How Two Bulgarian Journalists Created a WikiLeaks Copycat That Actually Worked

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Sept. 27 2012 9:46 AM

The WikiLeaks Copycat That Worked

An excerpt from Andy Greenberg’s This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim To Free the World’s Information.

(Continued from Page 1)

Bulgaria’s contribution to the leaking movement was warming up.

The next leak came shortly after, and it was a whopper: 100 pages of documents. They represented the full transcript of hours upon hours of wiretaps in a bribery case against Bulgaria’s former minister of defense, a judge, and the former secretary general of the Ministry of Public Finance. They contained frank discussions of how much every level of the judiciary demanded in bribes for various matters, so many hundreds of Bulgarian lev for this crime, so many thousands for this contract. “This is the first publication of the full texts of these recordings, which are a true guide to the methodology of bribery in the judiciary,” BalkanLeaks’ representatives wrote.

The site had its first real scoop, and the lone Bulgarian trickle of leaks kept flowing. A few months later, the site published a Greek criminal complaint against a high-level Bulgarian prosecutor. Then transcribed, suppressed testimony of a witness saying that he had been pressured by a prosecutor to change his opinion in a Sofia real estate case. Then a list of the partial names and identification numbers of 37 previously unexposed ex-members of the Darzhavna Sigurnost, Bulgaria’s brutal secret police during the country’s Communist era. BalkanLeaks had arrived: a lone beacon of success in the leaking diaspora.

All of which is what brought me to a café outside the Sorbonne to meet this shorter, Slavic version of Julian Assange. Of the two leaks that Tchobanov has obtained just before our Paris meeting, one is disappointlingly tame: the budget for the national Bulgarian railways, showing that they’re deeply in debt.

Advertisement

The other is significantly more interesting. It’s the full transcript of the trial of Angel Donchev, a Bulgarian prosecutor who was recently found guilty of blackmailing another prosecutor, threatening him with a corruption investigation and a raid by the dreaded antimafia police known as the “berets.”

“Juicy stuff,” says Tchobanov with a tilt of his head and a giggle.

And how did BalkanLeaks succeed where the rest of the WikiLeak-alikes failed? Partly, perhaps, through Tchobanov’s sterling reputation in Bulgaria, as well as that of his in-country partner, Assen Yordanov. Both BalkanLeakers are seen as incorruptible reporters in a country where most are either “scared or bought,” as Tchobanov puts it. Bulgaria languishes near the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom list among EU countries, and has a long tradition of violence against journalists, from the Ricin-tipped umbrella that poisoned Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in 1978 to the fatal shooting of mafia-focused reporter Bobi Tsankov in 2010.

But Tchobanov attributes the leak site’s rare success to its religious adherence to strong anonymity—the same faceless online whistleblowing used by WikiLeaks to lend new courage to leakers. No submissions are accepted via e-mail, Facebook messages, or the chat protocol IRC; they are accepted only through its cryptographically anonymous Tor server, which requires leakers to run the Tor anonymity software to upload documents. “Tor is not friendly,” says Tchobanov. “We wrote a detailed explanation of how to install it, how to connect, and so on. But it’s something pedagogical. We have to teach people to use anonymity, force them to use it.”

He admits that the system’s inflexibility has likely turned some leakers away. “In the end, we chose less usability and more anonymity. And it worked. We got submissions. In the long run, it pays to have that confidence. We became trusted because we don’t give away our sources. Because we don’t even know who they are.”

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 29 2014 3:10 PM The Lonely Teetotaler Prudie counsels a letter writer who doesn’t drink alcohol—and is constantly harassed by others for it.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.