2011-08-23 The Digital Vandal: Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s War Against Transparency

The transparency movement has many vocal proponents. A recent event in the Wikileaks sagas proves that those who could be in the most effective position to strengthen it are only content to give it lip service.

Take Daniel Domscheit-Berg, for example. A former Wikileaks staffer, Domscheit-Berg had a very public and bitter falling-out with Wikileaks editor Julian Assange in September 2010 and has since cultivated the public role of pragmatist pitted against Assange’s flinty eccentric in a battle of archetypes.

Soon after his dismissal, Domscheit-Berg made it a personal signature to tirelessly use every publicity opportunity to disparage his former employer. He announced he would be starting a new rival whistleblower website – Openleaks – a supposedly sensible and measured alternative to his previous gig. A gossip-heavy and factually inconsistent book followed – Inside Wikileaks: My Time With Julian Assange At The World’s Most Dangerous Website, filled with the mundane details of Assange’s eating habits and dress sense. Additional details on Domscheit-Berg’s predilection for unappetizing quasi-meat dishes and general whining helped feed the internet meme machine for several months.

Nonetheless, some campaigners for transparency held their tongues amidst all this acrimony, consoling each other with Domscheit-Berg’s promise to launch Openleaks, which in theory could advance the cause for transparency as a complement to Wikileaks, which is perennially defending itself from legal and political attacks.

There was hope that the launch of Openleaks would relegate the emphasis on the interpersonal sniping to a mere footnote of history and provide a valuable addition to the effort to increase transparency amongst powerful organisations.

Well, there goes that hope.

What has transpired over the last week has vindicated those who see Domscheit-Berg’s behavior as self-serving rather than merely bullish for the sake of a cause. On August 21 it was reported in German weekly Der Spiegel that Domscheit-Berg had deleted a cache of unpublished material that was originally leaked to Wikileaks.

How did this material end up in Domscheit-Berg’s sole custody?

The answer to that question wavered between two poles of competing narratives in the preceding months – thanks to Domscheit-Berg’s inconsistent public statements. It is now finally confirmed that he had in fact helped himself to it after leaving the organisation in September 2010. (There is still a war of words over whether he was fired or quit voluntarily).

The most recent chapter of this scandal unfolded when the influential German hacker collective, Chaos Computer Club (CCC) announced it would revoke Domscheit-Berg’s membership on the basis of his furtive use of the CCC’s reputation as a free vehicle to lend Openleaks some easy credibility.

Domscheit-Berg had invited hackers assembled at this year’s annual CCC Summer Camp to conduct a ‘strength-test’ – asking programming wizards to aim their best shot at the Openleaks website in order to test its technical robustness and security – a key selling point for an online whistleblower platform – thereby obtaining a CCC ‘seal of approval’.

CCC board member Andy Müller-Maguhn, in an interview with Der Spiegel on August 15, revealed that the real underlying reason for Domscheit-Berg’s ejection from the CCC was based on his refusal to return the stolen documents to Wikileaks. Müller-Maguhn had been acting as mediator between Domscheit-Berg and Wikileaks to resolve the dispute. Evidently, this mediation process failed spectacularly. According to Müller-Maguhn, Assange confirmed that the plunder included “about 3,000 submissions, some of them with several hundred documents [per submission].”

There was some initial confusion as to whether there was actually a computer hard drive in Domscheit-Berg’s possession, or whether he only held the encryption passphrases (‘keys’) required to translate the data from encrypted code into plain-text that anyone can read. Holger Stark, reporter for Der Spiegel, reported via Twitter on 19 August that “The only keys 4 the unreleased Wikileaks docs are in the hands of DDB and his partner [Anke Domscheit-Berg]. Why do they destroy it?”

The difference may appear inconsequential at first glance, but as those who are versed in digital cryptography would advise, merely holding the keys to a file does not guarantee complete control of access to that file. Keys can be copied; if it were only the keys that Domscheit-Berg possessed, there was still a chance that other copies would be floating around somewhere.

The next day, Stark clarified this detail for his Twitter audience: “There is no doubt that it exists JUST ONE VERSION of the archive of unreleased Wikileaks material. I spoke to Daniel Domscheit-Berg and he confirmed that.”

On August 21, Der Spiegel went to press with confirmation that the unthinkable had happened – Domscheit-Berg hadn’t destroyed the keys; he’d deleted the entire chest. Over 3,500 files, some of which contained details of the U.S Government’s “no-fly list” (which many U.S dissidents and civil liberties campaigners would be keen to see) as well as information on 20-odd right-wing extremist groups (pertinent material after the Anders Brevik massacre). Domscheit-Berg has not confirmed what was included in the material. In a series of tweets on the evening of August 21 (Australian Eastern time), Wikileaks confirmed the destroyed material not only included the aforementioned documents, but also “US intercept arrangements for over a hundred internet companies”, “more than 60,000 emails from the NPD [the far-right German National Democratic Party]”, and “five gigabytes from the Bank of America.”

Tellingly, Domscheit-Berg had told Stern magazine earlier this year that the Bank of America material was outdated and “completely unspectacular” (as reported by Reuters in February). So unspectacular, according to his tastes, that it didn’t warrant anyone else seeing it.

Clues had also been dropped previously about the juncture from when these leaked documents originated. In February 2011, Domscheit-Berg told Wired that “the hijacked leaks only include those submitted since the time the system came back online in July following an outage, and the time it went down permanently.” Wikileaks, in a public statement issued via Twitter, alleges that the destroyed material originates from submissions received between January 2010 and August 2010.

So what exactly would motivate someone who sees himself as a freedom of information activist to actively suppress information by deleting it forever? Despite the vast amounts of criticism and opposition that Julian Assange has invoked whilst pursuing his work, some justified and some unjustified, to date there is no known instance of Assange permanently destroying information that has been submitted to him.

Destroying documents is hardly good PR for a transparency activist.

This deletion of data is not the only act of sabotage instigated by Domscheit-Berg against Wikileaks. At various intervals since September 2010 Domscheit-Berg had stated that that he had immobilized Wikileaks’ online submission platform – dismantling the site’s secure page where documents can be anonymously submitted – because he deemed Assange irresponsible and reckless with the material he handled. Why? “Children shouldn’t play with guns,” Domscheit-Berg admonished in his book.

In flashes of Machiavellian irony (or sheer idiocy), Domscheit-Berg would go on to blame Wikileaks for its own incapacitation:

”[Domscheit-Berg] said he and his group intend to return the material unused and unpublished, as soon as WikiLeaks can demonstrate the technical ability to keep the data and its sources safe. But WikiLeaks’ internal technical architecture has reverted to a primitive state, with little sign of progress in the months since the group’s departure, Domscheit-Berg said.”

So Domscheit-Berg crippled Wikileaks’ ability to receive new submissions securely, then castigated it for not demonstrating the ability to repair and maintain its own technical infrastructure quickly enough. Yet this twisted logic was lost even on experienced journalists, who either willfully ignored it or didn’t bother doing a Google search – as illustrated by Ravi Somaiya’s February 6 article in the New York Times:

In private, Mr. Assange has told reporters that the spate of defections shut down the complex computer systems WikiLeaks uses to process new information and make it hard for governments and corporations to trace its source. At a January news conference in London, he said that trouble with the site’s “internal mechanisms” had rendered it no longer open “for public business.” He said the site would continue to accept material in other forms, like computer disks.

The omission that it was Domscheit-Berg’s responsibility for this ‘shut down’ is striking in its negligibility. Even more peculiar was Domscheit-Berg’s changing story – as recently as August 10, he declared to der Freitag: “No, I didn’t take any documents from Wikileaks.”

Then there’s Domscheit-Berg’s promise of no sabotage done to Der Spiegel:

SPIEGEL: With a part of the WikiLeaks team now leaving, do your informants need to be concerned about what will happen with the material they submitted?

Schmitt: It is my view that material and money from donors should remain at WikiLeaks, because both were intended explicitly for this project. There are other opinions internally — with our technical people, for example. No matter what, though, we will ensure that a clean transition happens.

Similarly in an interview with CNN, Domscheit-Berg had the temerity to cite Wikileaks’ ‘structural problem’ as the reason for leaving the organization – but failed to mention that this structural problem was due in no small part to his vandalism. Domscheit-Berg’s ever-changing stories should have been recognized as a red flag signaling dubiousness, however latent or undefined. But a mainstream press already irked by Assange’s persona was glad to feed off any criticism they could get the scoop on– particularly from a former insider.

Assuming that Assange’s statements on what the deleted material contained is true, the only fact we can be assured of is that at least some of it deserved to be published. The only responsible assumption to make as a starting point is that whoever leaked those documents to Wikileaks did so with the hope that reform would be enacted somewhere. As Crikey pointed out in June, over 50 media partners around the world are currently in collaboration with Wikileaks – a set-up that ensures source documents are reviewed by journalists with diverse expertise and specific cultural, political and economic knowledge. It can hardly be described as a bunch of children playing with guns.

This collaboration framework would surely have been optimal enough to work on the stolen material, should Domscheit-Berg have deigned to return it. Should any of the material have been found to be of no ‘ethical, political or historical significance’ (to quote Wikileaks’ own guidelines), at least we would know that diligence was applied in the first place, instead of the careless discarding of data that has taken place in a fit of disgruntlement.

All that that remains now is the disquieting knowledge that there was unpublished material that ranged in significance from a local community level to a global level, that has now been permanently suppressed by a self-proclaimed freedom of information activist. This logically aligns Domscheit-Berg with the powerful, corrupt and secretive organisations he supposedly seeks to make transparent. The irony is positively macabre. It is further cemented with Openleaks’ statement on its website:

“From the whistleblower’s point of view, there is no difference between the submission of valid material that is not released, and censorship.”

Also unsettling clue was Domscheit-Berg’s choice of language: that of the nonchalant bureaucrat, advising the original whistleblowers who possibly risked their careers if not their lives to simply ‘re-submit’ the documents, as if they were misplaced faxes sent to an accountant.

Wouldn’t it be remarkably odd to see a mainstream press reporter announce that he or she had leaked material in their possession, only to proclaim that it would never see the light of day, on the basis of a mere personal whim? Who is the final arbiter of the truth? In light of these developments, who in their right mind would entrust Openleaks with sensitive information, knowing that it can be destroyed over a petty vexation?

The recent official statements by Wikileaks give no easy explanation for Domscheit-Berg’s motives either, aside from anecdotal and circumstantial reports that hint at a darkly complex network of cronyism. Characteristically of Assange, the Wikileaks statement is peppered with references to alphabet-soup agencies. Domscheit-Berg need not be married to a Microsoft executive-version of Mata Hari to make his destruction of Wikileaks data any less bizarre.

Fickle words, bruised ego and reckless behavior aside, none of Domscheit-Berg’s exploits over the last 12 months give any assurances that a new horizon is opening up for institutional transparency. The real casualties in this story are the whistleblowers, whose risks were ultimately undertaken in vain.