#Hackers, #torrents and #whistleblowers: A new culture of transparency
Photo: Adapted from Transparency tile. 17 April 2008. carol.
In a traditional sense, the practice of whistle-blowing was understood as the publishing of information which could normally be accessed only due to a privileged position a person held inside an organization. The information was normally filtered in order to denounce corruption and abuse within the organization’s structure.
In this view, a whistle-blower is one who, having access to inside information that can prove a certain case of wrongdoing, provides the data as evidence, normally to an institution which has the power to take action. Due to the lack of confidence in government and public institutions – since the fact being reported often relates to a such an institution - whistle-blowers tend to give inside information to media organizations in order for them to move the case into public scrutiny.
Even though many progressive investigative media organizations have opened their doors to welcome whistle-blower information throughout modern and contemporary history, the tactic was becoming less and less common until recently.
This trend might be because mainstream media organizations have assumed political and economical agendas in a clearer way, as their published content has become perceptively compromised. In general, media providers engaged in the trend of following back-channel agendas and market dynamics based on shareholders’ and advertisers’ interests have lost their commitment with unbiased journalism.
That said, whistle-blowing is a moral decision which is far from being simple. Not only most of the times it can be considered an illegal act (there is a varying degree of legal frameworks on this issue) to obtain restricted information, there is also the question of possible retaliation by the organizations accused, which can include smear campaigns, loss of employment or other forms of harassment. The decision to ‘blow the whistle’ is closely interwoven with strong moral convictions and the practical belief that somewhere, someone might be able to provide a solution to injustice.
Evolution of the practice
In the last phase of the 2oth century and the beginning of the 21st, the dynamics of whistle-blowing have changed deeply, shifting towards new models. In general we can say that with certain projects they have become institutionalized, have an international scope and due to their merging with Internet and hacker culture, many have become more radical in their means. All demonstrate, in an empiric manner, that whistle-blowing is going beyond the traditional model described above.
The success of Wikileaks is an example for these assertions. It is a not-for-profit media organization that since 2006 has been bent on giving the general public access to the inside information of government and private entities around the world, with a varying degree of success but with an unquestioned impact on the practice. Although the publication of the Cablegate in 2010, around 250 thousand classified cables of the U.S. State Department, is considered the biggest leak of U.S. history, providing evidence of widespread corruption in different organizations around the world, its main value is not derived from this fact.
In the end very few of the corruption cases, including serious war crimes revealed by Cablegate resulted in legal persecution. The real impact of these revelations was the massive social awareness they managed to generated, which arguably resulted in the beginning of the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia.
Most of the last releases Wikileaks has claimed have worked in the same way. The 3.5 million e-mails leaked from Stratfor, a U.S. based private intelligence company (one of the world’s largest), that are gradually being published is working mostly to demonstrate how the secretive industry works, and even though many of their actions are borderline illegal no action has been taken by the U.S. Administration. In this case what we are seeing is how a company which thrives off working in the shadow is being pushed into public opinion, and its work is being put constantly under scrutiny. Their activities include things which are obviously of public interest (see Trapwire) so the general effect can be considered very positive.
The second example are the new breed of Internet activists that, among other activities, aim to filter different kinds of inside information into the public domain.
These international hacktivist collectives have centered mostly on two kinds of data. The first kind is usually software source-codes, audiovisual or interactive content which are held under what they consider to be restrictive copyright rules. These are the principles behind the The Pirate Bay activists, which are discussed below.
On the other hand, more politicized hacktivist collective Anonymous, is now also focused on disclosing information of governments and private enterprises which reveal the organizations’ structures and procedures – inside communications and reports, logistic and personnel databases, public relations, inside statistics or project blueprints.
Both kinds of hacktivism have also changed the way the information is shared. Bit-torrent peer-to-peer file sharing is making it more transparent as there are less filters between the whistle-blower and the audience; and more effective, as it can reach a massive audience easily and almost for free. Passing information through these almost unstoppable channels has become immensely popular in the last ten years. They are normally maintained by users and empowered by hackers, and are by far the most effective way to exchange and make information publicly available. Through this path, the ‘pirate movement’ has literally invaded the interwebs in an uncontrollable way, despite constant threats and retaliation.
We believe this serves to prove that whistle-blowing is moving toward creating social awareness, thus transcending the mere search of proving corruption. The recent #Trapwire case is a strong example, as it uncovered the engines of a worldwide scheme of surveillance involving governments and companies: although no deep legal fault was revealed, it helped people to understand mechanisms of society which directly interfere in their lives and are systematically kept secret.
Hacktivism and whistle-blowing
The ways of acquiring inside information have also changed notably over the past decades. With the advent of a new context of exchange and transmission of information, the flow of data inside organizations now depends on computer networks. These are the so called ‘interwebs’, the Internet being just one of them. In this scenario, valuable inside information began to be stored and managed through on-line repositories.
The same technological advance that enabled institutions and organizations to be faster, global and more complexly interconnected, has been brought about thanks to the management of those networks. This has triggered the rise of a new and very powerful area of expertise: computer network experts.
Computer science and its experts have an old relationship with breaking into systems and restricted information. As a matter of fact, The Turing Machine, one of the ancestors of the modern digital computer created by the father computer sciences, Alan Turing, was used to break into the infamous Geheimfernschreiber (‘The Enigma’) cipher, an encryption method used by the Germans to protect their communications during World War II. Since those days computer experts have gradually increased their ability in breaking ciphers and systems to gain access to computers, networks and servers, thus ultimately acquiring information without the owner’s consent.
Up until then, access to this kind of information could be ordered, bought, sold and exchanged by powerful organizations and individuals. The innovation we are talking about deals with having access to inside information through hacking computers, ciphers and networks and then making them freely available to the public in general.
Taking control over network domains, however, is considered to be an illegal practice and has been met with harsh prison sentences in many cases. Hacktivist whistle-blowers justify their activities based on altruistic moral values built over strong political convictions.
Although Anonymous is not the only hacking group dedicated to these practices and it even though is difficult to mention the group as a whole due its decentralized and leaderless structure, it serves as our example. Gabriella Coleman writes in April 2011:
“What we can note about Anonymous is that since the winter of 2008 it has become a political gateway for geeks (and others) to take action.”
A clear demonstration of these views are the two last major disclosures of Wikileaks, both the Global Intelligence Files and the Syria Files which were allegedly handled to the media organization by Internet hacktivists related to Anonymous.
A new culture of transparency
The examples below show that whistle-blowing, originally designed for concrete cases, is becoming closer to the struggle for the simple right to know things, the attitude of these new activists is making information – in a broader sense – free and globally accessible. This trend is becoming a worldwide movement, a transnational and popular community struggling for freedom and autonomy in transparency.
According to a member of the collective Par:Anoia ( the whistle-blowing initiative backed by the Anonymous collective) with whom we talked to, stated that:
“We [Par:Anoia] are here to defend the free flow of information, the right of free speech and to bring corruption into light.”
Besides the traditional cause of turning corruption into the public sphere, the Collective adds two more: a) information as a public and free good and b) the freedom to provide and propagate it. The same anonymous writer adds that:
“Every bit of censored information which we take notice is being censored, we will put online, uncensored”.
As Coleman stated, in September 2010 “coming in the form of politically motivated DDoS attacks, Anonymous targeted the MPAA (and eventually other organizations and companies) to show support for the famous file-sharing site, The Pirate Bay soon after its servers were DDoSed by an Indian software firm that had been hired by the MPAA to engage in this form of digital privateering”. The important shift came in “December 2010, soon after Wikileaks released a small trove of diplomatic cables, those participating in Operation Payback shifted their energies to engage in the largest and most spectacular set of actions to date. Anonymous did not protest only to register its support to Wikileaks; they launched into action in response to PayPal, Mastercard, and Amazon pulling all support and services for Wikileaks, despite the organization not having been charged with any infraction”.
Wikileaks’ moral policies state that the organization “will accept restricted or censored material of political, ethical, diplomatic or historical significance”. Even though there is no public statistic on whether Wikileaks disclosures motivated forms of legal persecution over alleged wrongdoers, the contents revealed by the organization are of immense public interest, as they are important pieces for the understanding of the society we live in.
The following short interview with a Wikileaks spokesperson – dating late 2010 at the time of the releasing of Cablegate – is very explanatory:
Kristinn Hrafnsoon declared to live CNN:
“People have the right to know what their governments are up to.”
The Pirate Bay
Although those declarations, according to one of the members, cannot officially represent the positioning of The Pirate Bay, when speaking with affiliates of the collective one of them said about the group:
“information should be free to begin with (…) the same philosophy appears online with FSF/GNU and Wikileaks (…)its for humanity’s benefit”.
“we enable whistle-blowers in a way by allowing free exchange of information (…) so the data can never be made nonfree again”.
The Pirate Bay is a community empowered by a hacktivist collective that maintains a massive bit-torrent based file-sharing system, giving easy access to databases of magnet links. Founded in 2003, it is considered to be one of the biggest facilitators of downloads in the world, exercising a relevant influence in the worldwide trend against copyright and censorship. Members consider themselves ‘Internet pirates’.
These cases make us notice how some of the current most significant movements for freedom of information hold similar basic principles: to propagate and make public restricted information which is of public interest.
The effect has been very clear. Late in 2011, Santiago Carrion pointed out, regarding Wikileaks and Anonymous:
“the world-wide social turmoil of the last year  is closely linked with the availability of information, or in other words, with the stark quest for transparency with which corrupt Governments and corporations around the globe have suddenly come face to face with.”
The traditional characteristics of whistle-blowing have evolved, new and updated ones have been added to the former due to historical reasons, crystallizing in a new social disposition towards transparency, more active, inclusive, effective, broader in scope and more coordinated.
The obvious greed of the copyright-based culture industry, backed by unfair laws and abusive secrecy exercised by government and corporate institutions has generated a global understanding that censorship, restriction, secrecy, conspiracy… are new forms of corruption.
This new culture of transparency has formed in the moment when information that is of public interest is considered to harm society as a whole.
Note: Copyright laws, cryptography, privacy and public interest are topics that also bring deep questions and conceptual conflicts. We pretend to develop on these subjects in further works.
*1 Carrion, Santiago. #WikiLeaks fight for transparency continues on the Internet . 6 July, 2011.
*2 Coleman, Gabriella. Anonymous: From the Lulz to Collective Action. 6 April, 2011.
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