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In the days before the internet journalists the world over hoped and prayed for the day when the plain manila envelope turned up in the post crammed with sensitive documents sent by a whistleblower.

Wikileaks: The motherlode for journalists

Wikileaks: The motherlode of leaked documents

When I worked on the Herald editing the tech section, such a bundle turned up one day and produced a front page story. Unfortunately the disillusioned company man who sent it was silly enough to have printed out the documents from his own work computer.

Within hours of the story being published, representatives of the company were at his front door asking for his swipe card and informing him he didn’t have a future with the company.

These days, whistleblowers have a more direct outlet for leaking information – the internet. And for three years,a controversial website has been a public repository for sensitive documents leaked from government departments, military installations and corporations all over the world, uncovering corruption and revealing dubious activity the public would otherwise have been none the wiser about.

In many respects, Wikileaks.org has come to fill the void left with the departure of investigative journalists from newsrooms. Source documents don’t lie and Wikileaks posts them unedited and without commentary, allowing readers to make their own judgements about the contents of them.

Anyone with a PDF swiped off the company network and a beef, or a good reason for blowing the whistle could post a document to a blog set up anonymously. Eventually it would find an audience, probably after being reposted and retweeted until a reporter finally found it – or was forwarded the link to it by someone.

But Wikileaks is the source of the Nile for leaked material, attracting millions of visitors and millions of submissions of documents. As such, its current problems stem directly from its success. The little website that shook the world has collapsed under its own weight, out of money and with not enough manpower to wade through the ever-increasing slush pile of submitted documents.

Who knows, there could be the next Watergate scoop sitting in Wikileak’s inbox, but according to Aussie Julian Assange, who set up the website in 2006, the site is out of money and due to its policy of not accepting funding from companies, governments, activitsts and lobby groups, will only survive if the public comes forward with donations.

There isn’t much New Zealand content on Wikileaks that shakes the boat too much. Last year, a commercial agreement between Vodafone New Zealand and new mobile entrant 2Degrees was put on Wikileaks after the National Business Review was ordered by the Commerce Commissions to remove details of it from its website.

The Australian blacklist for Government web filtering was posted to Wikileaks, which was incredibly embarrassing for the Australian Government as it revealed numerous websites that were neither explicit nor offensive.

Wikileaks could have become the place where name suppression orders are flouted, laws broken. But the site has a distinct public interest focus. Occasionally it has crossed the line in my opinion, but usually it has a good reason for featuring the documents it posts.

The tricky, time-consuming and costly part of what Wikileaks does is verifying the authenticity of the documents it is sent. It has a network of people around the world checking to make sure documents are legit. Surely a band of keen journalism students would be willing to assist in the extensive legwork required in this task. What better training in investigative journalism could you ask for?

This New Scientist article from a couple of years ago gives some information about how Wikileaks manages to go about its business incognito and protect the identity of submitters, while this Wikipedia entry explains how it avoids being taken down by lawsuits or hacking attacks:

Wikileaks describes itself as “an uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking”. Wikileaks is hosted by PRQ, a Sweden-based company providing “highly secure, no-questions-asked hosting services”. PRQ is said to have “almost no information about its clientele and maintains few if any of its own logs”. PRQ is owned by Gottfrid Svartholm and Fredrik Neij who, through their involvement in The Pirate Bay, have significant experience in withstanding legal challenges from authorities. Being hosted by PRQ makes it difficult to take Wikileaks offline. Furthermore, “Wikileaks maintains its own servers at undisclosed locations, keeps no logs and uses military-grade encryption to protect sources and other confidential information.” Such arrangements have been called “bulletproof hosting“.

As of this evening the Wikileaks website isn’t even online, perhaps because it has been deluged with hits from people dismayed at the thought of it disappearing. I for one will be donating to Wikileaks, if I’m given the opportunity. The site has provided me with hours of fascinating reading, not so much with the high profile documents like the Sarah Palin leaked emailsor the Guantanamo operating manual, but confidential documents that show the inner workings of government and big corporates, revealing the language they speak when sensitive matters are being discussed.

Here’s hoping Wikileaks gets an injection of funds and survives – we need it more than ever.