Newspapers and other mainstream media organisations are incapable of guaranteeing confidentiality, no matter what claims they make to their sources, WikiLeaks head Julian Assange told a combined press conference-public meeting at a London university today.

Assange was launching “The Spy Files”, a co-production with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and Privacy Institute, documenting the extent to which the private surveillance industry has created systems of total surveillance over the past decade — many of them sold on to repressive governments across the world.

“If you’ve got an iPhone, a Blackberry, if you use Gmail, then you’re screwed,” Assange told the audience at London City University.

The “spy files” brings together 278 files, some of them previously published by other sources, and some of them publicly available (though often obscure) documents such as company brochures, which detail — business-to-business and business-to-state — the capacity to engage in mass surveillance, and to transform contemporary consumer technologies into surveillance devices by the remote loading of software.

One of the major surveillance operations featured in the files is French company Amesys’s Eagle/Glint system, which was sold to Muammar Gaddafi several years ago, and used by him to identify and track whole networks of opposition leaders, in London and elsewhere.

Jean-Marc Manach, a reporter from the French independent news/leaks/comment site Owni that had broken the story, detailed the way in which Amesys disguised the degree to which it had actively participated in assisting Gaddafi in identifying his enemies.

Jacob Appelbaum, developer of the Tor anonymity system, noted that such collaboration was similar in kind (though not in degree) to the collaboration of IBM with the Nazi regime in the execution of the Holocaust (“Big Blue” developed and supplied the Hollerith punch card system to the Nazis, knowing that it would be used to sort and sequester populations who were ultimately killed en masse).

Appelbaum, a former WikiLeaks associate, argued that the core of any struggle against resistance to the spread of such surveillance should be a refusal of the notion of “lawful interception”, and the development of autonomous, unbreakable encryption systems.

Eric King, of Privacy International, emphasised the manner in which such total surveillance is fusing with conventional politics, noting that it can be used to survey, identify and locate all members of a given ethnic group.

Turning a light on the way in which the now near-ubiquitous comms technology was, for WikiLeaks, a byproduct of re-engineering its submission system, Assange said, noting that the spread of such technologies over the past 10 years had been a product of increased computer power, and the spread of networks.

That is particularly pertinent for news organisations, who rely on a promise of confidentiality as part of the process for gaining scoops. Indeed many old media organisations take a point of pride in their ignorance of modern technology. In Inside WikiLeaks, the David Leigh-Luke Harding tell-all book about the cablegate release, Leigh conveyed a story about himself and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger trying, and failing, to use a system of “burners” — one-time use PAYG mobile phones — that they had learnt from episodes of The Wire.

The technique, pretty standard for hackers, proved beyond them. As it stood, the passage was no more than an example of the tiresome English cult of wilful dilettantism. Later, it became clear that Leigh had, in the same book, revealed the password that would unlock every stray copy of the unredacted “cablegate” archive, at which point such ineptitude looked less amusing.

Given that, the “spy files” would suggest that no media organisation is even slightly secure. Eric King noted that most media organisations used Gmail, which not only exposed them to easy surveillance, but also to US legal injunctions against Google, for material kept on US-based servers.

King also noted that such technology — whose export British and other governments refuse to ban — could easily be used to track Western troops in combat, given their appetite for mobile phones and Skype. And, of course, there’s no chance that say, the ISI, is supplying it to the Taliban.

The interesting thing about this initiative is that it marked a new departure for WikiLeaks — in that, while some of the material is leaked, other parts of it are freely available and some previously published. It thus amounts to a synthesis of material that argues a case more forcefully than it otherwise would, were the stories and investigations to be remain separate.

Presumably, people will begin to write stories and comment pieces working off this database. These, done in all various fora, could then be listed and hyperlinked on the WikiLeaks page. Then you’d have …

Well what you’d have is what newspapers used to do, solely and in-house. Essentially, it reverses the relationship between source, investigator and newspaper, and exposes the dependency of the last of these on the first two. In a new media environment, this re-assemblage of the investigative process can’t help but pose awkward questions about what newspapers are actually for.

With vastly less resources, WikiLeaks appears to have assembled a body of material, an argument and a narrative about a huge scandal, throwing a harsh light not merely on the essentially passive role played by The Guardian and others in the “cablegate” process, but also on papers’ tendency to rest on their laurels after such stories, sometimes for years.

Perhaps that accounted for some of the tetchy questions from the press, which quickly turned on whether WikiLeaks was claiming these were all leaks (they weren’t claiming such), and whether revelations about the two-year old Amesys file for Gaddafi was a security breach for the people concerned — that would be the late Colonel Gaddafi, and the people surveilled are all, erm, now in power.

Well, the file is there and synthesised, with old and new material. A whole dimension of power is made visible to those of us who don’t specialise in it. Seems to me that can’t be a bad thing, but possibly doesn’t look that way if you’re trying to sell a paper or a book based on being an exclusive provider of such.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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