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Julian Assange, WikiLeaks and Technology's Double-Edged Sword

Julian Assange, WikiLeaks and Technology's Double-Edged Sword

There's a sharp dichotomy between good and bad uses of technology. Businesses around the world are using the same technology that powers WikiLeaks to make their workforces more efficient. It's commonplace, for example, for groups of engineers scattered across the globe to plug into websites to share insights on product designs without ever having to meet face-to-face, saving companies tremendous amounts of time and money.

By Sidney Hill
12/08/10 5:00 AM PT

Like almost everyone -- including government and law enforcement officials on multiple continents -- I'm struggling to answer this question: Exactly who is Julian Assange?

I know he's the founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, the website that has caused an international uproar by publishing hundreds of thousands of documents detailing previously secret events related to U.S. foreign policy, including sensitive State Department communications and information on things the government has done in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Beyond that, though, is Assange merely a journalist with an altruistic desire to uncover the truth about the actions of governments and large corporations, as he would have you believe?

Is he guilty of espionage and other acts that warrant labeling him an enemy of the state, as the U.S. Department of Justice contends? Or is he a common criminal, as police in Sweden allege?

A Fascinating Case Study

Fortunately, it's not my job to determine whether Assange should be subjected to global condemnation, federal prosecution, or both. I'm merely a student of the ways in which individuals and organizations use technology -- and the furor Assange has created through his operation of WikiLeaks is a fascinating case study in that regard.

This story demonstrates numerous ways in which technology can be used for either good or bad purposes, depending on your point of view.

Take the WilkiLeaks site, for example, which is essentially a social media platform that allows for collecting and publishing information from anonymous contributors across the globe. That's not much different than what happens on Facebook, Twitter or any of the thousands of Internet chat rooms and forums devoted to topics ranging from video gaming to celebrity gossip.

One also could argue that the information published on WikiLeaks -- whether it's there legally or not -- is far more important than anything posted on those other venues.

Businesses around the world are using the same technology that powers WikiLeaks to make their workforces more efficient. It's commonplace, for example, for groups of engineers scattered across the globe to plug into websites to share insights on product designs without ever having to meet face-to-face, saving companies tremendous amounts of time and money in the process.

A History of Hacking

The dichotomy between the good and bad uses of technology also surfaces when we look at the two principal figures in the current WikiLeaks flap -- Assange and Pfc. Bradley Manning, a U.S. Army intelligence analyst who is believed to be the source of most of the classified information about the U.S. government that WikiLeaks has published.

Both Assange and Bradley gained reputations as accomplished computer hackers in their teen years, a fact will cause many people to automatically view them as nefarious individuals. In fact, Assange has bristled at being described in the press as a hacker, arguing that government authorities want to keep that story line going in order to demonize him.

While there are still active networks of hackers trolling cyberspace, using their skills to commit acts of virtual vandalism and real-world larceny, the act of hacking -- delving into and exploring a piece of hardware or software in ways the original developer may not have envisioned -- is not in itself a bad thing. That practice has led to the founding of numerous high-tech companies, including such household names as Microsoft and Apple.

Hackers also have been known to help companies by pointing out the flaws in their security infrastructures. Private Manning may have done that, albeit unintentionally, for the U.S. military.

Realizing that to protect against the pilfering of classified data, the Pentagon had elaborate security measures in place -- including forbidding the use of thumb drives in facilities where the agency's computers could be accessed -- Manning exploited a loophole that allowed military personnel to listen to music CDs while working. At least, that's what Army investigators believe.

Mixing Music With Espionage

Manning, who currently is being held in a military prison after being charged with unauthorized use and disclosure of classified information, made a habit of bringing music CDs from Lady GaGa and other popular artists, which he listened to while working on a computer at a base in Iraq. At the same time, he was using blank discs that he had placed in the music CD cases to download more than 200,000 classified documents, all of which he fed to WikiLeaks, according to Army investigators.

While the U.S. government continues to methodically build its case against Manning, it's having a hard time figuring exactly what, if anything, it can do with Assange.

On Tuesday, Assange was arrested by British police and scheduled to appear in court on a warrant issued by authorities in Sweden, where he is wanted on sexual assault charges. Even if British officials should agree to extradite Assange to Sweden, that process could take several months. It also would delay any action the U.S. government might take against Assange.

So far, U.S. authorities have not determined exactly what crimes Assange has committed, though the Justice Department could charge him with espionage, stealing government property or retaining government property, John Bellinger, a former advisor to the U.S. State Department, recently told the Associated Press.

Kicked Off the Cloud

Ironically, technology -- the tool that brought WikilLeaks to prominence in the first place -- may be what ultimately brings it down. Last week, hackers -- there's that word again -- began bombarding the WikiLeaks site with data requests in hope of forcing a shutdown.

WikiLeaks attempted to beat those attacks by sheltering in Amazon's cloud. The idea was that the cloud offers much greater computing capacity than the data center in which WikiLeaks servers were originally housed, thus making it more difficult for attackers to shut down the site.

That tactic actually worked, at least until Amazon decided that WikiLeaks was violating its terms of service because WikiLeaks could not prove it legally owned the data it was housing on the Amazon's cloud. Amazon subsequently booted WikiLeaks off its cloud, sending Assange and his staff on a worldwide journey for another hosting site. Its last known landing spot was somewhere in Switzerland.

Regardless of how Assange's legal situation is resolved, WikiLeaks is likely to continue operating, in some fashion, for at least a while longer. Other staffers have vowed to keep the site running even in Assange's absence. The site also has gained a sizeable cadre of supporters around the world, many of whom are donating money to support its cause.

The question is whether government authorities -- in the U.S. and other countries that feel burned by WikiLeaks disclosures -- ultimately will find a way to bring the site down for good.

However this saga ends, I'm certain of one thing: This won't be the last time technology will prove to be a double-edged sword.


TechNewsWorld columnist Sidney Hill has been writing about business and technology trends for more than two decades. In addition to his work as a freelance journalist, he operates an independent marketing communications consulting firm. You can connect with Hill through his website.


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