Forbes Writer Andy Greenberg on Wikileaks, 'The Secrets-Killing Machine' and the Bulgarian Contribution
Forbes magazine technology, privacy, and information security reporter, Andy Greenberg, author of the book "This Machine Kills Secrets." Photo courtesy of Andy Greenberg
Exclusive interview for Novinite.com and Novinite.bg with Forbes magazine's technology, privacy, and information security reporter, Andy Greenberg, about his book "This Machine Kills Secrets" and the Bulgarian trace.
Andy Greenberg is a Forbes magazine reporter, based in New York City. He recently authored and published the book "This Machine Kills Secrets," a chronicle of the history and future of information leaks, from the Pentagon Papers to WikiLeaks and beyond.
Тhe book, which has already received great reviews in the US, has its very own "Bulgarian trace." Part of the narrative is dedicated to Bulgarian investigative journalists Atanas Tchobanov and Assen Yordanov, and their site BalkanLeaks, which Greenberg calls "WikiLeaks' Most Successful Copycat Site."
Their other project, the site for investigative journalism Bivol.bg is the official partner of Wikileaks for Bulgaria.
Intrigued by the reviews and the Bulgarian connection, we asked Greenberg a
few questions, and he was kind enough to accept the invitation, despite his busy schedule.
The book is not yet available in Bulgaria, even in English.
Tell us more about the book.
When WikiLeaks was hitting its peak of record breaking disclosures of classified documents in late 2010, I became determined to figure out how it was able to do what it was doing--obtaining and publishing more secrets than any journalists ever could. And as a technology journalist, I had a sense that there WikiLeaks was made possible by new technological mechanisms, not just by the personality of Julian Assange, as most of the rest of the media was portraying WikiLeaks. So I set out to trace the history of cryptography and anonymity, how a new age of strong anonymity that integrates cryptographic ideas is enabling whistleblowers and leakers on a scale that no one had ever seen before, and how those tools will also enable the next WikiLeaks, whoever that may be.
What prompted you the write this book?
In late 2010 I started to imagine Julian Assange on the cover of Forbes magazine, where I work as a writer--I felt that WikiLeaks should be just as important to business readers as those in government. So I made contact with a WikiLeaks staffer in Iceland and started chatting with him online. After meeting a few more people in the organization Assange agreed to meet with me in London, and gave me a really deep three hour or so interview. That interview led to a Forbes cover story--the first magazine cover story about Assange--and kind of fueled my obsession with WikiLeaks, which would lead me to spend the next year writing the book.
How did you come up with the title?
I wanted to evoke the idea that there is intricate machinery underlying WikiLeaks and projects like it. I initially wanted to call the book "The Leak Machine" but my agent thought that sounded slightly too evocative of toilets. And around that time I saw a guy in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York playing a guitar with the same words written on it that were written on Woody Guthrie's guitar: This Machine Kills Fascists. So I felt like there was a connection between Guthrie's kind of protest movement and the cypherpunks working toward their own political ideal of a tool that almost automatically generates transparency. And I liked the fact that the title is rather ambiguous...the machine that kills secrets isn't just WikiLeaks, but also the photocopier that duplicated the Pentagon Papers, early WikiLeaks-like experiments like Blacknet and Cryptome, or even the Internet itself.
How did you learn about BalkanLeaks?
I was closely following the explosion of WikiLeaks "copycat" sites that appeared in late 2010 and 2011. There must be more than fifty sites that end in -leaks now, like FrenchLeaks, QuebecLeaks, UniLeaks, BrusselsLeaks, RuLeaks, AnonLeaks, IndoLeaks, JumboLeaks, ScienceLeaks and TradeLeaks, to name a few off the top of my head. But BalkanLeaks was one of the first, and it intrigued me because it seemed to actually be publishing material
right from the start, rather than just making big plans. So I got in touch with Atanas and began talking with him in early 2011.
Could you tell us about you meeting with Atanas Tchobanov and Assen Yordanov? Do you think they are in any danger with their projects BalkanLeaks and Bivol.bg in Bulgaria? Did you form an opinion on the state of investigative journalism in Bulgaria and of Bulgarian media in general?
I first met Atanas in Istanbul, and he gave me a ride to the Bulgarian town of Varvara, where I met Assen. Atanas was giving a seminar on how journalists should use anonymity and encryption tools. It seemed to me that they were really proving the ideas of the cypherpunks--the radicals of the 1990s who first dreamt of using cryptography to enable radical disclosures of information--and showing that what Assange did was not a one-off, but something that could be replicated by any journalist with credibility and technical know-how.
I did and do worry about their safety. Assen in particular has already experienced an attempted assassination, as I detailed in the book. But I'd like to think that by shining a light on their work--though the book, my writing about them in Forbes and the excerpts from the book about them in Slate--their enemies might be less willing to attack them and risk international embarrassment.
I'm no expert on Bulgarian media, but it does seem like investigative journalism is stunted in Bulgaria. Many journalists have been attacked or intimidated for revealing the truth about those in power, and some of the most important revelations that Assen and Atanas have made through BalkanLeaks and their partnership with WikiLeaks--you name them below--have largely been ignored by the media as a whole.
Why do you think BalkanLeaks is the "WikiLeaks' Most Successful Copycat Site?"
Because it's really the only copycat site to successfully use the same tools--most fundamentally the use of a Tor Hidden Service as a submissions platform that requires its sources to be anonymous--to obtain secret files. Even before its partnership with WikiLeaks, BalkanLeaks seemed to be publishing a small but steady stream of leaks, whereas most every other WikiLeaks copycat received nothing.
The US diplomatic cables, leaked by WikiLeaks, though hushed by most mainstream media, stirred some turmoil in Bulgaria, particularly those on Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov's alleged past ties with the underworld, the "encyclopedia" of organized crime in the country, and the one about the eight Bulgarian banks that are "bad apples." Those affected dismiss them as yellow journalism and question their authenticity. Are the cables authentic and based on sound evidence?
I have yet to see a cable among those released by WikiLeaks that was forged. And it does seem that the authors of the cables--American diplomats--don't throw around unsubstantiated allegations. At the very least, when the American ambassador in Sofia writes that the Prime Minister of Bulgaria has ties to criminal activity, it seems to warrant further investigation by the Bulgarian government and media, don't you think?
If they are authentic, were diplomats careless in not encrypting them? Some are quite embarrassing for American diplomacy...
I don't think encryption would have been the answer, as Bradley Manning (the alleged source of the cables) likely would have had the decryption key. More careless was the sheer number of staffers in the U.S. military, government and contractor firms who have access to secret and top secret documents. I don't have the numbers in front of me, I'm afraid, but they're in the book. At last count, 4 million with secret access and 1.2 million top secret. Shared secrets leak, and these have been shared so widely it's hard to call them secret at all.
Libel law in the UK seems to make it very difficult to print accusations against powerful people, even when they come from official sources like a U.S. ambassador's memo. To be clear, the U.S. version of the book includes the cable mentioning Borisov's alleged criminal ties. But in the U.K. version I was forced by my publisher to take it out and replace it with an invitation to the reader to simply enter some search terms into Google and see the publicly-available document about Borisov. It all seemed pretty silly, but at least the Internet exists to provide information censored by this kind of restrictive legal system.
How did the Bulgarian investigative reporters managed to become official partners of WikiLeaks?
Besides BalkanLeaks, are there any other successful WikiLeaks copycats? Did whistle-blowers, cryptographers and hackers change the ways of journalism?
I haven't found another group that's implemented WikiLeaks' techniques so successfully. I think Assen and Atanas have a rare combination of journalistic credibility and technology/ security savvy, the same recipe that allowed Julian Assange to make WikiLeaks so effective. I think what their stories show is that successful journalists will implement these tools to counter surveillance of their sources, and that in some cases, those tools and the nature of information in the digital age will also enable journalists to crack open institutional secrets on a scale that was never possible before.
What is the future of Wikileaks – is it going to come back as a phoenix or is it going to be replaced by a new project? Do these projects have a future after all?
WikiLeaks itself seems to be rather paralyzed, and I'm not sure it will ever reach the level of activity that it achieved in 2010. But I think the ideas that WikiLeaks brought to light absolutely have a future. If you read my book, you'll see that cryptographically anonymous leaking projects like WikiLeaks have been developing for more than two decades. Given that they've just now had their biggest successes ever, I wouldn't expect them to disappear--though we may see a kind of hibernation until the next Julian Assange appears.
You seem to have taken a real interest in Bulgaria? You recently wrote an article about the Bulgarian blogger and digital rights activist who discovered that information and data about a huge number of Facebook users can be purchased online for pocket change. And, first and foremost, you wrote an article about four banks, labeled by former US Ambassador Beyrle "bad apples" threatening to crush Bivol and BalkanLeaks. What prompted you to write them?
I felt it was important to keep following the story of BalkanLeaks/Bivol as the backlash against them appears. As I said above, I hope that international media attention to the apparent retaliation against them by those they've embarrassed will protect them to some degree.
The story about Bogomil Shopov's purchase of 1.1 million Facebook users' data for USD 5 was something that Atanas pointed out to me, actually, when we were talking about his bank troubles.
Did you have any troubles publishing the "banks" article in Forbes?
Our lawyer was a bit concerned. But the story was mostly there in the WikiLeaks cable published by Atanas and Assen. It's times like those, when you're arguing with a lawyer over whether you can publish something controversial about someone in power, that you really appreciate WikiLeaks' work in putting these documents into the public domain.
What are you impressions of Bulgaria as a country? What is your most vivid memory from the places you visited and the people you met during your short trip?
I only managed to see the east coast of Bulgaria, but I was pleasantly surprised by what a warm, beautiful and friendly country it is. The time I spent with Atanas and Assen in Varvara and Burgas was some of the most enjoyable travel I did for the book, and I'm trying to convince my wife we need to take a Bulgarian vacation soon. Perhaps when the Bulgarian translation of the book is published?
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