Supergeek. Photo by Espen Moe
In 1992, a 21 year old Julian Assange pled guilty to 24 counts of hacking and received a fine. While hacking he broke into computer systems ranging from Nortel to the US military. The prosecutor, however, said “there is just no evidence that there was anything other than sort of intelligent inquisitiveness and the pleasure of being able to—what’s the expression—surf through these various computers”. What hacking is (or was) is essentially poking around and sharing information with other hackers. What Assange seems to have done with Wikileaks is to move the hacker ethic into the social category of journalism, gaining protection, a different set of ethics and enabling him to pull of a feat of social engineering that probably qualifies as the greatest hack ever.
In 1987, Assange co-wrote (researched) a book about his time hacking. This is available in full online and is well worth a look. In this, he is the hacker Mendax. That word means, loosely, nobly untruthful. This, I think, refers not specifically to Assange, but more to his attitude towards most of the powers he saw in the world. It certainly describes US diplomacy.
Our memory plays us beautifully false – splendide mendax – till one wishes sometimes that old and wise men, retelling the story of their life, could recall for the comfort of youth some part of its languors and mischances, its bitter jealousies, its intense and poignant sense of failure (Where No Fear Was, AC Benson)
In his early years of hacking, Assange also accessed private information, but this time essentially for teenage fun. One tactic he used was social engineering. Essentially getting people to tell you their password.
He was going to have a crack at social engineering. Social engineering means smooth-talking someone in a position of power into doing something for you. It always involved a ruse of some sort. Mendax decided he would social engineer a password out of one of Minerva’s users. (Underground)
And it worked. After his arrest, however, Assange seems to have stayed away from overt hacking (though not computer security). He did not, however, stop looking for noble untruths. Though Assange has said “It’s very annoying to see modern day articles calling me a computer hacker” he’s also said “that hacker mindset was very valuable to me. But the insiders know where the bodies are. It’s much more efficient to have insiders. They know the problems, they understand how to expose them” (Forbes Interview). That is, instead of using ruses to get information out of people, he’s using leaks.
Leaks, unlike hacks, are protected legally (can be republished, as per Fox News judicial experts even), have a social category, and have a higher purpose beyond curiosity. But these State Department logs are still, effectively, a hack. Instead of social engineering a password over the phone, Assange has found people actually willing to share information and getting the hacks sent to him.
This is interesting in that it blurs the line between journalism and hacking, and because it blurs the line between what we will see as public and private in the future. As Andrew Sullivan said:
My sense is that we have crossed a Rubicon, and there is close to nothing we can do about it. It is inherent in the kind of communication technology we now all use. Anything can easily be leaked; there is no real limit on the amount of private or secret data that can be widely disseminated within minutes; it only takes one or two individuals to break faith and spill every bean. We live increasingly in a world with no curtains or even veils. This is true personally – ask Brett Favre or Christine O’Donnell – and collectively – ask Don Rumsfeld after Abu Ghraib. The era of secrecy is over. What we need to do is adjust, not simply regret or attack.
The geeks have put on suits, created institutions and companies and now their ethic is beginning to pervade the world at large. Having grown up reading 2600 and on the Internet at large, it’s kinda cool to see a hacker make it so big. This is, in essence, the greatest hack ever, on the biggest scale imaginable. Julian Assange can be called many things, but he is definitely l33t