WikiLeaks: A Terrorist's Best Friend?
If WikiLeaks' Julian Assange were in memoir-writing mode, I'd bet "How to Win Friends and Influence People" would not be among the likely titles.
A week after releasing 251,000 diplomatic cables that caused at the very least embarrassment on a global scale -- and quite likely damaged U.S. ties with dozens of countries -- WikiLeaks has taken a step that will surely cause it to lose support from most of the people (like yours truly) who've defended it in the past.
[ Check out Cringely's biggest tech turkeys of 2010. | Get the spin on key tech news that you'll find nowhere else at InfoWorld's Tech Watch blog. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]
On Sunday, WikiLeaks published a list of facilities around the world that, if taken out by terrorists, could cause all hell to break loose: Russian gas pipelines, Canadian hydroelectric dams, Danish vaccine factories, Saudi oil distilleries, Scottish nuclear sub facilities, bauxite mines in Africa, undersea cables near Mexico, and so on. The list was requested from various diplomatic missions around the world in 2008 by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Now of course, it's available to you and 6 billion of your closest friends, courtesy of WikiLeaks. Think of it as an early Christmas for al-Qaida -- if al-Qaida celebrated Christmas -- or really, any nut job with a grudge and the ability to turn ordinary household chemicals into a weapon. Why go hunting for a target when you can download a handy list?
As the New York Times notes, WikiLeaks doesn't list the addresses of each facility, just the country and city, and many of these sites are already in terrorists' cross-hairs. They also don't include maps and drawings with little X's that say "bomb this," but in the age of Google do they really have to?
Gadhafi's Ukranian nurse and the Putin/Berlusconi bromance this isn't. This leak is an order of magnitude beyond the original cables.
WikiLeaks defense? That millions of U.S. military personnel and others have already been given this list, so it isn't all that secret. And the leak "further undermines claims made by the U.S. government that its embassy officials do not play an intelligence-gathering role," per Kristinn Hrafnsson, a WikiLeaks spokesman.
You mean U.S. embassies are hotbeds of spies? Why weren't we told about this? Oh, that's right, we were -- about 40 years ago, or shortly after James Bond ordered his first "shaken not stirred" martini. It's been a staple of spy films ever since.
This list isn't about journalism or freedom of information or revealing secrets the world deserves to hear about. It's about payback. It's a veiled threat.
Remember, it's been a tough week for Assange and his team. His site got DDoS'd, ousted from Amazon after pressure from the U.S. Congress, and shunted over to a new Swiss URL that's also under attack. Rape charges against Assange have reemerged, months after they were initially dropped. His Swiss bank account has been closed (though I understand he gets to keep the toaster he got for opening a Christmas account). And death threats against Assange are being issued, I'm guessing, on an hourly basis.
It gets worse: Assange's attorney has warned that if the 39-year-old Aussie is prosecuted or assassinated, they will unleash files they've been holding onto -- an electronic "thermonuclear device" of files containing the unredacted names of soldiers, spies, and informants. It's their "insurance policy."
Thus explaining the release of the current list -- it's just a small sample of the damage Assange and WikiLeaks could wreak, if they wanted to.
Assange and WikiLeaks have become a cause célèbre for many Netizens who rail against attempts at censorship. At press time, more than 70 mirror sites have sprung up, in case the newest WikiLeaks site goes down too.
The problem with this argument? WikiLeaks has moved beyond the role of whistleblower/journalist defending the public's right to know and moved closer to 4chan territory -- wreaking havoc just because it can.
By threatening to put people in harm's way in order to defend itself, it has gone too far. At this point, WikiLeaks is on the verge of becoming a terrorist organization in its own right. No matter how much you love freedom of information and hate governmental control, those kinds of tactics cannot be condoned. It's time for Assange and WikiLeaks to back off.
Are WikiLeaks' actions defensible or reprehensible? Post your thoughts below or email me: email@example.com.
This article, "WikiLeaks: A terrorist's best friend?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringeley's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.