Wikileaks: How the organization functions and operates

Summary:ZDNet's Wikileaks series: This post will examine how Wikileaks operates and functions, amid the vast media preoccupation with its values of secrecy.

This week-long serialisation forms the vast part of my undergraduate dissertation: "An empirical analysis of Wikileaks, pre- and post- the 2010 diplomatic cables release". Media organisation or terrorist group; revolutionaries or journalistic evolutionists? This post will examine how Wikileaks not only operates but crucially how it functions amid the vast press preoccupation with its values of secrecy.

Wikileaks has been popularised in modern culture as the modern day 'bad guys' by governments, as a result of the vast number of leaks of numerous high profile content.

In the case of the diplomatic cables, a typical Wikileaks' whistleblower who would normally submit one or two documents to the site under the 'old regime' of pre-2009 would go on to be one of the most prolific whistle-blower in U.S. history.

It is alleged that Private First Class Bradley Manning, a U.S. soldier with access to SIPRnet, one of many US military secure networks, leaked both the caches known as the 'Afghan War Logs' and the 'Iraq War Logs', a video showing the killing of numerous Iraqi suspected militants along with a Reuters journalist from an Apache helicopter, and the U.S. diplomatic cables.

The Iraq War Logs alone constitute the largest breach in U.S. secrets in history. Collectively, the releases could significantly damage the national security of the United States and its allies, it is argued.

Yet before Wikileaks rose to worldwide media and public recognition with the aforementioned leaks, highly spurred on by media outlets not exclusive to the New York Times, the Guardian and the BBC which covered the releases in gratuitous detail, the organisation relied on whistleblowing from the wider general public.

During the 'old regime' of the site in 2006-2009, Wikileaks relied on individual whistleblowers which had a broad spread across the public and private sector of various governments and organisations. Some of these appeared to be frivolous and aimed at being more defamatory than for genuine public consumption, such as the release of Sarah Palin's email account during the US presidential election and the release of the British National Party's membership list.

In both cases, arrests were made either as a result of Wikileaks' disclosure, or through the act of 'whistleblowing' and releasing the data directly or indirectly into the public domain.

However, others were barely covered if at all, ranging from the disclosure of treatment of Guantanamo detainees, to the very first leak -- the authorisation of assassination of government officials by a former Somali colonel.

On the other hand, though whistleblowing in many countries and states is protected by law to expose wrongdoing, the deliberate act of hacking or accessing unauthorised material misrepresents the term 'to whistleblow' and renders it as a highly malleable term.

Little is known of absolute fact about the Wikileaks' operations and definitive circumstances of how the site actually started. Various interviews with personnel from the organisation give some understanding, though there are major gaps of knowledge

The Julius Baer Bank and Trust injunction relates to Wikileaks as an "entity of unknown form", which suggests either Wikileaks did not represent 'itself' in court or even the authorities did not know the size and breadth of the organisation.

Daniel 'Schmitt', real name Daniel Domscheit-Berg, was the official spokesperson before Assange and helped assemble Wikileaks in the very beginning. He resigned in 2010 citing disputes over arguments between himself and Assange, and that the direction of Wikileaks had become "too focused on large projects" and that other co-workers were 'unhappy'.

Wired magazine, in an extensive interview with some numerous, now high-profile members of Wikileaks in October 2009, offered a previously unseen insight into the structure of the organisation.

Though some details may have changed since, it gave an unprecedented insight into a highly secretive group.

John Young, founder of "cryptome.org", was also an original member of Wikileaks serving on its advisory board. Though, he accused Wikileaks of being a 'CIA conduit' and stated that other advisory board members are on the most part anonymous, very secretive and as a result now 'open to infiltration by spies'.

This leads to the consideration that the decentralised nature of Wikileaks led to a potential lack of management structure shown by this dispute.

The advisory board intended to lend credibility and structure to the organisation while providing exposure for Wikileaks -- though even members are described as 'not clear' exactly what the advisory board is for; suggesting there could be a further 'inner sanctum' of co-founders only, Assange included.

Wired UK quoted a Wikileaks member, stating the number of people involved in Wikileaks is unclear, though it is understood that over 1,000 documents a day were submitted and checked by volunteers. This is supported by the use of peer-to-peer technology discussed later on across the globe of contributors, supporters and sympathisers.

It is claimed in the Wired UK article that along with Assange, Suelette Dreyfus co-founded the site but now serves as a member of the on advisory board, similarly to Domscheit-Berg. It is also believed that Assange 'controls the trajectory' of Wikileaks and controls the advisory board in some capacity, leading to an understanding of a high, if not the highest position, hence the legal battles in present day.

A point made about the conflicting information about Wikileaks is a 'good thing', citing one member of the advisory board interviewed. This person claimed it would not be too difficult to discover the people behind the organisation, though their identities are kept secret of their own fruition, "but there is no need to make [governments'] lives easy".

Continue reading

The next post will look into the air of anonymity on the web, and the connection between Wikileaks and online 'hactivist' group, Anonymous. Read more.

In this series:

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Topics: Mobility, Government, Government : US, Hardware, Networking, Telcos

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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