Some of these tools seem to have been sold despite embargoes; in many more cases, there are simply no rules at all. Hacker-activists have detected web-filtering and blocking software made by a Sunnyvale, California, company called Blue Coat Systems being used by the Syrian government to restrict the Internet; the Sudanese and Iranian governments have also used Blue Coat’s products. (The company has admitted this but says it did not directly sell its products to the Syrian regime.) Though it’s impossible to verify, King says he often hears that Western intelligence agencies tolerate these sales because they have back doors built in, so that they can monitor, say, the Libyan government as it monitors its own dissidents.
Spying turns out to be extremely cheap. One prominent tool sold by the U.K.-based Gamma Group, FinFisher, lets a government agent take remote control of any user’s cell phone by infecting it with malware, allowing the agent to pinpoint that user’s location, record his calls, and even turn on a microphone in the phone to listen to the user’s off-line conversations. This technology costs around $500,000—“a sixth of the cost of a secondhand tank,” King says. “That’s dictator chump change.” FinFisher has been sold to 36 governments, among them the brutal dictatorship of Turkmenistan.
America, of course, is where Assange’s ideas have been most coolly received. The crimes of Task Force 373 were a big story in The Guardian and Der Spiegel, but they played much smaller in the American press, including in the Times. In Congress, the task force has not been mentioned once. The Fifth Estate is steeped in a kind of expository triumphalism—figures around Assange are forever explaining how much the world is about to change or how much it just has. And yet in real life, the revelations have demonstrated the tremendous inertia of American politics, of the enduring capacity of things to stay almost exactly as they are.
The great puzzle of the recent scandals in American public life—in the banks and refinance shops during the mortgage crisis, in the military and the national-security apparatus during the war on terror—is why our institutional loyalties have remained so strong, and why whistle-blowers have been so rare. Why, if 480,000 people have Snowden’s security clearance and more than 1 million have Manning’s, have there been no other leaks?
Peter Ludlow, a Northwestern philosophy professor who studies hacker activism, thinks the answer may lie not in the nature of American politics but in something more basic and human. He pointed me to the work of a sociologist named Robert Jackall, popular among hacker-activists, who found that in large companies and governmental institutions, middle managers routinely followed the internal codes of corporate life rather than their own ethical convictions, even when confronted by clear evidence of wrongdoing. “Conspiracy doesn’t have to mean old white dudes at a mahogany table,” Ludlow says. “It can be an emergent property of a network of good individuals, where all of a sudden you’ve got a harm-causing macro entity.”
The consequence of the WikiLeaks revelations has been to persuade some people to see these patterns, and so to see the world more like Assange himself does. But this perspective is not for everyone; it is not really for anyone, even Assange. He suffers from fears that the sushi he eats might be poisoned; he knows that everything he does is monitored by large intelligence agencies; he believes that women he had sex with may have been in cahoots with spies. From the Ecuadoran Embassy come, now and then, these lunging gestures for a connection: The warm letter to Benedict Cumberbatch, praising the actor’s performance while denouncing the film; the doomed attempt to build a political party in Australia while imprisoned halfway around the world; the instinct to take the goodwill of new volunteers on faith, to press thumb drives full of secrets into the palms of strangers. Which leaves Assange as both a prophet and a warning: If his work has proved the dangers of trusting too much, then his life has demonstrated the impossibility of living without any trust at all.