The following is the first of three articles adapted from Andy Greenberg's This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim To Free the World’s Information, out now from Dutton.
Atanas Tchobanov doesn’t look much like Julian Assange. The smallish Bulgarian man has a shaved head, elfin ears, and a perpetual few days’ growth of salt-and-pepper stubble. When we meet in front of the roaring Fontaine St. Michel in Paris in the summer of 2011, he wears a T-shirt promoting Bivol, the tiny news site that he co-founded, with its logo of a Bulgarian buffalo and its slogan in Cyrillic: “Horns ahead!”
But when we sit down at a café outside the Sorbonne University nearby, he flashes an Assange-like impish smile, and for an Assange-like reason: Apart from his day job at Bivol, Tchobanov is the co-founder of BalkanLeaks, the closest thing Eastern Europe has to its very own WikiLeaks. And BalkanLeaks is on a roll.
“We just got two new leaks,” he says in an accent that has layers of French and Bulgarian. “And they’re good ones.”
In the months leading up to our meeting, WikiLeaks’s slow release of a quarter million secret State Department memos from around the world had inspired a sudden flood of copycats. I had set out to find out which ones could actually replicate and systematize WikiLeaks’ work among the crowd of imitators: BaltiLeaks, BritiLeaks, BrusselsLeaks, Corporate Leaks, CrowdLeaks, EnviroLeaks, FrenchLeaks, GlobaLeaks, Indoleaks, IrishLeaks, IsraeliLeaks, Jumbo Leaks, KHLeaks, LeakyMails, Localeaks, MapleLeaks, MurdochLeaks, Office Leaks, Porn WikiLeaks, PinoyLeaks, PirateLeaks, QuebecLeaks, RuLeaks, ScienceLeaks, TradeLeaks, and UniLeaks, to name a few.
Mainstream media outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera, and Sweden’s public radio service had set up their own experimental leak portals. Hackers within Anonymous launched HackerLeaks. The leaking scene had become so crowded that two environmentally focused sites, GreenLeaks.com and GreenLeaks.org, threatened legal action against each other over the rights to the name.
As Nation blogger Greg Mitchell noted, only one thing was missing from this newborn leaking movement: leaks.
Nearly all of the copycat sites were publishing little or nothing. Even WikiLeaks’ own anonymous submission system had been shut down after the mutiny of several of the site’s engineers. The newborn leaking movement had found itself in a drought. With one exception.
In December 2010, BalkanLeaks had come online, with a slogan across its masthead: “The Balkans aren’t keeping secrets anymore.” When I checked out the site, I saw that it used the well-tested anonymity software called Tor for submissions, a rare sign of security smarts among the new crop of copycats. But otherwise it resembled all the other obscure and leakless WikiLeaks wannabes from Brussels to Jakarta.
Later that month, BalkanLeaks posted a Microsoft Word file with a note saying that the document had been submitted to the site’s Tor server. It was an agreement from the Bulgarian Department of Energy outlining the construction of a nuclear power plant as a joint project of Russia and Bulgaria, with no clear evidence of corruption. Hardly the world’s juiciest leak.
Just days later, another document appeared on the site, again obtained through Tor. This one was a letter from one prosecutor to another, including a list of 30 Bulgarian names, all the prosecutors and judges in the highest levels of the country’s courts who were also Freemasons. “It is not illegal [to be a Freemason],” BalkanLeaks’ note in Bulgarian posted with the document read. “But does their oath to protect the public interest take precedence over their oath to the ‘brotherhood’? Perhaps the chairman of the Ethics Commission, Tsoni Tsonev, who is a member of the Masonic lodge, has an answer to this question.”