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    Whistleblowers and the Crypto-Anarchist Underground: An Interview with Andy Greenberg

    Written by

    DJ Pangburn


    Andy Greenberg in a scene from This Machine Kills Secrets book trailer

    During the late 1980s, an online movement took hold that would shape the information upheaval we've seen in recent years. The sources of the movement were manifold, but in a very real way things coalesced around the Cypherpunks—a group of cryptography activists.

    Formed by technology and politics writer and former Intel scientist Tim May, among others, it was the breeding ground for encryption efforts. It was a place where individuals with the technological and political philosophy could conspire to thumb their collective noses at governments everywhere. Some, like May, were content with keeping this privacy grail to themselves. Others, like Cryptome's John Young and a young Julian Assange, attempted to convince other Cypherpunks that liberating the masses was a worthy goal.

    In his book This Machine Kills Secrets, Forbes reporter Andy Greenberg dissects this underground world with surgical precision. The vital players are profiled, from their technical skill to their political philosophy and various inspirations. Though there are many books on Assange, Anonymous, and WikiLeaks, Greenberg's should eventually prove to be one of the most definitive on the subject—not least because he has a deep, abiding interest in the players and their efforts. He's not merely hitching his wagon to a cultural critical mass.

    I spoke to Greenberg about This Machine Kills Secrets, and the various players—Cypherpunks and whistleblowers—in the crypto-anarchy game. 

    Motherboard: Could you talk about how the government distinguishes between Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning's whistleblowing?

    Andy Greenberg: I don't think that the Obama administration was thinking about Daniel Ellsberg, or comparing Bradley Manning or other leakers to Ellsberg, who was the first leaker prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Everybody has accepted that Ellsberg is a hero. The Obama administration can't vilify him today because it's accepted that the Pentagon Papers were the right thing to do. They have to find some way to draw a distinction between all whistleblowers and leakers that they're prosecuting and this golden boy Daniel Ellsberg.

    It's the idea that Manning indiscriminately dumped a bunch of information, whereas Ellsberg carefully chose what he was revealing, and knew every word of it because he read it. And Ellsberg was also one of the analysts who wrote the Pentagon Papers. There's no way that Manning could have read even one percent of what he released because it was so voluminous. But I don't think that that changes the fact that Manning saw himself as a whistleblower. At his pre-trial hearing he said he was doing this absolutely for ethical reasons, and he believed he was exposing war crimes just like Daniel Ellsberg.

    If I remember correctly, Obama said, “We're a nation of laws ... you can't individually make your own decisions about how the laws operate.” That's obviously true, but it's interesting that we've all forgiven Daniel Ellsberg for breaking the law. We all think he did the right thing.

    But what's also interesting is that Obama said, “What Manning did was different,” as if this was more secret and dangerous information, when in fact Ellsberg's leak was top secret, while Manning's was secret. Ellsberg broke the law more seriously than Manning—not in terms of volume, but in the level of secrecy of the documents.

    There's the question of whether or not certain cyber-actions are acts of civil disobedience, in which you reject the validity of a law and then pull off a hack and/or leak for that reason.

    I don't want to entirely defend Manning because what he did was dangerous. It wasn't clear-cut that it was the right thing to do. But, it doesn't mean every illegal leak should be prosecuted because, as you say, it can be civil disobedience. And civil disobedience is often necessary as a check on the power of government and corruption. Ultimately, I think more good came out of Bradley Manning's leaks than harm.

    "Julian Assange saw the function of leaks as a sort of safety valve for corrupt conspiracies, as he called them."

    That was exactly how Julian Assange saw the function of leaks: as a sort of safety valve for corrupt conspiracies, as he called them. So, I think that Manning was operating with that framework, too, but he might have done it in a way that is scarier than anything anybody might have imagined, due just to the nature of the information that is now so voluminous. A whistleblower can think he's doing the right thing, and yet release so much information that it's not clear-cut whether he's causing more benefit or more harm.

    With that in mind, do you think there is a place for Anonymous as well, many-tentacled though it is?

    I think the more principled factions within Anonymous can do good things, as any vigilante can. But vigilantism is a pretty dangerous sort of activism. It often backfires or has unintended consequences. And it lacks the moral authority to rally a wide group of supporters. I think the result of Anonymous' hacks has mostly been to make the average American afraid of hackers, not to support Anonymous' political causes.

    Insider leaks like Manning's, on the other hand, carry some of the moral authority of a whistleblower. I think that's why we hear many more protestors chanting "Free Bradley Manning" than "Free Jeremy Hammond," for instance.

    A CryptoParty.org flier, via DeviantArt

    In the early chapters of the book, you introduce Tim May, and very quickly you start talking about the influence of Ayn Rand on May's teenage mind. And this is interesting because Rand's perspective is a total economic vision, whereas May's vision is liberation via technology, if only for himself.

    Well, he wants to liberate people from the economic forces of government. He doesn't like paying taxes, that's for sure.

    So there is an economic component to what May was after?

    I think so. But I get the impression with Ayn Rand—although I haven't read those books since high school—that she wanted to free people from all kinds of government forces when she was advocating that kind of libertarianism. Economics was part of it. And Tim May definitely ascribed to that part of her arguments.

    To be fair, he's not a huge fan of Ayn Rand, but I think that that might have started him off on libertarianism early in life. He wants to liberate people from all kinds of state powers to collect taxes, censor information, control the trade of contraband like drugs and guns. Economics is part of it, but just a little piece. I think he wanted to hamstring government in every possible way.


    "Tim May is like a prophet of crypto-anarchy. He's like Karl Marx, and a lot of the Cypherpunks who read his stuff were like Lenin, putting it into into practice."

    He was sort of interested in, if I recall correctly, building this secure system where you could buy something online and no one would know what you bought, and from whom and where you got it.

    Tim May is a really complex guy. But, I think he is mostly saying, “This is what's going to happen. It's inevitable.” He's kind of like a prophet of crypto-anarchy. He's like Karl Marx, and a lot of the Cypherpunks who read his stuff were like Lenin, putting it into practice.

    Another interesting figure in this crypto-anarchist narrative is David Chaum. In various papers he warned against the coming digital mass surveillance state. If he could see it on the horizon, I'd assume there were people in government who also saw this coming. Do you think so? 

    It's possible that the NSA has been thinking about it for decades. I guess it's always safe to assume that smart people in the public sphere are thinking about the internet, then a whole group of people in government, who are just as smart, are also trying to think of how to turn it to their advantage.

    I think David Chaum saw surveillance as a kind of natural progression, that of course it would happen if you didn't protect against it. But there was probably active thinking in the intelligence community about how to make use of this stuff. I'm sure that the FBI and other agencies were thinking about the fact that email at the time was like a postcard without enveloping. But, I don't have sources in the NSA. I'm always talking to people on the other side.

    With crypto-anarchists and people who are interested in it like Cypherpunks, it seems like the people who have that talent or that mathematical mind—in which they can code and create—are in some way a technological elite. And some of these individuals really flaunt that talent. You can see it, for instance, with Anonymous. Have you seen a crypto-anarchist effort to give that power in a democratic way to people who don't have that talent?

    That's a really interesting contrast between the different members of this movement. Tim May was absolutely an elitist. He found this thing called the Schadenfreude Society or Foundation, and it was just a joke, but he said things like, “It sucks to be poor, dumb and uneducated.” He always made fun of people who wanted to use encryption to help the world or to solve global problems. He just laughed at people who went to conferences and passed out brochures. He was sort of like, “We don't have to advocate this to help other people. Let's just keep it to ourselves and use it for our own ends.” And when he says "we," he's talking to this elite cypherpunk group. That's how he talked about things.

    You look at Julian Assange and he's clearly trying to change the world for the better. He specifically responded to Tim May once, saying, “Maybe you don't care about 95 percent of the people in the world,” but that he was most focused on the oppressed people of the world. That's how Assange describes his ideology. He wants to be this liberator and seeker of justice, which Tim May has always sort of laughed at and said, “Well, good luck, that's just not my thing.”

    Chaos Communication Camp 2007 in Finowfurt near Berlin, Germany, via Wikimedia Commons

    The reason I asked the previous question is because I read a review of Julian Assange's book Cypherpunks. The critic, remarking on Assange's discussion of Jeremie Zimmerman and Jacob Appelbaum, accused Assange of saying something to the effect that the only people who deserve to benefit from crypto talent are the people who actually have it. The critic accused Assange of celebrating crypto-elitism.

    That's definitely the Cypherpunk attitude from its early days in the 90s. Again, May didn't care about anybody but the elites. He was like, “I'm interested in protecting my stuff, keeping the government's hands off my stuff. If the rest of the world wants to burn, that's their problem.” That's the attitude that created the Cypherpunks.

    But I do think that Julian Assange and Jeremie Zimmerman have evolved that whole movement. It has become more about protecting people who are oppressed around the world, and preventing the use of surveillance by nasty governments elsewhere. It's not just a selfish and libertarian viewpoint, it's more “progressive.”

    Tim May's BlackNet also eventually inspired Tor in its current form. And what intrigues me about Tor—although I must admit ignorance of some aspects of its operation—is that it was developed by the Naval Research Lab. Not to sound too paranoid, but if Tor was developed by the government, how secure is it?

    I don't question the security of Tor because it was created by the government. The reason I don't is because the idea was developed by Paul Syverson when he was at the Naval Research Lab, but then it very quickly spun out into a nonprofit group that rewrote the code base from scratch. And it's been pored over again and again and again by some of the smartest cryptographers in academia, and they're constantly finding vulnerabilities and patching them. If there was some sort of an explicit backdoor rather than a systemic problem with it, I think it would have been found and excised and become a huge scandal a long time ago.

    But, I do think that this kind of anonymity is an incredibly difficult problem. It's not like simple, strong crypto like PGP or something. To browse the web in real-time and be anonymous is possible to do, I think, with some amount of security, but not the kind of strong crypto security that a tool like PGP allows. Unfortunately for Tor, you can always do traffic analysis, for instance, to match up what's going in and what's coming out if you can get a big enough picture of the network, and use that to identify people. There are problems found in Tor all the time and they're fixed. And more nodes are being added to Tor all the time, which is making Tor more secure.

    “These are exciting times: digital cash, black markets, and remailers. The trifecta.” 

    So, it's fair to assume then that Tim May and other Cypherpunks or crypto-anarchists are pretty pleased with a service like Tor?

    When I was writing This Machine Kills Secrets, Bitcoin was just surfacing and Gawker had just published a big article on Silk Road. A couple of congressmen were speaking out on Silk Road, saying it was really dangerous. Around this time, Tim May wrote me an email saying, “These are exciting times: digital cash, black markets, and remailers. The trifecta.” These are all of the things he predicted in 1992. We have all of this stuff and it's pretty advanced in allowing the circumvention of government that he predicted.

    This reminds me of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, where the federal government has been reduced to something pathetic. A pure bureaucracy that Terry Gilliam might imagine. The corporate city-states or nation-states possess the real power. Is it possible that we could head down that road?

    That was what Tim May was predicting. It's reasonable to wonder if crypto-anarchy can be real and work. A few months back I covered the 3D-printed gun created by Cody Wilson. He is a radical and a libertarian, but he describes himself as a crypto-anarchist. Cody told me he's been emailing with Tim May. He's not actually using crypto, except in small ways, but he still sees himself as a crypto-anarchist because he's adopting this idea that technology can carve out a space where government becomes irrelevant. For him, if anyone can print a gun in their garage, then the government and the laws become irrelevant. I don't know if Tim May ever saw that coming.

    I don't know how far away we are from a Snow Crash-style anarchic society. Somebody said the future is here, it's just not evenly distributed. That's what we're seeing. These things are popping up. There are little enclaves of the internet where crypto-anarchy is here: Silk Road or even how WikiLeaks was in some ways, which was able to circumvent government control of secrets in a way that nobody had ever done before. These are practical projects, but I don't know if they're going to build toward global crypto-anarchy.

    Do you think anarchists are looking at crypto-anarchism and seeing possibility there?

    It seems like a lot of anarchist activists are wisening up and encrypting their communications. Cody Wilson is very tech savvy, but he's not a pure crypto-anarchist. And yet, like the Cypherpunks, he's intensely aware of the potential that he's being surveilled at all times. He knows that the government probably doesn't like what he's doing, and is watching his every move. He uses encryption, and is careful about electronic communications. At one point he told me that he assumes that all of his communications are exposed. I'm not sure if Luddite anarchists are thinking the same way, but anarchists are definitely understanding that we are living in an era of electronic surveillance.

    "I think people see this leak thing as having been a flash in the pan, but I think it's still rippling around the world."

    In your book, you spoke about Rich Jones of the OpenWatch and the open-source GlobalLeaks project. What do you like about GlobalLeaks?

    GlobalLeaks is not just a site, it's a piece of software that anyone can use to create their own leak nodes, as they call it. It's like the BitTorrent to WikiLeaks' Napster.

    Are there any other leak platforms you've come across since publishing This Machine Kills Secrets that seem interesting?

    First, there was the Offshore Leaks from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. I don't know how they got those documents, but they had a set of leaked financial information about offshore financing that was 160 times the size of Cablegate. This age of megaleaks is not going away.

    But, the group I spent the most time looking at in the book, the WikiLeaks copycat Balkan Leaks, published a file that fingered the Bulgarian prime minister of Bulgaria as a mafia informant. More recently they published a more definitive file online and the prime minister resigned. It was called the Buddha Dossier, because that was his code name as a mafia informant. It's amazing to see that Balkan Leaks had an effect on the country's politics. I think people see this leak thing as having been a flash in the pan, but I think it's still rippling around the world.

    I only know about this because I talk to these guys. Who follows Bulgarian politics in America, you know? People think that this is over because they only think about American politics. People were aware of the Tunisian revolution that WikiLeaks helped spark, but they only have so much attention span for everything else. So, the fact that a group directly inspired by WikiLeaks helped lead to revolution in Bulgaria is something that really matters, but not many Americans give a crap about it.

    How do you think Edward Snowden's NSA leaks relate to This Machine Kills Secrets?

    I think Edward Snowden's leaks really vividly illustrate a few points from the book about how leakable secrets have become. Snowden was one of hundreds of thousands of contractors with top secret clearance. And the information he was leaking was easily copied and exfiltrated in a way that the Pentagon Papers wasn't. In fact, The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald has said he leaked more than a thousand files, which would have never been possible a generation ago.

    But, in many ways, Snowden's case is very different from the ones I focus on in the book. I trace the evolution of anonymity technologies like Tor and how they've helped whistleblowers. But it seems Snowden merely encrypted his communications to prevent eavesdropping on their content. He didn't anonymize them. For reasons that still aren't entirely clear, he didn't want to be anonymous. That makes him very different from Bradley Manning or other WikiLeaks-style sources.