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Sunday, June 06, 2010

Julian Assange and WikiLeaks



The New Yorker has a great profile of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Assange started as a hacker, studied math and physics for a while at university, and now devotes all of his time to activism. See here for the WikiLeaks short film Collateral Murder.

I was once involved in crypto fun myself ;-)

New Yorker: ... Assange was burned out. He motorcycled across Vietnam. He held various jobs, and even earned money as a computer-security consultant, supporting his son to the extent that he was able. He studied physics at the University of Melbourne. He thought that trying to decrypt the secret laws governing the universe would provide the intellectual stimulation and rush of hacking. It did not. In 2006, on a blog he had started, he wrote about a conference organized by the Australian Institute of Physics, “with 900 career physicists, the body of which were sniveling fearful conformists of woefully, woefully inferior character.”

He had come to understand the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith versus reason, but as individual versus institution. As a student of Kafka, Koestler, and Solzhenitsyn, he believed that truth, creativity, love, and compassion are corrupted by institutional hierarchies, and by “patronage networks”—one of his favorite expressions—that contort the human spirit. He sketched out a manifesto of sorts, titled “Conspiracy as Governance,” which sought to apply graph theory to politics. Assange wrote that illegitimate governance was by definition conspiratorial—the product of functionaries in “collaborative secrecy, working to the detriment of a population.” He argued that, when a regime’s lines of internal communication are disrupted, the information flow among conspirators must dwindle, and that, as the flow approaches zero, the conspiracy dissolves. Leaks were an instrument of information warfare.

These ideas soon evolved into WikiLeaks. In 2006, Assange barricaded himself in a house near the university and began to work. In fits of creativity, he would write out flow diagrams for the system on the walls and doors, so as not to forget them. There was a bed in the kitchen, and he invited backpackers passing through campus to stay with him, in exchange for help building the site. “He wouldn’t sleep at all,” a person who was living in the house told me. “He wouldn’t eat.”

As it now functions, the Web site is primarily hosted on a Swedish Internet service provider called PRQ.se, which was created to withstand both legal pressure and cyber attacks, and which fiercely preserves the anonymity of its clients. Submissions are routed first through PRQ, then to a WikiLeaks server in Belgium, and then on to “another country that has some beneficial laws,” Assange told me, where they are removed at “end-point machines” and stored elsewhere. These machines are maintained by exceptionally secretive engineers, the high priesthood of WikiLeaks. One of them, who would speak only by encrypted chat, told me that Assange and the other public members of WikiLeaks “do not have access to certain parts of the system as a measure to protect them and us.” The entire pipeline, along with the submissions moving through it, is encrypted, and the traffic is kept anonymous by means of a modified version of the Tor network, which sends Internet traffic through “virtual tunnels” that are extremely private. Moreover, at any given time WikiLeaks computers are feeding hundreds of thousands of fake submissions through these tunnels, obscuring the real documents. Assange told me that there are still vulnerabilities, but “this is vastly more secure than any banking network.”

For more from Assange's blog, like the following, see here.

... I attended an Australian Institute of Physics conference at ANU with 900 career physicists, the body of which were snivelling fearful conformists of woefully, woefully inferior character. For every Feynman or Lorentz, 100 pen pushing wretches scratching each others eyes out in academic committees ...

The personality quirks brought to life so well in the New Yorker profile are illuminated by Assange's blog entry (Sat 23 Sep 2006: William James Sidis) concerning high IQ and social maladjustment -- excerpted from this essay by Grady Towers :-)

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