Just two years ago, Andy Greenberg had an hours-long interview with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The author and Forbes reporter listened as Assange claimed to have a massive trove of documents, the release of which, he promised, could “take down a bank or two.” When Greenberg reported the story, stock speculation led to Bank of America losing $3.5 billion in market value in just a few hours. But the promised documents never materialized.
Instead, the real story was in a casual remark Assange made at the end of the interview, after Greenberg’s recorder was turned off. He promised a “megaleak” seven times the size of the Iraq War document collection the group had already set into the wild. Asked whether it would affect the private sector or government, Assange answered “both,” and asked which industries, he replied, “All of them.”
If Assange was overstating the case, it wasn’t by much. The release of 251,000 classified State Department cables laid bare the secrets of international relations. The revelations helped spur the Arab Spring, the effects of which are still reverberating; according to CNN, the WikiLeaks dump helped deep-six negotiations that would have kept American troops in Iraq past the 2011 withdrawal date. And those are only the most obvious effects.
The Cablegate release kept reporters plenty busy for over a year. But Greenberg wondered what had happened to the banking documents hyped by Assange. He began digging into not just WikiLeaks, but the history of leaking, of cryptography and technological anonymity. The resulting book, This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information, spans from Daniel Ellsberg to Bradley Manning, cypherpunks to Icelandic information activists, the Chaos Computer Club to Occupy Wall Street. Via e-mail, he discussed with us the difference between the Pentagon Papers and Cablegate; his encounter with The Architect, the engineer behind WikiLeaks; and the future of online anonymity.