Ever since the phrase “Information wants to be free” was first uttered in the early 80s, activists have campaigned for technology to act as a vehicle for knowledge. We’ve since seen the advent of the internet, the proliferation of personal computers, and the rise of whistleblowing sites.
Before Snowden and Wikileaks grabbed the headlines, there was Cryptome. Launched in 1996, the website, or “digital library,” as its owners John Young and Deborah Natsios describe it, is a tome of classified documents. Including everything from lists of MI6 agents to details on nuclear technology, the archive currently stands at over 71,600 files, spanning nearly two decades of disclosures.
Among those is all the available information on the Snowden files, and the duo behind the venture are adamant that the entirety of the leaked NSA documents should be dumped online, rather than strategically trickled out by journalists. Cryptome has even made vague hints that the Snowden documents may be released in full this month.
I phoned up Young and Natsios to ask how they felt the freedom of information movement has changed, for better or worse, over the past two decades.
When Cryptome was launched as a bare-bones website and started to host an assortment of documents for anyone to sift through, there weren’t many ways to get information out onto the internet. “We happened to have the technology to turn paper documents into a digital form,” Young told me. “A lot of other people didn’t yet have that technology: scanners, formatters.”
They offered this service to the cypherpunks list, an email chain linking some of the biggest movers and shakers in cryptography. Julian Assange was an avid reader, and years later the first vestiges of Bitcoin would be posted among its members.
Young and Natsios are both licensed architects in New York. They said they thought it was ironic that Cryptome is considered an underground project, because “our work does increasingly take us to underground sites, in fact.” These might be a subway system expansion, or vaults beneath sidewalks. Young and Natsios quite literally expose what is lying underneath the city.
Below the glitz of Times Square and hubbub of Manhattan, there’s a different world that directly influences the surface. One of their jobs involves making sure that these hidden spaces are functioning correctly. “Because we’re called into urban infrastructures in moments of crisis and disrepair, you could say we’re involved in ‘radical’ cultures of repair,” Natsios said.
While their architectural work is keeping the city in a good state of repair, their freedom of information work (i.e. publishing classified documents) does the same for the public domain, also in a “radical” way. “We are required by state laws as architects to police issues of public health, safety and welfare. This is in the name of the public good. From Cryptome’s perspective, we are obliged as architects to police the police, if you will. We are obliged to dissent, as required for the public good,” she said.
We are required by state laws as architects to police issues of public health, safety and welfare.
Of course, a counter analogy could suggest that the whirring of pipes underneath the surface needs to be closed off to avoid being tampered with by those with a malicious intent, that having them publicly accessible could put the city in danger, just as having government secrets available on the internet could pose its own risks.
Ten years after Cryptome first started, Wikileaks arrived. Wikileaks has been responsible for some of the most shattering disclosures in recent history, such as the Iraq war logs or the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and although both outlets act in fairly similar ways, Wikileaks differed in one key aspect.
“The critical thing [Wikileaks] brought to it, which we’ve never done, is that they used publicity and advertising, and sought press coverage,” Young said. “They ran a press operation with press releases. They went into a high profile operation.”
You might think that would be beneficial to freedom of information, encouraging more public engagement, but Natsios disagrees. “[Wikileaks] brought some troubling methodologies into the frame, that is the embracing of a kind of public relations sensationalism at each and every turn,” she said. The public, in her eyes, “are less educated, they’re not embracing the nuances of issues and are becoming passive themselves. They are passively consuming sensational tidbits, and the public good isn’t served by that kind of consumer behaviour.” Instead of taking Wikileaks’ material and dealing with it in a productive manner, she said, people are waiting “for the ever greater adrenaline jolt of the next sensational terabyte of leaks released.”
Cryptome has a similar stance on the handling of the Snowden documents. “Mr. Snowden, please send your 41 PRISM slides and other information to less easily cowed and overly coddled commercial outlets than Washington Post and Guardian,” the couple wrote on the site in June 2013.
When asked what they would do if Cryptome had access to the Snowden documents, Young told Gawker, “We would have dumped it, the whole thing. Everyone else likes to play this game: ‘What if we harm somebody’ or all this kind of crap. Which is strictly cowardice. Of course the companies who run the outlets, their lawyers won’t let them do this kind of thing, so if you’ve got money invested in your operation you won’t take these kind of risks.”
The Intercept recently decided not to disclose the name of one country that the Snowden documents reported had 100 percent of its phone traffic recorded. It justified its decision because of “specific, credible concerns that doing so could lead to increased violence,” according to the article. Wikileaks, however, later revealed the country to be Afghanistan.
In order to avoid pressures to suppress details, Young and Natsios are reluctant for Cryptome to be considered in any way an institution. “We find that increasingly because of legal and financial pressures, institutionalized freedom of information groups become quite inflexible, not agile, not tactical enough,” said Natsios.
“We prefer being independent agents: We prefer that agility, we prefer that daily lack of master-plan agitation, and not being limited by the annual report obligations upon freedom of information non-profits; we have no annual report.” This is perhaps why Cryptome releases more controversial files than other groups, such as graphic photos of the Iraq war.
Cryptome basically thinks that the more information released, the greater the benefit for an informed public. “The Snowden team has been flunked out of not releasing this stuff by saying it will harm the nation, and I think we’re about to see something more harmful to the nation if they don’t release,” said Young.
He suggested, for instance, that more details might help people resist NSA surveillance. “The internet has been completely compromised, so it is not a good place for freedom of information,” he said. “It has been turned on the public, and Snowden has revealed some of that, but only two percent of it. He’s not revealed any of the means we need to counter that takeover.”
“We think the entire thing should be released, in order that more people can work on the counter-surveillance side,” he continued. “Now there are people working on this, on how to take it back, but I think that they can’t take it back without the rest of Snowden’s material because they don’t know the depth of control [being carried out by intelligence agencies].”
The way that information is distributed has changed dramatically since Cryptome’s inception. From the cypherpunks to Wikileaks, and now journalism in a post-Snowden world, the public has undoubtedly become more informed about what its government is doing. But with more information available than ever before, Cryptome would argue, we still need to know more.