How WikiLeaks Has Changed: From Whistleblower To Weapon

Experts say the organization appears to have grown more partisan, and more eager to boost impact by pegging releases to events in the news.

How WikiLeaks Has Changed: From Whistleblower To Weapon
[Photo: Flickr user Espen Moe]

When last week WikiLeaks released tens of thousands of emails believed to have been obtained by Russian hackers from top Democratic National Committee officials, experts say it marked a dramatic change in tactics from how the transparency organization has released data in years past.


Until the DNC leak, WikiLeaks’s arguably most famous release was the trove of U.S. State Department cables leaked by the soldier now known as Chelsea Manning. In that case, WikiLeaks worked with prominent news organizations from around the world to vet and redact the cables to protect people who could be endangered by their publication.

“They basically used them as the first kind of line of gatekeepers,” says Arun Vishwanath, a professor of communication at the University at Buffalo who studies digital security. Although the organization later controversially released the entire, unredacted dataset after it had been unwittingly leaked through a separate channel, it initially won some praise for its caution in taking time to redact the information.

But last week, the organization released the cache of DNC emails without any apparent filtering or redaction, leaving in place private information like the Social Security and passport numbers, names, and addresses of Democratic donors.

“In this particular case, this seems like just like a whole lot of data being released without it being vetted by anybody,” Vishwanath says. “Something’s changing, in my opinion.”

To many outside observers, the data release, which exposed apparent bias by top DNC officials against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and led to the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, also seemed timed to the start of the Democratic nominating convention, lending credence to suggestions that the data was leaked by Russian intelligence officials looking to see Donald Trump elected president.


“WikiLeaks role used to be, generally, just about public disclosure of information because there was this philosophical belief that information about the government should be public regardless of what the government is telling you,” says Hemanshu Nigam, founder of security and privacy advisory firm SSP Blue. “I think I’m seeing actually a change likely coming from [WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange, where he seems to be on a personal vendetta.”

Assange has made no secret of his distaste for Hillary Clinton, saying in a post on the site that the Democratic candidate will “will push the United States into endless, stupid wars which spread terrorism” and has already, through poor judgment, helped the spread of ISIS.

“She’s a war hawk with bad judgement who gets an unseemly emotional rush out of killing people,” Assange wrote. “She shouldn’t be let near a gun shop, let alone an army. And she certainly should not become president of the United States.”

On Tuesday, Assange appeared on CNN and again critiqued Clinton, as he vowed to release significantly more information tied to the election. He refused to confirm or deny the data’s ties to Russia.

As Nigam points out, Clinton also presided over the State Department during a time when it’s widely believed by WikiLeaks supporters that the U.S. government was seeking to prosecute Assange for his role in the diplomatic cable leaks. Assange, who is also facing sex crime charges in Sweden, has been granted asylum in London’s Ecuadorean embassy, where he remains out of fear that once legal procedures are completed in Sweden, he would be extradited to the United States.


The organization, which didn’t respond to requests for comment, seemed to confirm in a tweet that it was “not a coincidence” the dump appeared just before the start of the party convention.

But the DNC email dump isn’t the only recent data collection that WikiLeaks has been criticized for releasing without apparent vetting. Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina and a faculty associate at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, wrote in The Huffington Post that a recent dump of emails tied to Turkey’s governing party also included personal information and was accompanied by social media links to other databases of private citizens’ information.

WikiLeaks contested Tufekci’s report in a tweet.

“The story is a fabrication,” the organization posted. “WikiLeaks did not publish the databases concerned.”

In both cases, says Vishwanath, WikiLeaks appears to have been affected by a deadline pressure to any publishing organization that operates in modern, fast-paced news cycles. In the case of the DNC leaks, the organization likely felt the need to release the emails in time for the convention, and WikiLeaks has openly said that it moved up publication of the Turkey emails in response to the coup attempt and subsequent crackdown in that country.


“I think it’s trying to be relevant, and trying to be on top of news cycles, is what’s happening here,” says Vishwanath.

WIkiLeaks is not only competing for readers’ attention but also for relevance in the eyes of hackers and whistleblowers around the world who have other choices of how to distribute documents, he says.

“In an odd sort of way, WikiLeaks is also competing for a global share of hackers and insiders who are releasing data,” he says. “And, I think, what’s better to do that than to hit an American news cycle.”

And at the same time, if reports of Russian involvement are correct, the organization appears to have found a new source for documents: state-sponsored hackers looking to influence politics abroad.

“I think this is actually sending a message loud and clear to other governments out there that they can have an impact on some adversarial government or ally,” says Nigam.

About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.