A Face in the Crowd and Power

In reading Yochai Benkler’s spectacular Wikileaks paper, I was struck by how many of the twists and turns in the Wikileaks drama have been driven by tensions between organizations and individuals. The story of Wikileaks is the story of the faceless collective, which is built by the collaborative and selfless work of its members, but is also always at risk that they will reassert their individuality and bring everything crashing down. The field on which those tensions are played out is the control over information: what will be kept secret, and what will not?

The story starts with the classic faceless bureaucracy, the United States government. It employs millions in its efforts to project American power around the world. Millions of them have security clearances. But it only takes one, Bradley Manning, to leak hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and other classified documents. Among the consequences of his leak has been serious embarrassment for diplomats who have been shocked to discover that their messages back to Washington weren’t actually faceless and confidential, and plenty of alarm over the possible unmasking of U.S. agents and informants in the field.

Those documents made their way to Wikileaks, which functions as a networked and mostly opaque collective. One man, however, Julian Assange, has lent his face to the organization and driven its strategy as it started working with the mainstream press. Those efforts have been controversial within Wikileaks, leading dissident members like Daniel Domscheit-Berg to reveal publicly secrets of Wikileaks’s own internal operations.

After the U.S. government started making threatening noises about WikiLeaks and various companies began cutting off its technical and payment infrastructure, the anarcho-lulzist collective Anonymous began launching retaliatory denial-of-service attacks. Anonymous embraces an identity of non-identity; although there are regular participants and influential members, they suppress their own personalities in favor of a symbolic Guy Fawkes mask. Those who talk to the press in insufficiently self-effacing ways — as some have — are shunned and mocked.

Anonymous’s members are of course potentially vulnerable to retaliation or arrest, if they can be identified. Aaron Barr thought he had put names to some of Anonymous’s leaders, and he told a reporter as much. In response Anonymous hacked the website and network of his employer, HBGary Federal, shutting down many of its systems and leaking highly embarrassing emails, including Barr’s attempts to propose dirty tricks campaigns against reporters.

My point is not that these organizations are identically situated; they use radically different models. Instead, I find it striking that despite their differences they are all grappling with some extraordinarily similar issues. Networks enormously extend the collaborative potential of individuals, knitting them together into larger and more tightly connected organizations that share information on an unprecedented scale. By precisely the same token, these networks also extend the power of the individual to do incredible damage to an organization’s secrets.

In this respect, Anonymous’s information-sharing strategy is all the more remarkable. Operations are discussed openly in publicly accessible imageboards and IRC channels, but by a group of anonymous participants. Who could pull a Bradley Manning on Anonymous? No one — and it is, ironically, because so much of what Anonymous “knows” is either already public or unknown even to other members.

This seems like an elaboration of the basic idea that there’s deep tensions between a group and the individuals who make it up - especially individuals who have a moral or personal interest in “defecting”.

  • anarcho-lulzist” —- that’s just genius. Bravo!
  • An additional tension which wasn’t addressed is the tension between the need for secrecy and the need for cooperation. The increase in the usefulness of secret information which is shared may (or may not) offset the increased risk of its exposure.
  • Technological advances have not only extended the ability for an individual to do damage to organizations which rely on secrecy; they have also extended the ability for technically adept individuals to do so while minimizing their chance of being apprehended. I think there was a very good chance that Manning would not have been caught if he had been able to refrain from boasting about his (alleged) deeds. Of course, I cannot be sure, it all depends on information I do not have (how well the logging works on SIPRNet, and whether the information which is transferred is tagged with unique errors per user, etc.).