Anyone can use the Internet. It’s not a rite of passage or some age-specific ability; if you can raise a chair or stack phone books high enough, you’re set. There is no aptitude test to pass before using it (often I wish there was); if you have mastered the keyboard and mouse, you’re set. There is no hours-long wait at a government office to obtain some kind of license; if you have high-speed Internet, you’re (instantly) set.
It’s attributes like these that create what is one of the Internet’s most loved and hated characteristics—anonymity. Provided you don’t leave your Web cam on 24/7, send pictures to anyone who asks or bail out Nigerian princes, your identity isn’t out there. I can include “cool” in my e-mail address when I very well may not be cool at all.
This ability has tremendous power: It creates an outlet for anyone to spread anything, and an audience so large someone is bound to listen. Yes, that means videos of cats attacking their shadows and Justin Bieber fan compilations, but it also means profound, for-nobody’s-eyes content can be disseminated without fear of being stifled.
Wikileaks is a site where whistleblowers and moles throughout the world leak sensitive information—documents, videos, audio clips. It started in 2006 and is run by…well, nobody is really sure. The whole anonymity of the Internet helps with that. A guy named Julian Assange is often linked to it, and learning about the guy—shoulder-length blonde hair, doesn’t divulge his age—it’s not hard to imagine him running what’s been home to some of the biggest information leaks in the digital age:
• U.S. Army protocols and procedures for Guantánamo Bay detainees, along with a list of prisoners off-limits to the Red Cross
• Membership list of the British National Party, which once restricted membership to Caucasians
• Climategate, where documents and e-mails from University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit alleged climate data was manipulated to prove global warming existed (this is in the process of being rebuked)
• Sarah Palin’s hacked e-mail during the 2008 election
• The Peru oil scandal, dubbed Petrogate, which led to the country’s Prime Minister resigning
• Correspondence and pager messages between NYC police officers and the Pentagon during 9/11
• The Minton Report, a 2006 study that found a toxic dumping in the Ivory Coast put numerous harmful chemicals in reach of more than 100,000 citizens
Simply put, Wikileaks is not afraid of lawyers, injunctions, governments or angry politicians. In fact, the only thing that has ever stopped the site from existing has been a lack of funding, done through donations and fundraising. Wikileaks is based out of Sweden and uses the same hosting company infamous bittorrent tracker The Pirate Bay once called home, so there’s little chance a cease-and-desist letter will put an end to the operation.
About a week ago, Wikileaks released a video from a July, 2007 Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad. Taken from a gun camera, it shows the chopper opening fire on a group of civilians which radio chatter deems to have AK-47s. Twelve people are killed in total, and two were Reuters reporters. Reuters filed Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain the videos in 2007 and was unable to.
The uncut version of the video runs for 39 minutes; Wikileaks edited an additional version down to 17. The 22 minutes left off the shortened cut condenses the video heavily: It opens moments before the opening shots and includes a follow-up assault on a rescue van. This alone isn’t out of the ordinary, as most people won’t sit through a 39-minute video of anything. But Wikileaks takes a few other liberties as well: lead-in slides with photos of the journalists, choice quotes from journalists and Army officials and typed accounts of the events. It even gave a name to the shortened version: Collateral Murder, along with a dedicated site.
This isn’t necessarily cause for alarm or a reason to denounce everything Wikileaks has brought to light—the site boasts an excerpt from UAE paper The National saying, “WikiLeaks has probably produced more scoops in its short life than the Washington Post has in the past 30 years.” But for it to exist as a haven of truth and exposition and then doctor something is a head scratcher.
It all comes back to anonymity. Wikileaks posts and hosts these bombshells, but who is there to answer for it? The site, like so much of the Internet, has no face. That’s largely a product of the nature of what Wikileaks is, but with material so full of potential to affect, that is also cause for skepticism and doubt. The Internet is an unparalleled place to find and spread information, but everything needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It might not even be a human being on the other side—it could be a cat, staring at its shadow.
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Imagine if spies used Twitter to send coded messages to millions of people. They could insert @’s and pound signs strategically to get top-secret information out. It explains my theory that Shaquille O’Neal is working for the Russians.