WASHINGTON – Using cryptography and virtual drop boxes, Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks created a revolutionary new model for media to lure massive leaks from whistleblowers, exposing everything from U.S. military secrets to wealthy tax dodgers’ illicit offshore accounts.
Assange’s arrest in London Thursday on a U.S. extradition request to face computer crime charges could spell the end of 13-year-old WikiLeaks.
But his legacy will live long in the world’s media. News outlets and journalists everywhere can now offer potential sources encrypted apps and secure virtual mailboxes to receive secrets that were once divulged by discreet whispers, furtive phone calls and unmarked manila envelopes.
Skilled at hacking and cryptography — and motivated by a deep distrust of traditional institutions — Australia-born Assange applied his libertarian streak to the challenge of breaking government secrecy.
In 2006 he built an online platform that offered an anonymous, encrypted path for leaking computerized files without fear of exposure.
Leaks have forever been crucial currency in journalism. But no one had before created a convenient, relatively easy-to-use electronic drop box that could almost instantly, with absolute secrecy, take delivery of gigabytes of documents.
And he did it at a ripe time, when the wired world was emerging and social media were taking off.
For Assange, it was the opportunity to democratize powers previously the domain of governments alone that drove his exploits. “Cryptography was then the exclusive property of states,” he wrote in 2013. “By writing our own software and disseminating it far and wide we liberated cryptography, democratized it and spread it through the frontiers of the new internet.”
WikiLeaks’ first release in December 2006 was an apparent assassination order by a Somali rebel leader that may or may not have been authentic.
But it drew attention. Over the next year, WikiLeaks obtained documents exposing the Kenyan leader’s corruption, the secret operating rules for the U.S. Guantanamo Bay prison camp, and offshore banking records from a Swiss bank.
It began scooping mainstream media on stories ranging from secret climate-change discussions to Iran’s nuclear activities and Icelandic banking fraud.
In 2010, U.S. Army intelligence official Chelsea Manning — a transgender woman then known as Bradley Manning — began secretly feeding hundreds of thousands of classified files to WikiLeaks.
They showed evidence of possible war crimes by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, including a never-before-seen video of a U.S. helicopter attack in Iraq that killed 18 people, including civilians and two Reuters journalists.
The stunning leak could not have been carried out in the old days of faxes and printers, and put WikiLeaks into the mainstream.
Assange partnered with The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel and others to help sort through and make sense of the Manning material. WikiLeaks won awards and Assange was put on the cover of Time magazine.
“What WikiLeaks demonstrated was the potential for a stateless transparency organization to get around the ability of the most powerful governments in the world to suppress information,” said Micah Sifry, author of a 2011 book on WikiLeaks.
Almost as soon as he hit that peak, Assange’s star began to fade.
Political pressure to counter WikiLeaks was huge. A multicountry effort got major credit card and payment firms to cut WikiLeaks’ financial lifeline of donations.
And he began to fall out with collaborators, a victim of a domineering personality that made WikiLeaks a one-man show and his insistence that leaked material be published unedited, even if doing so could harm people ranging from soldiers in the field to human rights activists and others.
But by 2012 others were already adopting his model of setting up encrypted, anonymous paths for leakers to contribute documents.
WikiLeaks copycat sites opened in different countries. Journalists became trained in the use of encryption and secret file transfers.
“Exposing the secrets of the U.S. government was a powerful signal that nobody could keep information under control in the internet age,” said Sifry.
Though U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden did not deliver his trove of top-secret intelligence and military documents to a media drop box in 2013, he used the encrypted communications Assange helped popularize to communicate with the journalists who collaborated with him.
In 2013 the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which had aided WikiLeaks with financing, developed a new anonymous drop box free for anyone to use: SecureDrop.
The New Yorker, an early adopter, explained its value to leakers: “As it’s set up, even we won’t be able to figure out where files sent to us come from. If anyone asks us, we won’t be able to tell them.”
SecureDrop is important to the most successful WikiLeaks-like operation, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
In recent years it has obtained from leakers millions of financial account files detailing money laundering and tax avoidance from offshore banking centers — digital troves that became known as the “Panama Papers” and “Paradise Papers.”
The top of the ICIJ’s web page offers links to SecureDrop and other encrypted tools for sharing information.
And it has one simple invitation: “Leak to us.”