WikiLeaks: A Hundred James Bonds

Dec 4, 2010 By Deepa Gopal
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LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 26: Julian Assange of the WikiLeaks website speaks to reporters in front of a Don McCullin Vietnam war photograph at The Front Line Club on July 26, 2010 in London, England. The WikiLeaks website has published 90,000 secret US Military records. The Guardian and The New York Times newspapers and the German Magazine Der Spiegel have also published details today. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

There is something about secrets, however trivial they may be. It just becomes a lot more exciting when it is told to us with a word of caution - "don't tell anyone about it"!

But did you know that countries have their own secret files too; they spy on each other and on their own citizens. Earlier this year, a Russian spy ring was exposed in the U.S which resulted in an exchange of spies between the U.S. and Russia at an airport in Vienna, Austria.

Over the last two years, there is a newcomer to the world of secrets - WikiLeaks. Different from Wikipedia, which is a source for shared information on any topic, WikiLeaks is a source for secret, classified information that governments do not want you to see.

From Silly to the Serious

Some of the information that WikiLeaks has brought out are quite trivial such as what one head of state thinks of another, or their likes and dislikes. Information that people don't care to know but makes interesting read, especially since it is a secret!

In some cases, the secrets have made a positive impact such as turning around an election in Kenya where a party slated to win was defeated when its human rights record was made public by WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks has also published extremely confidential material in recent past relating to the U.S. led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A recent leak of 250,000 classified U.S government documents has everyone - from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard up in arms against the website and its founder Julian Assange. Under pressure from governments, Amazon withdrew hosting the WikiLeaks website, PayPal withdrew the ability for individuals to donate money to the website and DNS servers that maintain the website's address were brought down - now typing in WikiLeaks.org will send a message that address is not found.

The man and his mission

Why this sudden and intense reaction to WikiLeaks? Government leaders are concerned that the leaks may damage diplomatic relations between countries. WikiLeaks is viewed as a site that publishes stolen material and could pose a threat to a country's national security.

WikiLeaks however, considers itself a voice for the whistle blowers -- people who leak confidential information because they want to bring out alleged wrongdoing in their organization, but wish to stay anonymous. WikiLeaks does not accept any rumors and all articles are put out on its website after a team of people verify its authenticity.

Julian Assange, the founder of the website, is an Australian citizen and a confirmed hacker who was arrested (and subsequently released) as a teenager for breaking into computers in different universities and organizations. His mission is to expose the "secrets and lies that governments spend resources covering up", in the hope that openness and transparency will help improve relations between people and countries.

Cloak and dagger

Everything about WikiLeaks is shrouded in secrecy including the sources of funding since the site relies completely on donations. The documents are mailed to WikiLeaks by the whistle blowers. They are encrypted to protect the identity of the sources and are stored in secret servers in anonymous countries. Even the people who work for WikiLeaks do not know each other and go by first initials - S., for instance. 

Julian himself is a colorful personality. He does not have a permanent home and is often seen carrying a rucksack as he moves from city to city and stays with friends. He is known to be very intelligent but also paranoid - he carries multiple cell phones and believes he is being followed.

WikiLeaks may not survive, as governments all over crack down on it, but it has certainly brought out the secret world of global politics!

UPDATE as of Dec 9, 2010 : Julian Assange handed himself in to the police in London. In a protest against the action by governments around the world to arrest him, citizen hackers have taken it upon themselves to wage a so called 'cyber-war'. The websites of Mastercard, Visa and Paypal were brought down because these companies withdrew their support for WikiLeaks.