This Machine Kills Secrets

This Machine Kills Secrets by Andy Greenberg

“This machine kills secrets” is a riff on Woody Guthrie’s slogan “this machine kills fascists.” Greenberg lays out how cryptography and anonymity are the machine that can help people leak secrets that those in power don’t want the public to know. The best example of this idea is Wikileaks where thousands of classified documents were posted for public consumption. Greenberg goes back to Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers where the leaking technology was nothing more than a photocopier and brings the reader to today where Tor, PGP, SSL, and other technologies make it possible for whistleblowers to anonymously spread information. Or at least they would in theory. In practice, Wikileaks and similar sites are plagued by problems like internal strife, legal issues, and endangerment of innocents mentioned in leaked documents.

Greenberg does a wonderful job of capturing the personalities of those involved in the struggle to free information. He doesn’t shy away from showing that some of the “heroes” of the movement are deeply flawed. He’s equally honest about the subject of leaking. While leaked documents can make for a more informed public, they can also cause great danger to the people who leak and share them as well as those mentioned in the documents themselves. Security measures to prevent or catch whistleblowers are more likely to catch innocent people and are a danger as well.

There are many elements to leaks–why people do it, how they do it, where the leaks go, what happens with the information, how you protect the people who want to leak information, and how to keep that information from doing more harm. Greenberg covers all of them and his conclusion is that what we currently have in the form of Wikileaks and its offshoots and copycats isn’t the final form and somewhere, someone is working on the next big thing. After reading This Machine Kills Secrets, I have a better understanding of why people are working on it. I wish some of the technical descriptions had been more detailed (I’m a fan of Neal Stephenson’s infodumps and think Cryptonomicon would be a great readalike). Despite the subject, this is a very readable book since Greenberg focuses on individuals and uses them to talk about the technologies they use. You don’t need a lot of knowledge about computers to get into This Machine Kills Secrets but it may leave you wanting to learn more.


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