In an interview with RT’s Laura Smith conducted in Ecuador’s London embassy, Assange says that nearly everything everyone does online is permanently recorded as it is cheaper to spy on everyone rather than single people out.
“We have this position where as we know knowledge is power, and there’s a mass transfer as a result of literally billions of interceptions per day going from everyone, the average person … all the infrastructure has been built for absolute totalitarianism It’s just the matter of turning the key.”
RT: So you’ve written this book ‘Cypherpunks. Freedom and the Future of the Internet’ based on one of the programs that you’ve made for RT. In it, you say that the internet can enslave us. I don’t really get that, because the internet it’s a thing, it’s a soulless thing. Who are the actual enslavers behind it?
Julian Assange: The people who control the interception of the internet and, to some degree also, physically control the big data warehouses and the international fiber-optic lines. We all think of the internet as some kind of Platonic Realm where we can throw out ideas and communications and web pages and books and they exist somewhere out there. Actually, they exist on web servers in New York or Nairobi or Beijing, and information comes to us through satellite connections or through fiber-optic cables.
So whoever physically controls this controls the realm of our ideas and communications. And whoever is able to sit on those communications channels, can intercept entire nations, and that’s the new game in town, as far as state spying is concerned – intercepting entire nations, not individuals.
RT: This sounds like a futuristic scenario, but you are saying that the future is already here.
JA: The US National Security Agency has been doing this for some 20-30 years. But it has now spread to mid-size nations, even Gaddafi’s Libya was employing the EAGLE system, which is produced by French company AMESYS, pushed there in 2009, advertised in its international documentation as a nationwide interception system.
So what’s happened over the last 10 years is the ever-decreasing cost of intercepting each individual now to the degree where it is cheaper to intercept every individual rather that it is to pick particular people to spy upon.
RT: And what’s the alternative, the sort of utopian alternative that you would put forward?
JA: The utopian alternative is to try and gain independence for the internet, for it to sort of declare independence versus the rest of the world. And that’s really quite important because if you think what is human civilization, what is it that makes it quintessentially human and civilized, it is our shared knowledge about how the world works, how we deal with each other, how we deal with the environment, which institutions are corrupt, which ones are good, what are the least dumb ways of doing things. And that intellectual knowledge is something that we are all putting on to the internet – and so if we can try and decouple that from the brute nature of states and their cronies, then I think we really have hope for a global civilization.
If, on the other hand, the mere security guards, you know, the people who control the guns, are able to take control of our intellectual life, take control of all the ways in which we communicate to each other, then of course you can see how dreadful the outcome will be. Because it won’t happen to just one nation, it will happen to every nation at once. It is happening to every nation at once as far as spying is concerned, because now every nation is merging its society with internet infrastructure.
RT: And in what way are we, as sort of naïve internet users, if you like (and I exclude you from that, obviously), kind of willingly collaborating with these collectors of personal data? You know, we all have a Facebook account, we all have telephones which can be tracked.
JA: Right. People think, well, yeah, I use Facebook, and maybe the FBI if they made a request, could come and get it, and everyone is much more aware of that because of Petraeus. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that all the time nearly everything people do on the internet is permanently recorded, every web search.
Do you know what you were thinking one year, two days, three months ago? No, you don’t know, but Google knows, it remembers.
The National Security Agency who intercepts the request if it flowed over the US border, it knows.
So by just communicating to our friends, by emailing each other, by updating Facebook profiles, we are informing on our friends.
And friends don’t inform on friends. You know, the Stasi had a 10 per cent penetration of East German society, with up to 1 in 10 people being informants at some time in their life.
Now in countries that have the highest internet penetration, like Iceland, more than 80 per cent of people are on Facebook, informing about their friends. That information doesn’t [simply] go nowhere. It’s not kept in Iceland, it’s sent back into the US where it IS accessed by US intelligence and where it is given out to any friends or cronies of US intelligence – hundreds of national security letters every day publicly declared and being issued by the US government.
RT: So do we risk kind of entering a scenario where there are almost two castes of people: a safe minority who are very savvy about the workings of the internet and the things that you described, and just people who go online for kicks?
JA: We have this position where as we know knowledge is power, and there’s a mass transfer as a result of literally billions of interceptions per day going from everyone, the average person, into the data vaults of state spying agencies for the big countries, and their cronies – the corporations that help build them that infrastructure. Those groups are already powerful, that’s why they are able to build this infrastructure to intercept on everyone. So they are growing more powerful, concentrating the power in the hands of smaller and smaller groups of people at once, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s extremely dangerous once there is any sort of corruption occurring in the power. Because absolute power corrupts, and when it becomes corrupt, it can affect a lot of people very quickly.
Bill Binney, National Security Agency whistleblower, who was the research head of the National Security Agency’s Signals Intelligence Division, describes this as a ‘turnkey totalitarianism’, that all the infrastructure has been built for absolute totalitarianism It’s just the matter of turning the key. And actually the key has already been turned a little bit, and it is now affecting people who are targeted for US drone strikes, organizations like WikiLeaks, national security reporters who are having their sources investigated. It is already partly turned, and the question is, will it go all the way?
RT: But has it been built really by corporations and kind of unwittingly subscribed to by people, in order to advertise products to make money, or has it been built deliberately by governments for the sole purpose of surveillance?
JA: It’s both. I mean the surveillance infrastructure, the bulk surveillance infrastructure – there are hundreds of companies involved in that business. They have secret international conferences, they have prospectuses that they give to intelligence agencies that we have obtained and published this year together with Privacy International and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Also, The Wall Street Journal has done some good work on this. They are building devices that they advertise to intercept entire nations, to install the data from those intercepts permanently – strategic interception, because it’s cheaper.
So it’s a combined corporate/government amalgam. That’s one of the problems, one of the reasons it’s so unaccountable is that it crosses boundaries. Companies don’t just sell to their home country, they sell to companies overseas. There are shareholdings held in BVI, and the company might be British-registered, like BIA, but actually a lot of research and development is done in Sweden, etc.
And then you also have Google and Facebook, who started up predominantly serving the public, but also have developed side projects to service the US intelligence complex. And individuals are constantly pushing their thoughts into Google as each thing that they want to research; it is pushed via emails, and on Facebook, through their social relationships. That’s an undreamt of spy database.
Facebook is completely undreamt of even by the worst spying nation, given the richness and sophistication of relationships expressed.
RT: And willingly contributed to.
JA: Well, no. But not with informed consent. People don’t actually know. When on Facebook it says “share this to your friends,” that’s what it says. It doesn’t say “share this to state agencies,” it doesn’t say “share this to friends and cronies of state agencies.”
RT: Who do you think has the organized power to stop these things that you are talking about?
JA: If there is political will, everything is possible. So if we get the political will, then of course those agencies can be dismantled. Very aggressive legislation, policing can be pushed upon them. In some regions of the world, such as Latin America, perhaps that’s a possibility. There is a certain democratic tendency, which Ecuador is part of that might do that. But in general I think the prognosis is very grim. And we really are at this moment where it can go one way or the other way.
To a degree, perhaps the best we can be sure, if we work, of achieving is that some of us are protected. It may only be a high-tech elite, hopefully expanded a bit more – people who can produce tools and information for others that they can use to protect themselves. It is not necessary that all of society is covered, all of society is protected. What’s necessary is that the critical accountability components of society that stop it from going down the tubes entirely, that those people are protected. Those include corruption investigators, journalists, activists, and political parties. These have got to be protected. If they are not protected, then it’s all lost.
RT: Is there a way that I can protect myself without knowing all about computers?
JA: Well, a little bit. But the first thing to be aware of is how much you are giving away. The first way to protect yourself is to go, “OK, I’ll discuss that in person, and not over Facebook chat,” or, “OK, I will discuss this using some forms of encrypted chat, like OTR, and not on a Facebook chat.” You can go to torproject.org and download encrypted anonymizing software. It is slower than normal, but for things like internet chat it’s fine, because you are not downloading very much at once. So there are ways of doing this.
What is really necessary, however, for those to be properly developed, there needs to be enough market demand. It’s the same situation as soap and washing your hands. Once upon a time, before the bacterial theory of disease, before we understood that out there invisibly was all this bacteria that was trying to cause us harm – just like mass state surveillance is out there invisible and trying to cause society a large harm, no one bothered to wash their hands. First process was discovery; second process, education; third process, a market demand is created as a result of education, which means that experts can start to manufacture soap, and then people can buy and use it.
So this is where we are at now, which is we’ve got to create education amongst people, so there can be a market demand, so that others can be encouraged to produce easy-to-use cryptographic technology that is capable of protecting not everyone, but a significant number of people from mass state spying. And if we are not able to protect a significant number of people from mass state spying, then the basic democratic and civilian institutions that we are used to – not in the West, I am no glorifier of the West, but in all societies – are going to crumble away. They will crumble away, and they will do so all at once. And that’s an extremely dangerous phenomenon.
It’s not often where all the world goes down the tube all at once. Usually you have a few countries that are OK, and you can bootstrap civilization again from there.
RT: We just passed the second anniversary of Cablegate, and since then this war on whistleblowers and this state surveillance seems to have got worse. Do you think something as large as Cablegate could ever happen again and it would have a similar impact?
JA: Yes, yes. Hopefully next year.
RT: What sort of time next year?
JA: I won’t go into it, but hopefully earlier rather than later.
RT: Do you feel that when WikiLeaks is making these releases you’re having as large an impact as you’ve had before?
JA: Well, Cablegate was extraordinary. It was published over a period of 12 months. It’s the most significant leak. Our previous leak, on the Iraq war, was also 400,000 documents, showing precisely how over 100,000 people were killed. That was also very significant. But yes, no one has done anything as significant as that since, but yes, hopefully, that will continue.
The successes of WikiLeaks shouldn’t be viewed merely as a demonstration of our organization’s virility or the virility of the activist community on the internet. They are also a function of this hoarding of information by these national security [agencies]. The reason there was so much information to leak, the reason it could be leaked all at once is because they had hoarded so much. Why had they hoarded so much? Well, to gain extra power through knowledge. They wanted their own knowledge internally to be easily accessible to their people, to be searchable, so as much power could be extracted from it as possible. WikiLeaks attempts to redress the imbalance of power. By taking what’s inside these very powerful institutions and giving them to the commons, people in general, so we can understand how the world works and stop the takeover by these powerful institutions. But it’s a function of how much knowledge these powerful institutions have accumulated.
RT: You’ve obviously written this book while you’ve been here in the embassy. But is it affecting your ability to work, this being cooped up constantly?
JA: It’s affecting my ability to meet with other people in different countries and to proselytize and things like this. But we should keep it in perspective. There are others who have been in prison also in the past few years. I know that it is a much more serious condition than the one I’m in, and I am fortunately able to give interviews and so on. So at least I have a voice. Prisoners rarely even have a voice. Why is that? Well, because the prison system doesn’t want to permit them to complain about their conditions.
RT: And what are you going to do, Julian? You said that you won’t leave the Ecuadorian embassy until the US drops any charges and any investigation against you. Are you just going to stay here forever?
JA: Well, I hope that there is enough political pressure and that the US government sees that it is destroying any goodwill that remains towards it as a result of its persecution and investigation of WikiLeaks and its associates. I think it really does have to drop the investigation. And you know, over the past six months in particular you can see a sort of the arrow of history – and the US DoJ and Eric Holder are going to end up on the wrong side of history. I don’t know that they want that on their record.
RT: I think there’ve been reports on the media that over the last day or so about your lung condition, but you’ve released a statement that it’s actually not the case at all. But has it shown you what would potentially happen if you did have a health scare? Do you think you would be able to get treatment?
JA: You know, my particular personal condition is not very interesting. Obviously, this circumstance in the embassy is difficult. And over a longer term, I suppose, it could be very difficult. But, you know, I’ve had worse problems.