The Documentalist

WikiLeaks: Creative Use of Social Media & Internet Security Protocols for Activism

Posted in technology by Sarah on December 3, 2009

Image courtesy of 911.wikileaks.org

573,000 9/11 Text Messages Posted to the Web

Starting on November 25, 2009, an on-line whistle-blowing organization known as WikiLeaks started publishing over 500,000 pager messages that were intercepted in New York and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001 during the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  The text messages, which are available here, were released “live” for 24 hours starting at 3:00 am on November 25 and ending at 3:00 am November 26, 2009.  During this period,  the release of each of the 573,000 messages was synchronized with its original send times from September 11 to September 12, 2001.  The purpose of releasing these text messages to the public is to foster a deeper understanding of events surrounding the 9/11 attacks by creating an archive that provides, “…a completely objective record of the defining moment of our time,” with the hope that the messages’ inclusion in “…the historical record will lead to a nuanced understanding of how this event led to death, opportunism and war” (WikiLeaks 9/11 Pager Data).

WikiLeaks–acting consistently with their mission and purpose (see below)–did not reveal the source of these text messages, stating only that the messages were intercepted from four major US  pager services.  According to a New York Times article written by Jennifer Lee on December 1, 2009, the messages were intercepted by a program that had been monitoring these sorts of communications before September 11, 2001 in order to raise awareness of issues surrounding privacy and data retention.   Texts were intercepted from pagers carried by members of the Pentagon, FBI, FEMA, and the New York Police Department, as well as from messages generated by computers within the World Trade Center reporting on faults in investment firms housed in the twin towers.  Below is a sample of the sorts of messages that circulated between 8:51 am and 10:05 am on the morning of September 11, 2001.  Some relate to mundane daily business matters while others relate to the terrorist events as they unfolded.

Example of leaked text messages released in “real-time” (courtesy of WikiLeaks)

8:51:31 AM Andrew.Terzakis@pentagon.af.mil|Please call Pentagon Weather|UNCLASSIFIED
           Please call Pentagon Weather.......reference 1030 Meeting.....703-695-0406
           ANDREW J. TERZAKIS, Lt
8:53:44 AM "NYPD Ops Div" <|1 PCT WORLD TRADE CENTER|--- 1 PCT - WORLD TRADE CENTER -
           POSSIBLE EXPLOSION WORLD TRADE CENTER BUILDING. LEVEL 3 MOBILIZATION TO CHURCH
           AND VESSY.
10:05:57 AM Please don't leave the building. One of the towers just collapsed!
           PLease, please be careful. Repeat,

What is WikiLeaks?

According to the WikiLeaks web page, the organization “…was founded by Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians and startup company technologists, from the US, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa” (WikiLeaks About).  These individuals came together to create a forum where people can publicly share documents about questionable government decisions, corruption, and human rights abuses with much less personal risk than that associated with traditional whistle-blowing  outlets.

WikiLeaks takes advantage of the wiki collaborative content production platform to support the anonymous release of sensitive documents for public review, thus aiming for a higher level of scrutiny than is typically accomplished by traditional media organizations or intelligence agencies.  Theoretically, the veracity, validity, credibility, and plausibility of the documents are greatly increased by being scrutinized by many more individuals and from many more points of view than is traditionally possible in journalism or intelligence activities.  In a sense, WikiLeaks is the “first intelligence agency of the people” (ibid).  Members of communities from which leaked documents originate can access  them in the wiki format, where they can help interpret them and explain their relevance while maintaining their own anonymity and therefore their safety.    For example, “[i]f a document comes from the Chinese government, the entire Chinese dissident community and diaspora can freely scrutinize and discuss it; if a document arrives from Iran, the entire Farsi community can analyze it and put it in context.  Sample analyses are available here.”  As stated on the WikiLeaks About page:

Wikileaks is a multi-jurisdictional organization to protect internal dissidents, whistleblowers, journalists and bloggers who face legal or other threats related to publishing. Our primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we are of assistance to people of all nations who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations. We aim for maximum political impact. We have received over 1.2 million documents so far from dissident communities and anonymous sources.

We believe that transparency in government activities leads to reduced corruption, better government and stronger democracies. All governments can benefit from increased scrutiny by the world community, as well as their own people. We believe this scrutiny requires information. Historically that information has been costly – in terms of human life and human rights. But with technological advances – the internet, and cryptography – the risks of conveying important information can be lowered.

WikiLeaks has combined a number of technologies to create an uncensorable version of Wikipedia (though there is no legal relationship with Wikipedia).  The technologies they draw from include MediaWiki, OpenSSL (an open source version of Secure Sockets Layer, a cryptographic protocol for internet security), FreeNet (a decentralized, anonymous information distribution network), Tor (an onion router for secure message transmission–see the Tor post on this blog), and PGP (Pretty Good Privacy, a  cryptographic privacy and authentication program).  By combining these technologies with their own in-house programing, WikiLeaks is able to provide a space for untracable document leaking and commentary that “combines the protection and anonymity of cutting-edge cryptographic technologies with the transparency and simplicity of a wiki interface” (WikiLeaks About).

Other Users of Social Media Build on WikiLeaks’s 9/11 Text Messages

The 9/11 text messages release of November 25, 2009 is just one example of the sort of information that can be acquired and shared when there is a safe forum for anonymous document circulation.  True to WikiLeak’s stated goal of providing a means by which members of the public can comment and elaborate upon the documents released on their platform, at least two researchers have used the internet to begin to analyze and make sense of the content contained in the text messages (see Jennifer Lee’s Times article for an overview of these projects).

On his blog “Neoformix: Discovering and Illustrating Patterns in Data,” Jeff Clark has created and published a video (available in his blog post) of  a “Phrase Burst Visualization” of the waxing and waning of  100  representative (as determined by Mr. Clark himself) words or phrases from the 9/11 messages over the course of the 24 hours captured in the sample provided to WikiLeaks.  In the visualization, words and phrases emerge and recede from view such that “[t]he larger the text the more frequently it was used during the 12 hour period[analyzed]. Text appears bright[ly] during the times of high usage and fades away otherwise. [...] This phrase burst visualization is basically a word cloud where the brightness of the words varies according to how prominent the words were during specific periods of time.”  He has also provided a time-line graphic measuring the peak of each of the 100 terms between 8:00 am and 8:00 pm on September 11, 2009.

Colin Keigher, another programmer, has created a seachable database of the WikiLeak 9/11 text messages that allows users to search by keywords or phrases, as well as do boolean searches.  The tool makes it easier to find specific information within the 40-megabyte file housed at the WikiLeaks site, where a user would need to read through the messages as presented.  The 9/11 Page Search Index, as the tool  is called, is available on-line in a no-frills presentation of the search field with almost no explanation of what it searches or why it was created, but it is an interesting example of how individuals can engage with the materials presented at WikiLeaks.

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