I am not a hacker. I am not a computer programmer, and not even barely a technician. (although I was a technician in my day–that day was before the advent of Microsoft Windows 3.1, most of my work was in DOS and before) What I do for a living is explain things. I have many connections with people all over the world that include government agents, hackers, professional security developers, researchers and so on. I always check my references, I double-check my assumptions. I go far and wide in search of new information and new interpretation regarding computer security and computer hacking. I mostly have this to say: “The general public gets it all wrong….all day…every day” Things are pretty much much worse than the general public imagines, and at the same time not as dramatically bad.
I have been known to claim that one of the main reasons for popular misunderstanding of computer security issues is the way that these topics are treated in the movies. Well, last night I saw a movie that got a very great amount of it dead to rights. It’s a hard movie to watch, because it’s a movie without heroes or villains, without a moral or a happy ending. This movie is a documentary, and it is very well done indeed. I am of course referring to:
We Steal Secrets, The Wikileaks Story.
The stories of Bradley Manning, and of Julian Assange, and of a broad constellation of others in their orbit shows a lot about how little control anyone can have over a world of instantly copyable, movable and transmittable information. This film arrives just in time to help illuminate the big issues of the day. You want to know how the government can discover your past Google searches? Take a look at how easily they lose track of military and state secrets. Richard Hunter predicted this years ago in a book called World Without Secrets. The novels of William Gibson show us a world of such universal surveillance that a few moments of privacy are a black market operation.
The science fiction brings us most of the images that confuse the public about viruses that blow up oil tankers and make animated octopi taunt you as your data is visibly fizzled from the screen. But when they describe an utter lack of privacy, they make one basic mistake. They don’t go far enough.
Back to the topic at hand
This movie shows us the ascent of Julian Assange–founder and primary focus of Wikileaks. The little two-man operation that blew the doors off of national security with deep and wide revelations of so many things. Assange is shown in many lights, being a complex and decidedly imperfect human being. Also profiled is Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst whose moral outrage and personal demons are profoundly both moving and very hard to present simply. The movie gets top gun commentary by somebody who knows exactly of what he speaks. General Hayden, former director of the NSA, and DCI. General Hayden explains that it is inevitable that secrets will come out, and that in the wake of 9/11, that more information sharing led directly to these kinds of leaks (on this point I disagree slightly–it is the growth in size and accessibility of computer networks connected to secrets that lead to the leak, in my humble opinion digital information will remain insecure for the foreseeable future)
This movie is riveting. It is sometimes difficult to watch (especially in the case of Adrian Lamo, whose onscreen appearances are something no actor could duplicate.) We see rise and fall, redemption and damnation, justification and surrender. There is a lot going on, here. The stories intertwine in a way that fiction would never attempt. There is no real outcome because none of these stories have an ending.
We live with the results and I am sure my sources would say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”
I would suggest you see this in a theater. It is the work of Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Smartest Guys in the Room) and is a masterpiece of documentary film-making. It got a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and is currently (as of the time this is posted) playing in art houses nationwide.