The Digital Vandal: Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s War Against Transparency

The transparency movement has many vocal proponents. A recent event in the Wikileaks sagas proves that those who could be in the most effective position to strengthen it are only content to give it lip service.

Take Daniel Domscheit-Berg, for example. A former Wikileaks staffer, Domscheit-Berg had a very public and bitter falling-out with Wikileaks editor Julian Assange in September 2010 and has since cultivated the public role of pragmatist pitted against Assange’s flinty eccentric in a battle of archetypes.

Soon after his dismissal, Domscheit-Berg made it a personal signature to tirelessly use every publicity opportunity to disparage his former employer. He announced he would be starting a new rival whistleblower website – Openleaks – a supposedly sensible and measured alternative to his previous gig. A gossip-heavy and factually inconsistent book followed – Inside Wikileaks: My Time With Julian Assange At The World’s Most Dangerous Website, filled with the mundane details of Assange’s eating habits and dress sense. Additional details on Domscheit-Berg’s predilection for unappetizing quasi-meat dishes and general whining helped feed the internet meme machine for several months.

photo: AP Photo

Nonetheless, some campaigners for transparency held their tongues amidst all this acrimony, consoling each other with Domscheit-Berg’s promise to launch Openleaks, which in theory could advance the cause for transparency as a complement to Wikileaks, which is perennially defending itself from legal and political attacks.

There was hope that the launch of Openleaks would relegate the emphasis on the interpersonal sniping to a mere footnote of history and provide a valuable addition to the effort to increase transparency amongst powerful organisations.

Well, there goes that hope.

What has transpired over the last week has vindicated those who see Domscheit-Berg’s behavior as self-serving rather than merely bullish for the sake of a cause. On August 21 it was reported in German weekly Der Spiegel that Domscheit-Berg had deleted a cache of unpublished material that was originally leaked to Wikileaks.

How did this material end up in Domscheit-Berg’s sole custody?

The answer to that question wavered between two poles of competing narratives in the preceding months – thanks to Domscheit-Berg’s inconsistent public statements. It is now finally confirmed that he had in fact helped himself to it after leaving the organisation in September 2010. (There is still a war of words over whether he was fired or quit voluntarily).

The most recent chapter of this scandal unfolded when the influential German hacker collective, Chaos Computer Club (CCC) announced it would revoke Domscheit-Berg’s membership on the basis of his furtive use of the CCC’s reputation as a free vehicle to lend Openleaks some easy credibility.

Domscheit-Berg had invited hackers assembled at this year’s annual CCC Summer Camp to conduct a ‘strength-test’ – asking programming wizards to aim their best shot at the Openleaks website in order to test its technical robustness and security – a key selling point for an online whistleblower platform – thereby obtaining a CCC ‘seal of approval’.

CCC board member Andy Müller-Maguhn, in an interview with Der Spiegel on August 15, revealed that the real underlying reason for Domscheit-Berg’s ejection from the CCC was based on his refusal to return the stolen documents to Wikileaks. Müller-Maguhn had been acting as mediator between Domscheit-Berg and Wikileaks to resolve the dispute. Evidently, this mediation process failed spectacularly. According to Müller-Maguhn, Assange confirmed that the plunder included “about 3,000 submissions, some of them with several hundred documents [per submission].”

There was some initial confusion as to whether there was actually a computer hard drive in Domscheit-Berg’s possession, or whether he only held the encryption passphrases (‘keys’) required to translate the data from encrypted code into plain-text that anyone can read. Holger Stark, reporter for Der Spiegel, reported via Twitter on 19 August that “The only keys 4 the unreleased Wikileaks docs are in the hands of DDB and his partner [Anke Domscheit-Berg]. Why do they destroy it?”

The difference may appear inconsequential at first glance, but as those who are versed in digital cryptography would advise, merely holding the keys to a file does not guarantee complete control of access to that file. Keys can be copied; if it were only the keys that Domscheit-Berg possessed, there was still a chance that other copies would be floating around somewhere.

The next day, Stark clarified this detail for his Twitter audience: “There is no doubt that it exists JUST ONE VERSION of the archive of unreleased Wikileaks material. I spoke to Daniel Domscheit-Berg and he confirmed that.”

On August 21, Der Spiegel went to press with confirmation that the unthinkable had happened – Domscheit-Berg hadn’t destroyed the keys; he’d deleted the entire chest.  Over 3,500 files, some of which contained details of the U.S Government’s “no-fly list” (which many U.S dissidents and civil liberties campaigners would be keen to see) as well as information on 20-odd right-wing extremist groups (pertinent material after the Anders Brevik massacre). Domscheit-Berg has not confirmed what was included in the material. In a series of tweets on the evening of August 21 (Australian  Eastern time), Wikileaks confirmed the destroyed material not only included the aforementioned documents, but also “US intercept arrangements for over a hundred internet companies”, “more than 60,000 emails from the NPD [the far-right German National Democratic Party]”, and “five gigabytes from the Bank of America.”

Tellingly, Domscheit-Berg had told Stern magazine earlier this year that the Bank of America material was outdated and “completely unspectacular” (as reported by Reuters in February).  So unspectacular, according to his tastes, that it didn’t warrant anyone else seeing it.

Clues had also been dropped previously about the juncture from when these leaked documents originated. In February 2011, Domscheit-Berg told Wired that “the hijacked leaks only include those submitted since the time the system came back online in July following an outage, and the time it went down permanently.” Wikileaks, in a public statement issued via Twitter, alleges that the destroyed material originates from submissions received between January 2010 and August 2010.

So what exactly would motivate someone who sees himself as a freedom of information activist to actively suppress information by deleting it forever? Despite the vast amounts of criticism and opposition that Julian Assange has invoked whilst pursuing his work, some justified and some unjustified, to date there is no known instance of Assange permanently destroying information that has been submitted to him.

Destroying documents is hardly good PR for a transparency activist.

This deletion of data is not the only act of sabotage instigated by Domscheit-Berg against Wikileaks. At various intervals since September 2010 Domscheit-Berg had stated that that he had immobilized Wikileaks’ online submission platform – dismantling the site’s secure page where documents can be anonymously submitted – because he deemed Assange irresponsible and reckless with the material he handled. Why? “Children shouldn’t play with guns,” Domscheit-Berg admonished in his book.

In flashes of Machiavellian irony (or sheer idiocy), Domscheit-Berg would go on to blame Wikileaks for its own incapacitation:

 “[Domscheit-Berg] said he and his group intend to return the material unused and unpublished, as soon as WikiLeaks can demonstrate the technical ability to keep the data and its sources safe. But WikiLeaks’ internal technical architecture has reverted to a primitive state, with little sign of progress in the months since the group’s departure, Domscheit-Berg said.”

So Domscheit-Berg crippled Wikileaks’ ability to receive new submissions securely, then castigated it for not demonstrating the ability to repair and maintain its own technical infrastructure quickly enough. Yet this twisted logic was lost even on experienced journalists, who either willfully ignored it or didn’t bother doing a Google search – as illustrated by Ravi Somaiya’s February 6 article in the New York Times:

In private, Mr. Assange has told reporters that the spate of defections shut down the complex computer systems WikiLeaks uses to process new information and make it hard for governments and corporations to trace its source. At a January news conference in London, he said that trouble with the site’s “internal mechanisms” had rendered it no longer open “for public business.” He said the site would continue to accept material in other forms, like computer disks.

The omission that it was Domscheit-Berg’s responsibility for this ‘shut down’ is striking in its negligibility. Even more peculiar was Domscheit-Berg’s changing story – as recently as August 10, he declared to der Freitag: “No, I didn’t take any documents from Wikileaks.”

Then there’s Domscheit-Berg’s promise of no sabotage done to Der Spiegel:

SPIEGEL: With a part of the WikiLeaks team now leaving, do your informants need to be concerned about what will happen with the material they submitted?

 

Schmitt: It is my view that material and money from donors should remain at WikiLeaks, because both were intended explicitly for this project. There are other opinions internally — with our technical people, for example. No matter what, though, we will ensure that a clean transition happens.


 

Similarly in an interview with CNN, Domscheit-Berg had the temerity to cite Wikileaks’ ‘structural problem’ as the reason for leaving the organization – but failed to mention that this structural problem was due in no small part to his vandalism. Domscheit-Berg’s ever-changing stories should have been recognized as a red flag signaling dubiousness, however latent or undefined. But a mainstream press already irked by Assange’s persona was glad to feed off any criticism they could get the scoop on– particularly from a former insider.

Assuming that Assange’s statements on what the deleted material contained is true, the only fact we can be assured of is that at least some of it deserved to be published.  The only responsible assumption to make as a starting point is that whoever leaked those documents to Wikileaks did so with the hope that reform would be enacted somewhere.  As Crikey pointed out in June,  over 50 media partners around the world are currently in collaboration with Wikileaks – a set-up that ensures source documents are reviewed by journalists with diverse expertise and specific cultural, political and economic knowledge. It can hardly be described as a bunch of children playing with guns.

This collaboration framework would surely have been optimal enough to work on the stolen material, should Domscheit-Berg have deigned to return it.  Should any of the material have been found to be of no ‘ethical, political or historical significance’ (to quote Wikileaks’ own guidelines), at least we would know that diligence was applied in the first place, instead of the careless discarding of data that has taken place in a fit of disgruntlement.

All that that remains now is the disquieting knowledge that there was unpublished material that ranged in significance from a local community level to a global level, that has now been permanently suppressed by a self-proclaimed freedom of information activist. This logically aligns Domscheit-Berg with the powerful, corrupt and secretive organisations he supposedly seeks to make transparent.  The irony is positively macabre. It is further cemented with Openleaks’ statement on its website:

“From the whistleblower’s point of view, there is no difference between the submission of valid material that is not released, and censorship.”

Also unsettling clue was Domscheit-Berg’s choice of language: that of the nonchalant bureaucrat, advising the original whistleblowers who possibly risked their careers if not their lives to simply ‘re-submit’ the documents, as if they were misplaced faxes sent to an accountant.

Wouldn’t it be remarkably odd to see a mainstream press reporter announce that he or she had leaked material in their possession, only to proclaim that it would never see the light of day, on the basis of a mere personal whim? Who is the final arbiter of the truth? In light of these developments, who in their right mind would entrust Openleaks with sensitive information, knowing that it can be destroyed over a petty vexation?

The recent official statements by Wikileaks give no easy explanation for Domscheit-Berg’s motives either, aside from anecdotal and circumstantial reports that hint at a darkly complex network of cronyism. Characteristically of Assange, the Wikileaks statement is peppered with references to alphabet-soup agencies. Domscheit-Berg need not be married to a Microsoft executive-version of Mata Hari to make his destruction of Wikileaks data any less bizarre.

Fickle words, bruised ego and reckless behavior aside, none of Domscheit-Berg’s exploits over the last 12 months give any assurances that a new horizon is opening up for institutional transparency. The real casualties in this story are the whistleblowers, whose risks were ultimately undertaken in vain.

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The JLLLOW Home Journal’s Guide to Keeping Cool and Not Losing Your Shit Whilst Trying to Change The World

Ah, activism. To the untrained ear and eye this word has long conjured imagery of hoary bongo-playing hygienically-challenged layabouts. Although there is a kernel of truth in every stereotype, only a fool or establishment shill would openly proclaim that this aforementioned type is the only kind of person who engages in activism…man.

The simple fact is that an activist is usually a regular person who has had enough of reading about, watching and hearing about injustice, corruption and twisted morality on a massive scale and has finally decided to do something about it. True activists know they can never be a hero or everything to everyone.  The smartest ones have found a niche that best addresses what bothers them the most, and set about trying to enact change with a courageous zeal that money could never substitute. The only common drive that unites all activists is the effort to overcome apathy. It is precisely this kind of thought process and sense of empathy for others that those who abuse power fear the most.

Below is a simplistic and handy guide for navigating the psychological and physiological vagaries of activism in the 21st century. Most of it is not especially unique in import by any measure. It is however the kind of manual I wish someone had written for me about a year and a half ago.

1. Sleep. Sleep. Sleep. Not the zombie-esque decrease in consciousness you feel when strolling through a shopping mall. I mean serious slumber, the alpha-beta-theta wave kind that allows your body to renew cells. Why? Because being an activist demands input from every fibre of your being in a way that is not wholly apparent right from the beginning. Ask anyone who participates in activism and also has a family to raise, a demanding but spiritually unfulfilling day job or anything else that falls under the banner of Adult Responsibility. You will be tired all the time. So get some sleep, because it may boil down to a choice between: missing out on some semi-interesting online banter, or reaching the state where you’re seeing your old best friend from Year Seven saying hi to you on the train…when the carriage is actually empty. Or perhaps something from Naked Lunch.

2. Don’t put shit into your body all the time. Being busy ins’t an excuse. “Coffee keeps me going until it’s time to be drunk enough to go to sleep” is only a fleetingly enjoyable diet ethos. As with point 1, you’ll inevitably reach a plateau of perma-exhuastion, so only real nutrients can keep you from becoming a bloated/frail/constipated/sweaty train wreck. Recreational drugs may provide occasional release but chronic use makes you become That Guy on Twitter. We all know one of those.

3. Sense of humour. I’m of the belief that few activists are genuinely humourless – if that were not true, that means we lack the humanity that is the basic essential requirement of giving a shit about the world around us. Most importantly, humour is your ultimate survival mechanism, one which allows you to ride the troughs of despair as well as the peak experiences. Do not be afraid of humour, it is your weapon and your tool, and one that always needs sharpening and refinement.  As Leo Rosten said, “Satire is focused bitterness”. The most difficult skill you will have to master is figuring out when you are crossing the line and becoming merely puerile for the sake of a laugh, or of your trolling, sarcasm and jokes are actually saying something deeper and making people think to themselves, “Fuck yeah that bitch is onto something there, man!” Also, creating memes is not only a necessary stress-relief strategy, it’s a great way to create false noise that drains the resources of grossly over-funded internet surveillance programs. Nothing makes a mockery of OSINT (open source intelligence) like a good vajazzling meme.
4. Despite Your Worst Fears, You Too Probably Have a Useful But Under-Utilised Talent. Many people refrain from speaking up and participating in activism because they think they have nothing new or special to contribute to a cause. Effective activism does not only consist of gifted oration, eloquent writing, or being a wizard with code. You could have an artistic bent – working with your hands, or better-than-average skills in Photoshop. Perhaps you can wrangle papier mache or liquid latex like no other. You can be guaranteed that every successful street protest or social-networking campaign has worked well because people with highly varied skill-sets and expertise have come together to pull it off.

5. Loneliness. Particularly true for those who engage in activism only online, but just about every activist finds themselves in a period where they are “crossing the desert” in terms of their personal relationships. You will probably lose or alienate a few friends who do not understand or feel your passion. Be prepared for it and don’t expect everyone to understand your cause or why it’s important. Some of your friends and/or family will remain content to keep themselves smothered in an apolitical cocoon of quasi-comfortable security. That’s their problem. Learn to compartmentalize your relationships for the sake of your own sanity and safety. That said, don’t refrain from talking to others about your cause – you will truly be surprised at how much people care about certain issues but never voice their opinion simply because no-one has ever engaged them about it in a social situation. Never feel embarrassed about giving a shit about something – we have all been conditioned to be comfortably numb by mass media and endless, pointless consumption. Many of us are unable to articulate why we feel so alienated because of this. If you have a chance to become someone’s else’s inspiration, never waste that chance.

Also, it’s kinda awesome and somewhat lulzy watching your meekest of friends and relatives slowly become radicalised by your endless soapboxing.

6. Paranoia. Depending on your outlook, this can be hell or highly entertaining (also depending on who’s got the paranoia). Some activists are worryingly blase about any kind of information security yet others sound like they survived COINTELPRO even though they grew up in Adelaide in the 1990s. A disproportionately high number of activists are often convinced there are feds under the bed – even if they are not doing anything remotely illegal. Of course, there are many places on Earth where peaceful democratic dissent can cost you your life. Paranoia about things like surveillance and infiltration of your networks (online and IRL) is much like the humour factor – subtlety and balance will get you a long way. Do seek out proper advice on how to secure your communications, preferably by a nice hacker friend, but assume everything is monitored – those trillions of national security dollars aren’t being spent on filling jars with brown M&M’s. Don’t over-share the minutiae of your daily existence to your activist friends and don’t expect them to do the same – the less everyone knows about each others’ Adult Responsibilities, the better. Besides, activism does tend to become an escape from boring shit like that anyway. Best of all, jokes about feds are a great way to pass the time when you’re being watched by one of them in a bar somewhere on a Saturday night. (Also see point 3).

7. Don’t Be a Broken Umbrella In a Shitstorm. Many causes and activist movements feature a central charismatic figure that milder minions can rally around; other movements are more amorphous and decentralised. The problem in either framework is that you will inevitably face the expectation to defend someone else’s shitty behaviour for the sake of the Greater Good of the Cause. In this way, activist movements often mirror the same sociology that powerful elites do. An activist collective forms naturally for a special purpose, yet every so often, an minor or major scandal will arise that threatens to tarnish everyone involved – and you will be expected to defend it, justify it, or play it down, because the cause is Bigger Than One Person. So what do you do? Hopefully you adhere to you own internal moral and ethical code – that’s what got you into activism in the first place. You stand your ground and call bullshit when you see it  – even if it means becoming temporarily unpopular. This is probably the hardest advice to heed, as activist politics tends to absorb and try bury certain unsavoury behaviours and viewpoints in order to survive. No-one can give you definitive advice on how to navigate the median between being principled and being one of the team. But if defending a fellow activist for something indefensible makes you feel like a dirty whore, or worse, a shill – don’t do it. Life is too fucking short.

8. Go Offline Once In a While. It’s usually the ‘older’ folk that will tell you this, and for good reason – they remember a life lived entirely offline. Particularly amongst activist movements that only convene online (which is just about the norm nowadays), there is a risk of becoming entrapped in an ideological bubble that can actually be disconnected from traditional knowledge and different ways of life. The problem with this is that as an activist, you tend to become a slave to the news cycle or worse, assume that everyone in the world must know and care about a recent particular event because all your fellow activists are going mad about it on the interwebs. Step back, take a break from the computer and smartphone, go see some nature or something. Most importantly, spend time in a library, reading real books. The skill of deep reading is vital for synthesizing information, critical thinking, and making well-formed arguments. Know your history. If you only read the news, you will miss out on the the context that is such a vital part of activism and you’ll essentially remain the same as the herd animals you thought you were different from. Look at the most inspirational intellectual role models you have – all of them locked themselves away from mundane chatter to learn something deeper. It worked for them and it will work for you. Read things that make you angry. You will remember a seminal book for far longer than an adequately-written feature article.

9. You will often question what is the fucking point of it all. A deficiency or abundance of any or all of the above factors will make you start doubting yourself and your ability to affect change. In many ways, this is normal – if altruism was easy, everyone would be doing it. Remember was pisses you off about the world and never let those thoughts leave your back pocket.

10. Most importantly, don’t forget to have fun and fight the motherfucking POWER.