- As Julian Assange remains in Ecuadorian embassy, the future of WikiLeaks hangs in balance
- WikiLeaks aspirants' challenge: Champion transparency, yet hide how you operate
- "Idea" of WikiLeaks not dead, but pulling it off in real life is very hard, expert says
Julian Assange has been bunking for more than a week at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London as he waits to see if the South American country will grant him asylum. If he leaves the embassy, British police say, he'll be arrested. Apparently fed up with the waiting game, late this week police sent a note to Assange asking him to turn himself in. He's apparently ignoring it.
This is just the latest Assange nail-biter since he became globally famous two years ago for publishing a trove of classified U.S. documents and sensitive State Department cables, acts that angered a lot of people who'd like him to go away.
Assange is dangling from a cliff, for sure.
Hanging by a pinky finger next to him -- WikiLeaks.
"Could the site itself go? Yes. As an idea, though, WikiLeaks isn't dead. The idea, the spirit, of leaking online is much bigger than WikiLeaks, and there are groups trying to do it," said former Guardian journalist and Columbia University journalism professor Emily Bell, who taught a class about ethics and WikiLeaks.
The operative word is "trying."
"WikiLeaks has shown that, in real life, facilitating leaks takes a lot of money and it leaves a lot of people vulnerable," she said.
The future of leaking online is bright, she said, but any WikiLeaks aspirants will have to figure out one thing.
How do you become a symbol of transparency yet hide much of how you operate?
"The trick and brilliance about WikiLeaks is that it was set up to evade law," Bell said, noting WikiLeaks had servers in different countries so no single territory could legally shut the site down. "Most mainstream publishers are just not in that business. They are still not comfortable with that. You saw even the most sophisticated and financially strong groups unable to do this."
"The technology was too complicated," Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades-Ha told CNN this week.
The newspaper is still open to the idea, she added, but won't be working on it "anytime soon."
A list for would-be leakers
Beyond technology, there are huge challenges to creating a leaking site, lessons that perhaps only the past two years of travails at WikiLeaks could have taught.
Here's the list of must-do's to pull it off:
1. A site must publish relevant and important leaked information and have the staff to vet it, even if it's a huge amount of data. The dominant aesthetic of sites that publish leaks is text, text and more text, which can dizzy the eye and feel overwhelming. Consider presentation, design. Keep in mind that readers are smart, but they are busy and cannot, probably, read a quarter-million U.S. State Department cables.
2. It has to build and maintain a communication-sharing infrastructure that protects the identity of leakers. That helps establish credibility and makes people less afraid to send information.
3. It has to be ready to pay -- in money and reputation -- for the consequences of leaking. WikiLeaks began having money problems, Assange said, not long after the 2010 published leaks. Assange claimed that various institutions and corporations had hit the site with a financial blockage. The WikiLeaks founder even joked in an online ad about how much it costs to be in the business of leaking, riffing on the classic MasterCard ads:
20 secure phones to assist in staying anonymous -- $5,000
Fighting legal cases across five countries -- $1 million
Upkeep of servers in over 40 countries -- $200,000
Donations lost due to banking blockades -- $15 million
Added cost due to house arrest -- $500,000
Watching the world change as a result of your work -- priceless
Shadow and Light
Much of Assange's work at WikiLeaks was done with the help of German computer scientist Daniel Domscheit-Berg.
For more than a year he has been at the helm of a project anticipated by some as WikiLeaks' heir apparent. Domscheit-Berg registered the domain for OpenLeaks.org in 2010, two days after he resigned from WikiLeaks.
Domscheit-Berg wrote in his memoir that he could no longer work with Assange or accomplish what he felt was WikiLeaks' goal since the massive 2010 leaks began. He wrote that Assange was a "megalomaniac" and that he could run a more transparent and focused site.
OpenLeaks is now live, but it doesn't publish any leaks. It doesn't edit or release documents, but enables third parties to publish them.
For example, if someone had information that revealed something untoward was happening in higher education, he or she could send that to an education organization without OpenLeaks even having access to it. Have a story and documents for a news organization? Use OpenLeaks to send it securely, the group says.
Other sites touted last year as WikiLeaks 2.0 don't appear to have taken off. Websites don't work, and it's unclear who is running what organization anymore, if they still exist. There's a general opaqueness in online leaking, which isn't surprising, given all the stresses involved in the practice.
One site mentioned sometimes by hackers and others is wikispooks.com. The site "invites 'whistleblower' type material through an anonymous upload facility which can be utilized in as secure a fashion as is possible on the vast spying machine that is today's World Wide Web."
CNN e-mailed an address on the Wikispooks site -- the only way it provides to communicate. CNN received a reply declining to talk about WikiSpooks. But the writer, whose identity CNN cannot verify, provided three links: The first describes what WikiSpooks is; the others address its "rationale" and "Anonymous Uploads."
There are other organizations happy to discuss their efforts to facilitate leaks online.
One of them is 100Reporters, which launched in October. The brainchild of former New York Times reporters relies on a network of experienced journalists who report stories focused on global corruption.
The site's "Whistleblower Alley" allows users to anonymously upload information and tips, said founder Diana Schemo. When a message is sent, it is automatically encrypted. Schemo receives a notice alerting her to the message. Only she possesses a code that can unscramble the encryption, Schemo explained.
The site isn't designed to receive large caches of documents, so someone sending a message would have to write that they have documents they'd like to send, and then 100Reporters decides whether to provide that person access to transmit those documents. The site explains in detail the various measures the group takes to help ensure security.
"We saw that people in different countries had trouble getting out information about corruption without tipping off a regime that would crack down on them," Schemo said. 100Reporters is funded by the Ford Foundation, and several experienced lawyers advise the organization for free.
Whistleblower Alley has not received any document leaks from whistle-blowers that have been vetted and become stories, said Schemo, but the site continues to get tips that turn into larger stories that its reporters work on.
100Reporters was well into its development when Al Jazeera launched its "Transparency Unit" in January 2011, which also says it offers a secure way for leakers to upload information.
According to Al Jazeera, only certain journalists within the organization who work with the unit can access the information.
This past year the unit has been embroiled in controversy for publishing a document dubbed "The Palestine Papers," a play on the Pentagon Papers, which were leaked to The New York Times by a whistle-blower in the 1970s.
The Palestine Papers contained minutes of a meeting among negotiators with the Palestinian Authority, the United States and Israel, according to Al Jazeera's reporting.
The news outlet said it was the largest leak of confidential files in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, contained more than 1,600 documents and offered "an unprecedented window" into Israeli, Palestinian Authority, U.S., European and Arab relations and "closed-door" negotiations. The international press covered the release of the papers and reaction to them. "Palestine papers" became a trending topic on Twitter.
Al Jazeera obtained the documents and then shared them with the Guardian, according to journalists with the British newspaper.
The leak prompted Saeb Erakat, the former Palestinian chief negotiator, to file a complaint citing privacy violations with the United Kingdom's broadcasting regulator. The regulator ruled in favor of the media in October, the Guardian reported.
Al Jazeera spokesman Osama Saeed declined a request by CNN to talk about the transparency unit.
A veteran at leaking, since 1996
There's at least one site that has stood the test of time (relative to the Internet) when it comes to leaking online.
Cryptome.org has been live since 1996. It is billed as a secret-spilling site that "welcomes documents" that are "prohibited" from release by "governments worldwide," including classified material. It doesn't vet information and makes no effort to explain documents that are uploaded. It has been criticized for making e-mail addresses and other identifying information available with only a few keystrokes.
Recently, Cryptome republished a set of racy e-mails originally uploaded to Flickr that suggested an affair between the Obama administration's nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq and a Wall Street Journal reporter.
In 2010, the site reportedly leaked internal documents about Microsoft guidelines for how the company can provide user data to law enforcement. Wired magazine reported that Microsoft managed to get the site shut down.
Cryptome upset the Department of Homeland Security by publishing a document about security at the Democratic National Convention, CNET reported in 2004.
New York architect John Young runs the site. Now in his 70s, Young is considered the grandfather of leaking online, a swami in the art of cryptography, data sharing and deciphering code. He told CNN that the site has never vetted information it posts.
"We don't promise what we are doing is true. We want the public to decide," Young said. "We don't trust authenticators of any kind. It's another form of control to authenticate."
He worked with Assange in the early days of WikiLeaks.
"People in government and others may be upset, but we can't stop the leaks," said Young. "They can blame journalists or us but we aren't the problem. The problem is people inside organizations who are leakers and want this information out, and they're going to keep doing it."
Young said he isn't afraid to continue posting leaks in light of the prosecution of U.S. Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning. Manning has been behind bars for more than two years and faces life in prison if found guilty in a court-martial proceeding on charges of stealing classified material. Information Manning is suspected of taking was published on WikiLeaks.
"There is a lot of smoke and lightning about Manning; there's not much that's going to be done to him," Young said.
The Manning case, and controversy surrounding Assange and global media coverage of the antics of Anonymous, the hacker collective, have driven more eyeballs to Cryptome, Young said.
"We're glad that Julian got famous because it brought us attention, but we're happy to take a back seat to much of that attention," said Young.
Cryptome is going to continue to publish documents. "What is the alternative?" Young asked. "That information not get out there?"
"You can call us radical, you can call it whatever you like," he said. "But we've been here much longer than WikiLeaks and we'll be here long after."