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Wed Dec 19, 2012, 08:45 PM

Rebels Without a Clue

By Julian Assange
(OR, 186 pages, $20)

This Machine Kills Secrets
By Andy Greenberg
(Dutton, 370 pages, $27.95)

Updated December 19, 2012, 3:00 p.m. ET
The cypherpunks were prescient to warn us about Internet surveillance but they couldn't have found a worse leader than Julian Assange

... In Mr. Assange's world of superheroes and villains, the state is always coercive and malevolent. According to the WikiLeaks founder and his co-authors, governments will soon gobble up "every relationship expressed or communicated, every web page read, every message sent and every thought googled, and then store this knowledge, billions of interceptions a day, undreamed of power, in vast top secret warehouses, forever" ...

The book is at its best when tracing the evolution of the cypherpunk movement. Many of the cypherpunks were deeply suspicious of the state and hoped that the widespread use of cryptography could lead to political change. They envisaged their own communities and their own currencies. The more eccentric among them even believed that, with cryptography, "Big Brother could be rendered a toothless nanny."

The cypherpunks' first big victories came in the 1990s. They helped pressure the U.S. to relax export restrictions on software containing cryptography and pioneered its use for nonmilitary purposes. Their second notable victory was WikiLeaks, which debuted in 2006 and began publishing secret and classified information from public and private sources. All those years hammering out manifestoes and drawing up scenarios on obscure listservs were finally bearing fruit—the networked few took on Leviathan and won. Or as the science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling wrote: "At last—at long last—the homemade nitroglycerin in the old cypherpunks blast shack has gone off." WikiLeaks, as Mr. Greenberg shows, "inspired an entire generation of political hackers and digital whistleblowers."

If they are anything like Julian Assange, that is a frightening thought. When WikiLeaks launched, it truly did seem to herald a new era—for good or ill. But the longer it has been around, the clearer it has become that some of Mr. Assange's assumptions were badly flawed. Most people don't want to sift through millions of illegally obtained emails from governments or corporations. Even when cooperative journalists have done the hard work for the cypherpunks, the revelations rarely include evidence of the grand state and corporate conspiracies in which Mr. Assange clearly believes ...


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