1 day ago1 day ago
Matt Taibbi – I went yesterday to a screening of We Steal Secrets, Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney’s brilliant new documentary about Wikileaks. The movie is beautiful and profound, an incredible story that’s about many things all at once, including the incredible Shakespearean narrative that is the life of Julian Assange, a free-information radical who has become an uncompromising guarder of secrets.
I’ll do a full review in a few months, when We Steal Secrets comes out, but I bring it up now because the whole issue of secrets and how we keep them is increasingly in the news, to the point where I think we’re headed for a major confrontation between the government and the public over the issue, one bigger in scale than even the Wikileaks episode.
We’ve seen the battle lines forming for years now. It’s increasingly clear that governments, major corporations, banks, universities and other such bodies view the defense of their secrets as a desperate matter of institutional survival, so much so that the state has gone to extraordinary lengths to punish and/or threaten to punish anyone who so much as tiptoes across the informational line.
This is true not only in the case of Wikileaks – and especially the real subject of Gibney’s film, Private Bradley Manning, who in an incredible act of institutional vengeance is being charged with aiding the enemy (among other crimes) and could, theoretically, receive a death sentence.
There’s also the horrific case of Aaron Swartz, a genius who helped create the technology behind Reddit at the age of 14, who earlier this year hanged himself after the government threatened him with 35 years in jail for downloading a bunch of academic documents from an MIT server. Then there’s the case of Sergey Aleynikov, the Russian computer programmer who allegedly stole the High-Frequency Trading program belonging to Goldman, Sachs (Aleynikov worked at Goldman), a program which prosecutors in open court admitted could, “in the wrong hands,” be used to “manipulate markets.”
Aleynikov spent a year in jail awaiting trial, was convicted, had his sentence overturned, was freed, and has since been re-arrested by a government seemingly determined to make an example out of him.
And most recently, there’s the Matthew Keys case, in which a Reuters social media editor was charged by the government with conspiring with the hacker group Anonymous to alter a Los Angeles Times headline in December 2010. The change in the headline? It ended up reading, “Pressure Builds in House to Elect CHIPPY 1337,” Chippy being the name of another hacker group accused of defacing a video game publisher’s website.
Keys is charged with crimes that carry up to 25 years in prison, although the likelihood is that he’d face far less than that if convicted. Still, it seems like an insane amount of pressure to apply, given the other types of crimes (of, say, the HSBC variety) where stiff sentences haven’t even been threatened, much less imposed.
A common thread runs through all of these cases. On the one hand, the motivations for these information-stealers seem extremely diverse: You have people who appear to be primarily motivated by traditional whistleblower concerns (Manning, who never sought money and was obviously initially moved by the moral horror aroused by the material he was seeing, falls into that category for me), you have the merely mischievous (the Keys case seems to fall in this area), there are those who either claim to be or actually are free-information ideologues (Assange and Swartz seem more in this realm), and then there are other cases where the motive might have been money (Aleynikov, who was allegedly leaving Goldman to join a rival trading startup, might be among those).
But in all of these cases, the government pursued maximum punishments and generally took zero-tolerance approaches to plea negotiations. These prosecutions reflected an obvious institutional terror of letting the public see the sausage-factory locked behind the closed doors not only of the state, but of banks and universities and other such institutional pillars of society. As Gibney pointed out in his movie, this is a Wizard of Oz moment, where we are being warned not to look behind the curtain. …