively powerful observer who can observe all entry and exit points of the Tor network can determine the identity of the sender. Yet Tor lacked a “killer app” until Julian Assange hit upon the idea of Wikileaks, the first truly anonymous electronic publishing platform. A small group of hackers built a technical system for collecting leaks in co-ordination with the “hacking” of the Icelandic government by the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, which helped pass a set of laws protecting whistleblowers in order to make Iceland “the Switzerland” of the new world of information. Wikileaks includes a “hidden service” inside the Tor network that lets whistleblowers reveal corruption through uploading leaks, but with enough cryptography so that Wikileaks itself would be mathematically unable to tell who was behind the leak. The apex of the operation was that the Tor circuit to Wikileaks was routed through Iceland and other countries in order to provide a measure of legal protection.

The cypherpunk-based ideology of Wikileaks was ultimately one of openness and transparency, and thus a kind of extreme liberalism comes shining through instead of the absurd libertarianism of the original cypherpunks. The plan outlined by Assange on his own blog is straightforward: “The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie,” which in turn results “in decreased ability to hold onto power.”14 The purpose of the leaks was not the overthrow of governments, but their radical reform via the exposure of corruption that would otherwise by hidden from the public. As put by Assange, “Information would set us free.”15 The logo of Wikileaks reveals not only their strategy, but their ideology: Above, the dark and earthly world of repressive governments and corporate malfeasance, dissolving leak by leak, that would thus eventually transform into a shining new world based on justice and transparency. Again, as put by Assange, “The new world of the internet, abstracted from the old world of brute atoms, longed for independence ” but was “debased by its physical origins.”16 Cryptography – “a basic emancipatory building block for the independence of mankind in the Platonic realm of the internet” – could reshape society in the image of the free flow of information. Wikileaks can then be formulated properly as a takeover of the pre-internet world by the internet itself: “as societies merged with the internet could that liberty then be reflected back into physical reality to redefine the state?”17 One finds a strange echo of metaphysical dualism at the heart of Wikileaks’ version of the cypherpunk ideology: a world of free information and perfect liberty on the Internet, and then this downtrodden material world of injustice and violence that existed prior to the Internet. Like the first trumpet of the angels in the Revelations of St. John, Wikileaks would announce that the City of the Internet was to replace the City of Man at long last. With enough information about injustice, wars would end and governments would topple, perhaps even without violence. And credit should be given where due, for despite its perhaps faulty computational theology, there is little doubt the revelations made possible by Wikileaks did give courage to the people of Tunisia to overthrow Ben Ali. Yet something went wrong for Wikileaks.

Within the classical liberal framing, the release of documents would be an act of spreading knowledge for the good of public discourse, The true nature of the freedom of information was revealed by the reaction of the United States government to the leak of U.S. diplomatic cables by Wikileaks. The leaks were not treated as the world’s largest data-driven act of free speech; the leaks were treated as an act of war. This over-reaction appeared almost farcical given the mostly harmless nature of the leaks, which revealed only that the United States indulged in the most predicable of espionage: spying on the United Nations, secret authorized murders of anyone associated with so-called terrorism, and the like – the usual talk in the air at any bar when the topic of the possible perfidy of the United States government is broached. Yet in return for “Cablegate,” the bank accounts of Wikileaks were frozen, Paypal blocked all transfer of donations, its domain names were taken down, its server space was revoked from Amazon, supporters were put on terrorist watch-lists, and Assange, blackballed by an accusation of rape, was forced to seek asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. With U.S. senators calling for his murder, one is almost surprised a drone is not sent to Assange’s hideout in London.

At the end of the book, Greenberg’s analysis falls particularly short, for he buys into an image of Assange becoming power-mad, paranoid, and eventually sloppy in face of this unexpected onslaught. Nonetheless, it seems Assange’s fear of deportation from Sweden to America is not unfounded; it is now a matter of public record that the American grand jury and military court investigating Wikileaks wanted to prosecute Assange by directly connecting him to Bradley Manning, something that Tor’s architecture makes impossible to prove. Concluding his book, Greenberg places far too much faith in Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the former Wikileaks volunteer who destroyed a host of leaks in order to create a “more professional” Wikileaks he dubbed OpenLeaks, a project which ended up being mere vapourware. Where Greenberg is most prescient is in the fact that, regardless of the fate of Wikileaks itself, the act of leaking will eventually make a politics based on secrecy nearly impossible, as shown by Snowden’s leaks about the massive NSA surveillance apparatus.

Whilst Wikileaks was built on well-understood open-source software like Tor; what was truly impressive about Wikileaks was its co-ordination with newspapers. Wikileaks was not just interested in any information, but in information that would have a spectacular impact on the media in order – so Assange assumed – to change the course of political policy. It was on this social, and not technical, level that the United States government was eventually able to force the media to cast out Wikileaks, likely by pressuring every major European and American newspaper to simply ignore any new leaks. What the leaks did not drive the United States government into a state of paranoia, but instead led the United States to declare a state of war against Wikileaks, the world’s first “stateless” media organization composed of essentially a few servers and scattered individuals. This hysterical reaction by the U.S. government was not so hysterical after all; for the act of war revealed that governments understand all too well that the “ethereal” realm of information is vital to their maintenance of dominance in the all-too-material world. The reality is that the Internet did not reshape a new world free from the domination of power as the cypherpunks dreamed; instead, the power of domination has just adapted its form to the Internet: power flows through information. The flow of information on the Internet was not necessarily going to lead humanity to a state of justice and liberty, but to a state of surveillance and war.

The lessons of this dialectical turn of the Internet have not been not lost on Assange, who in his isolation is contemplating the negative aspect of the dialectic between anonymity and transparency in his first book, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet. In the most postmodern of acts, Assange became the host of a television show on Russia Today, a station more than happy to air any view that may be considered anti-American. Assange invited an international cast of three of his staunch supporters to discuss the future of the Internet, namely Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Müller-Maguhn, and Jérémie Zimmermann. The book is a transcript of their conversations, and what it lacks in theoretical references it more than makes up for in a certain conversational dynamism. Each of these hackers carries their own particular, and often cultural, lense: the American Appelbaum making no exceptions whatsoever for free speech (even for paedophiles), the German Andy Müller-Maguhn historicizing the relationship between cybersurveillance and the Stasi, and finally the civic-minded Frenchman Jérémie Zimmermann provoking the question of a new kind of possible citizen politics driven by the Internet. This leads to intriguing back and forths, such as when in perhaps the most heart-wrenching passage in the book, in a debate between Appelbuam and Müller-Maguhn over whether child pornography justifies internet censorship, Appelbaum retorts that such censorship would only remove the evidence of the horror, not the horror itself.18

Unlike his fellow-travelers, Assange’s tone is bleak on the very first page: “the internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen” to such an extent that “the internet is a threat to human civilization.”19 It should come as no surprise that after being pursued by various shadowy secret agencies, surveillance stands first and foremost in Assange’s mind. In the first part of his book, Assange makes the prophetic leap that it is not just himself personally that is under surveillance, but most of the world due to the militarization of the entire Internet: “We are all living under martial law as far as our communications are concerned, we just can’t see the tanks – but they are there.”20 As the revelations of the NSA’s Prism surveillance program show, the exceedingly important ramifications of this statement have yet to be comprehended by most social movements who organize their protests over Facebook, Gmail, and Twitter. Perhaps this made sense in Egypt where Mubarak may not have had access to Facebook’s internals and so had to resort to torture to steal passwords, but the United States government definitely has access to all Facebook data whenever it so pleases without having to even bother to hack a password. Assange notes that while the Internet increases the communicative power of humanity globally, if an Internet-driven revolution is “going to be successful, there needs to be a critical mass, it needs to happen fast, and it needs to win, because if it doesn’t win then that same infrastructure that allows a fast consensus to develop will be used to track down and marginalize” revolutionaries.21 Cassandra-like, Assange is again right: The case of Egypt speaks for the former, while the case of Syria speaks to the latter. In the parlance of cryptography, the key is your threat model: Who is trying to attack you? The latest revelations of NSA wire-tapping show that Julian Assange is right; as the truism goes, “just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you”. The NSA is out to get all potential threats, and so is out to get everybody.

In their discussions, the four friends still profess faith in cryptography as a revolutionary force, following the cypherpunk maxim that there should be privacy for the weak and transparency for the powerful. Ultimately, here is where Wikileaks expresses a paradox, namely that while cryptography could hide the information of citizens from powerful forces, it is the very lack of deployment of high-security cryptography by governments themselves that gave Wikileaks the ability to procure its leaks. Sadly enough, the cypherpunks failed on the level of sheer project management and engineering. Rather than the cyperpunks bringing the fire of cryptography to the people, cryptography is today being deployed primarily by governments and corporations to defend their own vast networks of communications and secrecy in the wake of Wikileaks. This is not lost on Assange, as he notes that “powerful groups have such a vast amount of secret material now that it dwarfs the amount of publicly available information,” with Wikileaks “just a percentage fraction.”22 Assange languishes in a honest despair that people do not understand the danger this all-knowing secret state can pose to them. Still, the historical memory of the records collected by the Nazis to fuel the Holocaust has not been forgotten by the one German hacker present, Andy Müller-Maguhn, who eerily reminds Assange that once people “read their own records they will understand, ” an event that actually occurred in Egypt when the population stormed Mubarak’s Interior Ministry.23

While the cypherpunks once professed an all-consuming faith in techology, what cypherpunk ideology ultimately lacks is faith in the people. In the grip of exile, Assange prophesies a dark future, for due to the emergent global secret state, “the freedoms that we biologically evolved for, and the freedoms that we have become culturally accustomed to, will be almost entirely eliminated.” At the end of the book, this belief leads to one of Assange’s most thoroughly depressed conjectures, namely that “the only people who will be able to keep the freedom that we had” will be “those that are highly educated in the internals of the system,” a “high-tech rebel elite” that, in the most disturbing analogy of the book, Assange compares to ” clever rats running around the opera house”24 after dark. Thus, the emancipatory vision of a new kind of political order for all of humanity is ultimately lost, due to the relatively mundane poor usability issues of cryptographic software. Perhaps the cypherpunks can only blame themselves for this dismal situation, given these usability issues have existed for nearly two decades. One cannot blame the people after all, for the ordinary user today there is no alternative to the hegemony of Facebook and Google. One can only hope rather than working on yet another copy of Wikileaks such as OpenLeaks, hackers can try to build an anonymous and secure replacement for Facebook and Google.

This lack of regard for ordinary users is not surprising in the least, for what is missing from the cypherpunk ideology is an understanding that ultimately all power, including technological power, derives from collective powers of humanity. Rather than see humanity as trapped or liberated by a technology such as cryptography that is given nearly divine powers in their fertile imagination, the cypherpunks need to realize that techology derives from our social relationships as humans. However, it is also equally a mistake to see technology as simply built to service the pre-existing ideology of some all-too-human independent political power or some ideal concept of human nature. Technology co-creates both the human subject as humanity and its technical scaffolding co-evolve. The cyclical process of the continual exteriorization of technologies by humanity is not a one-way street, but a two-way traffic that irretrievably changes the fundamental political situation in virtue of the subsequent interiorization of technology as ideology. Every activist, and every theorist should read Assange precisely because he expresses far more clearly the truth of the cypherpunk movement: the future of humanity will be shaped by a struggle for control over internet technology – precisely because humanity itself is now irrevocably both dependent on and empowered by the internet. Far from the theoretical hand-waving of academics or the dismal historical failure of the revolutionary left to grasp the potential of the internet, the cypherpunks grasped that a revolutionary movement for the 21st century would need practical tools more than anything else to navigate the potentials and dangers of this highly-technologized world. However, a certain curious lack of understanding of social history is the limit of the cypherpunks, causing them to fail to predict events like the repression against Wikileaks. Glimpses of a more nuanced and dialectical understanding of technology occur when Assange imagines various different scenarios, including a “diversity of systems” caused by “mechanisms of interaction potentiated by the internet,” but Assange claims this is only a possible “positive angle” on a generalized “negative trajectory” with a more likely historical end-game being “the the whole human civilization being turned into one market” and “endless drone wars.”25

To borrow a phrase from Bernard Stiegler, the Internet is pharmacological, both an antidote and a cure. The dialectical thought that must be grasped is that the Internet is both simultaneously a threat to human civilization and its possible redemption. Despite the mass surveillance, no purely technical means seems to be able to repress the spread of an as-yet-unclear revolutionary idea whose time has come, from Tunisia to Wall St. to Taksim. While the study of social history may be at an all-time nadir, perhaps the new digital natives may understand the political implications of the Internet even better than the old cypherpunks. Although Wikileaks inherited some of the American libertarianism of Tim May, ultimately what motivates Assange appears to be something far more commonplace yet ultimately revolutionary: a gentle feeling of human solidarity that has been awakened globally within digital natives in the last few years in no small part by Wikileaks. When discussing the Tunisian Revolution, Assange states that “I don’t see their struggle for self-determination as distinct from our own.”26 For it is Wikileaks far more than the traditional Left that has inspired this generational movement for radical transparency and global dignity. One doubts the youth who came of age in Tahrir will be content with merely being rats in an opera house. The primary error of Wikileaks was that assuming releasing information would change the world. Social change does not simply come from knowing information, but from getting organized.

If there is one thing the generation of #occupy lack, it is a notion of strategy. In contrast, the enemies of Wikileaks are masters of strategy. For example, various governments have learned how to subsume the “freedom of information” for their own purposes: The U.S. government now considers a selective fight against Internet censorship as a crucial plank in its ongoing cyberwar with China. So on one hand the United States is determined to make an example of Bradley Manning, but on the other hand it is more than happy to encourage leaks against its enemies. Beyond the United States, the questions of revolution and the effect of the Internet on the future of the nation-state itself are also provoking the interest of Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former counter-terrorism advisor Jared Cohen, who tellingly went out of their way to visit Assange in his confinement. Unfortunately, Assange’s book is quite thin on anything resembling strategic advice. However, one of the more compelling passages is when Assange theorizes what a state actually entails. After noticing that Hezbollah had developed its own fiber optic network like Google, Assange theorizes that Hezbollah “has the three primary ingredients of a state – it has control over armed force within a particular region… a communications infrastructure that it has control over, and it has a financial infrastructure,” which enable what Assange labels as “the three basic liberties” that are necessary for a state to maintain: the freedom of movement, freedom of communication, and freedom of economic interactions.27 The interesting questions are left unasked: What other forces could obtain these three liberties? Are virtual states even possible without freedom of movement? Using the internet, could digital natives build new kinds of autonomy within the hollow shells of the dying pre-Internet states? Assange even fails to comment in any detail on the developments Wikileaks themselves inspired, such as the battle for freedom of communication by Anonymous that was directly inspired by their operation to avenge Assange or the development of Bitcoin in response to the economic blockade on donations to Wikileaks.

TheWikileaks logo of the two worlds is in error, as has been demonstrated by the fate of Wikileaks itself. There is only one world, a world that is increasingly contiguous with the Internet. If one looks closely at the intellectual trajectory of cryptography, the cypherpunks, Wikileaks, and Julian Assange, one can glimpse in their all too sparse writings and the very code of Wikileaks the kernel of a revolutionary project fit for this technological world. Replicating Wikileaks, as projects like OpenLeaks and GlobalLeaks wish to do, is absurd. The problem faced by Wikileaks is not just technical, but ultimately ideological insofar as their ideology limits their practice. The liberal ideology of Wikileaks is just as wrong as the libertarian ideology of the cypherpunks. Simply releasing information to the media is not enough to change the world, for after the initial media-inspired shock of the “news” dies down, nothing changes except in the most rare of occasions. Leak after leak, our political existence continues barely perturbed while the reigning order continues to rule via their control over the forces of production, consumption, and war. In final analysis, Wikileaks is a partial project that was in the end hindered by its own ideology, but nonetheless Wikileaks is “a diseased eyeball in which disturbing flashes of light are perceived or like those baroque sunbursts in which rays from another world suddenly break into this one.”28 More difficult questions about how to run a society face the revolutionaries of Tunisia and Tahrir, questions that simply leaking information to newspapers does not answer.

Four years after meeting Applebaum, I find myself at a Parisian café with Jérémie Zimmermann, who had just returned from visiting Assange in London, having brought him a no doubt desperately needed cognac. After handing me a copy of Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet in order to write this book review, we discuss a number of problems facing the future of the free and open Internet. I turn to him and mention that in order to truly win, what he needs is a social movement. Jérémie turns around and smiles, “Of course.”

Harry Halpin is a visiting researcher at L’Institut de recherche et d’innovation du Centre Pompidou, where he is working under the direction of Bernard Stiegler on a book on the philosophy of the Web. He received his Ph.D. in Informatics at the University of Edinburgh, with his thesis being published as “Social Semantics.”  He also initiated  the W3C Web Cryptography Working Group and is President of LEAP (LEAP Encryption Access Project), which works on letting secure communication services be widely available.


  1. Greenberg, Andy. This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information. (London: Virgin Books, 2012), p.2.
  2. Shannon, Claude. “Communication Theory of Secrecy Systems”, Bell System Technical Journal, vol. 28(4), pp.656–715, 1949.
  3. Schneier, Bruce. Applied Cryptography. (New York City: John Wiley and Sons, 1996).
  4. Dan Boneh’s courses are perhaps the best:
  5. The only caveat is that the construction of a quantum computer could break even strong cryptography, but such a computer is at least 10 years away according to even optimists, and could equally be challenged by the growing field of quantum cryptography.
  6. Assange, Julian (with Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Mueller-Maguhn, and Jeremie Zimmerman.) Cyberpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet. (New York: OR Books, 2012), 5.
  7. Chaum, David. Security without identification: transaction systems to make big brother obsolete. Communications of the. ACM 28, 10 (October 1985), 1030-1044.
  8. May, Tim. The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto. November 1992.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Bell, Jim. Assasination Politics. 1995.
  11. Manne, Robert. The Cypherpunk Revolutionary. The Monthly. No. 65, March 2011
  12. Assange, Julian. Julian Assange: The Unauthorized Autobiography (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2011). p. 119. Note that this book was published under very dubious circumstances (hence the unusual appearance of the term “unauthorized” in the title of autobiography!), and thus I cannot in good faith encourage its purchase, unlike the other books reviewed.
  13. Available here:
  14. Assange, Julian. Dec. 2006.
  15. Assange, Julian. Julian Assange: The Unauthorized Autobiography , 119.
  16. Assange, Julian. Cyberpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet. 2012, 3.
  17. Ibid., 6.
  18. Assange, Julian. Cyberpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet. 2012, 134.
  19. Ibid.,1.
  20. Ibid., 33.
  21. Ibid., 34.
  22. Ibid., 145.
  23. Ibid., 145.
  24. Ibid., 161
  25. Ibid., 158.
  26. Ibid.,158.
  27. Ibid., 87.
  28. Jameson, Fredric. Valences of the Dialectic (London: Verso Books, 2009), 612.