The WikiLeaks Spinoff That Wasn’t: An Exclusive Excerpt From This Machine Kills Secrets

An excerpt from the new book

This Machine Kills Secrets

Andy Greenberg

The following is an exclusive excerpt from This Machine Kills Secrets, a new book from Forbes Magazine reporter Andy Greenberg that charts the history and future of anonymous information leaks. Here the author travels to the Chaos Communication Camp on the outskirts of Berlin to witness the launch of the WikiLeaks spinoff group OpenLeaks-an event that would spiral into WikiLeaks’ greatest crisis yet.

The fifty-year-old Soviet biplane lurches, banks hard to the left, and nearly pitches me and the nine hackers aboard into the port-side windows. I resist the urge to vomit as my stomach floats into my chest.

The fluffy-bearded young man sitting behind me doesn’t, and pukes generously into a paper bag.

A few thousand feet below the fuselage of steel in which we’re riding is a German landscape covered with trees, rivers, windmills, and suddenly a field populated with a patchwork of multicolored tents and strips of pavement. Our pilot, a tall Berliner with a sadistic smile, pushes the Antonov An-2 into an alarmingly steep descent, testing my nervous system’s accelerometers again. And then, with unexpected grace, the landing wheels connect with the tarmac and we glide to a stop.

As the plane’s Shvetsov engine sputters to a halt and passengers tumble out dazedly, two men approach, one with long purple hair and the other with a brown military hat, a thick black beard, and a suit and tie. They welcome us to the Chaos Communication Camp.

The CCC, or simply Camp, as it’s called by the transnational hackers who regularly attend, occurs every fourth summer at an airfield in Finowfurt, a tiny town in former East Germany an hour outside of Berlin. For five days, a distinct hacker-hippy culture takes shape in a village of tents, veined with power cords and Ethernet and permeated with Wi-Fi. The three thousand or so hackers hold research presentations in underground hangars on code-breaking, government surveillance, and insanely ambitious DIY projects. (One talk at the latest Camp set a new goal for the CCC: Put a hacker on the moon by 2034.) At night, they build elaborate light-shows and sculptures around the remains of the Soviet aircraft and tanks that litter the terrain. The result is something like a colder, wetter Burning Man for the radical geek elite.

I spend my first two hours at the Chaos Communication Camp wandering in the dusk around the surreal ruins: past a statue of Lenin with headphones and turntables added to convert him into a socialist DJ, a rust- ing fighter jet with elaborate rainbow-knitted caps for its pointed engines and nose. Hackers have bivouacked in the shelter of defunct missiles and helicopter engines, like survivors of the apocalypse who have rebuilt a simpler digital society amid the remains of the military-industrial complex.

It’s only after nightfall that I find Daniel Domscheit-Berg standing in the dark at the edge of the airfield, wearing a long reflective yellow coat, his face looking rather forlorn as it’s lit by another hacker’s headlamp. I call out his name and he turns and greets me with a wide-eyed smile and a handshake. The thirty-three-year-old engineer is Assange’s darkened doppelganger, nearly as tall and slim but with dark short hair, dark-rimmed glasses, dark beard. I ask him how it’s going. “Everything’s going wrong,” he says, without dimming his innocent, slightly gap-toothed smile. “We’re a full two days behind.”

By “we,” Domscheit-Berg means OpenLeaks, his nascent spin-off from WikiLeaks. Birgitta Jonsdottir, who flew in to support the group, is sick in a hotel, he tells me. Her young son tripped on a tent stake, twisted his ankle, and is in the hospital. And ninety-mile-per-hour winds have been pummeling the two-room army tent OpenLeaks has set up as a head- quarters, strong enough that the hackers have spent most of the last forty- eight hours trying to prevent it from collapsing. “This afternoon we were helping to set up the marquee tent,” he says in a plaintive German accent, pointing to a dome fifty yards away. “Then the storm hit, and ten minutes later it ended up looking like some kind of modern art installation.”

Domscheit-Berg invites me into the tent, an orangish structure with what looks like a small Tibetan shrine in one corner, an antinuclear poster, couches, and cases piled on cases of Club-Mate, the sugary, highly caffeinated tea favored by nocturnal German hackers. He hands me a bottle, sits down on the couch, picks up his laptop, and then, without apology, gets back to work.

For Domscheit-Berg, after all, tomorrow is a big day: For the first time, he plans to open OpenLeaks’ leak submission platform to the world.

With this launch, Domscheit-Berg and the other young men milling around the OpenLeaks tent and buried in computer screens don’t merely expect that their newly coded system will be attacked. They’re asking for it. “We will open the system for ninety-six hours to a penetration test,” Domscheit-Berg wrote to me by instant message a month before the Camp. “We want people to break it.”

OpenLeaks, in other words, aims to harden its code in the fire of three thousand hackers simultaneously probing it for vulnerabilities and leaks. “If it still works, and is not compromised, I think we are in a good position to go live,” he wrote.

Going live has been a long time coming. Domscheit-Berg left WikiLeaks in an epically messy divorce in September 2010. He announced Open- Leaks three months later. He planned to launch his first test with the site’s media partners, four small European newspapers and the nonprofit Food- watch, in January 2011. Then April. Now it’s August, and OpenLeaks has yet to even launch its submissions website, fueling the frustration of its supporters and the schadenfreude of Domscheit-Berg’s former colleagues at WikiLeaks.

“It’s not just putting up a website,” Domscheit-Berg counters patiently when I interrupt his typing to ask about this long delay. “We’re working on an end-to-end environment that takes into regard the whole process. What kind of material you get. What the requirements are to access that material to make sure there’s no security breach. How to allow lots of people to work on the material and redact it. How to encrypt it so that only the partners can decrypt it and we can’t. Adding checks in the system so that if there’s a maintenance window nothing is exposed. We’re working on a seriously engineered solution.”