Wigs, Digital & Whistle-Blowing

Any story that involves disguises -- wigs, dyed hair, knit caps -- will capture my attention, every time. But, add journalistic themes and digital, and I am riveted. I spent most of last week and the weekend entranced by the story of founder Julian Assange, who is somewhat on the run for his establishment of this massive, digitally supported whistle-blowing operation.

Over the weekend, the organization began its latest watershed with the release of 400,000 Iraq war documents, to be followed by 15,000 remaining documents on the Afghan war. You may recall that this summer, the organization's site posted 77,000 classified Pentagon documents on the Afghan conflict. All of this material is available on the website for open browsing. It's being called the largest leak of government documents in U.S. history.< 



One aspect of Assange's notoriety is the modern genius he used to establish Wikileaks: blending a knack for expert computer hacking with certifiably genius IQ levels. The engineering and the platform at first allowed Assange to gather and store secrets in bulk, keeping them walled before releasing them in a flash for global consumption. His operation, donor base, staff and reach have grown as he has become an increasingly denounced man. Many would say his hands are anything but clean of blood for the impact that his revelations have had. Whether or not he is truly hunted, he seems to believe that he is. That is a story unto itself, though this really isn't the place to discuss that aspect.

From where we sit, though, there are many engaging facets of the story:

 1. If you look at the details -- the way Assange moves, traveling with an entourage including a film maker, on the ready for public record and media release; the access and robustness of the website itself; the implied volume capacity and the speed - the whole thing seems very much a story of our media times. In a word: awesome.

2. There's a lot of language on the website and in quotes from Assange about journalistic principles, standards and purported commitment to the public's right to know. To wit:

"Wikileaks has combined high-end security technologies with journalism and ethical principles. Like other media outlets conducting investigative journalism, we accept (but do not solicit) anonymous sources of information. Unlike other outlets, we provide a high security anonymous drop box fortified by cutting-edge cryptographic information technologies. This provides maximum protection to our sources. We are fearless in our efforts to get the unvarnished truth out to the public. When information comes in, our journalists analyse the material, verify it and write a news piece about it describing its significance to society. We then publish both the news story and the original material in order to enable readers to analyse the story in the context of the original source material themselves. Our news stories are in the comfortable presentation style of Wikipedia, although the two organisations are not otherwise related. Unlike Wikipedia, random readers can not edit our source documents."

That's a lot of word count devoted to a sort of journalistic moral authority. Many would say liberties are taken with this journalistic positioning and that Assange and his team do not understand the ramifications and real flesh-and-blood impact of such large-scale releases in wartime (even some on his team who have departed would agree.). This concept is incredibly interesting for us to consider, as people dealing with technology-enabled vehicles for media and journalism. You might find yourself conflicted. I am. 

3. Whistle-blower envy. If you took a look at the coverage, you'll see that former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, the guy who in 1971 released the Pentagon Papers, a 1,000-page secret history of the Vietnam War, joined this weekend's press conference with Assange. Side by side, they denounced the Obama administration's aggressive pursuit of whistle-blowers. It was fascinating to listen to Ellsberg, in an interview on "Democracy Now," compare the tools and infrastructure of today to what he had at his fingertips. He recalls "Xeroxing 7,000" pages. (The video of the interview is available on the homepage.) Oh, how far the arsenal has come. No Xeroxing for Assange; just a wig and someone pushing the code live. 

As is often the case, I'd intended to write about something else entirely: instant search, mobile creative units, the latest news in self-regulation and privacy. But, again, a weekend obsession took over my MacBook, and all previous drafts were toast. This is a story I could not let go by without comment.

1 comment about "Wigs, Digital & Whistle-Blowing ".
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  1. Steve Bucholz from SABA solutions, October 25, 2010 at 4:55 p.m.

    Kudos to you for taking the time out from the usual commentary to elevate this story to the status it deserves. Certainly, there is plenty of peril for the "whistle blower" and that is being born out weekly. I would suggest , however that the real danger was actually being born by the tens of thousands of Iraqi's who have been killed innocently or otherwise during the throes of a conflict that seemingly had no compelling reason to be fought. If what Wikileaks released is true and authentic, the real downside is that it is in front of us now and we should deal with the realities as a Nation.

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