I was in Germany for Chaos Congress 2009, a hacker conference, and after attending a series of talks I was headed back to my hotel when I spotted Julian Assange. This predated my working as a project manager at DARPA as a hacker-in-residence, if you will. It was also before Wikileaks released the video “Collateral Murder” and hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables, the Swedish rape allegations, and Julian ending up a virtual prisoner, holed up in Ecuador’s diplomatic mission in London.
Given that I hadn’t seen Julian in more than a decade, I greeted him, and we agreed to grab some dinner and catch up. After reminiscing about the old gang – he and I had been part of the same hacker “milieu,” as Julian would say – I asked why he had skipped out on the hacking scene to form Wikileaks.
Last I heard Julian had left to study mathematics and physics at the University of Melbourne. He was working on a “duress” based crypto-file system, also known as the “rubber hose” file system. The theory was that if your disk was encrypted and someone threatened to beat you with a rubber hose unless you decrypted it, you could fool him by decrypting a secondary innocuous file system without revealing the true content of your still cloaked files. The baddies would be convinced they had what they wanted and let you go while you would keep your secrets. (There’s a problem with this, of course. If the baddies think you have a rubber hose file system, even if you decrypt your drive they may think you’re holding out on them and continue to beat the crap out of you. But I digress.)
Julian told me his graduate work had been funded by a US government grant, specifically NSA and DARPA money, which was supposed to be used for fundamental security research. It was a time when the Bush Administration and Department of Defense were seen to be classifying a great deal of fundamental research and pulling back on university funds. These universities were getting the message that they could no longer work on the research they had been conducting, and what they had already done was classified. In a Joseph Heller-like twist, they weren’t even allowed to know what it was they had already discovered.
According to Julian, the US government cast such a wide net that even general scientific research, whose output had always been published openly, was swept up in America’s secrecy nets. As you can imagine this did not sit well with Julian, because his work had also been funded by one of these fundamental research funding lines and yanked.
So here you have a non-US citizen at a foreign university doing graduate work studies, and the United States government came barreling in and not only snuffed out the funding and killed his studies, it also barred him from knowing what it was he had been funded to research.
It was at that moment, Julian told me, that he decided he would devote himself to exposing organizations that attempted to keep secrets and withhold information in an effort keep the masses ignorant and disadvantaged.
So you see, depending on who you ask, the US government actually helped create of Wikileaks. And the rest, as they say, is history.
[Image courtesy nehavish]