WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange encounters the questions of fans and critics in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) held on January 10. To eliminate the ongoing rumors, that he is dead, missing or kidnapped, he read out the hash of the latest Bitcoin block in a video.
The Australian Julian Assange is famous for having founded the whistleblowing platform WikiLeaks. Since mid-2010, Assange has been sought for prosecution with an international arrest warrant for an alleged rape on a Swedish woman. As Assange feared extradition to the US, where he risks a death sentence, he fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Since then he has not left the embassy.
Last year the story of Julian Assange became thrilling. During the US election campaigns, WikiLeaks revealed documents of the Democrats, most notably the emails of Hillary Clinton and her election campaign manager John Podesta. These leaks have been so severe that they might have profoundly influenced the election by destroying the reputation of leading Democrats.
After these leaks, the pressure on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange’s host Ecuador increased. US foreign minister John Kerry visited London; a battalion of police officers gathered before the Ecuadorian embassy; WikiLeaks succumbed to a severe DoS-attack; Ecuador cut Assange's internet access. Since then a rumor emerged, that Assange has been murdered, kidnapped or escaped. Neither an interview that Russian media outlet RT conducted with Assange in the embassy nor a message in a Bitcoin transaction conducted with WikiLeak’s keys, could distract these rumors. The interview could have been recorded earlier, and the Bitcoin key of WikiLeaks could have been stolen.
After an AMA - Ask Me Anything - by Julian Assange those rumors should be dead. Finally and forever. Assange is alive.
AMA is the abbreviation for a relatively new, often used format for an online interview, in which the crowd replaces an interviewer. It is simple; someone announces on a forum to do an AMA. After this, the group collects questions, and when the AMA-time has come, the person doing it gives answers, question by question. To prove the authenticity of the AMA, Julian Assange did not only respond to some questions on Reddit but also in a video live streamed and archived on Twitch TV.
In this video he starts at 1:38 to comment on the rumors about his alleged disappearance.
"So, personally, and the rest of the team at Wikileaks were very pleased that there was such an expression of concern about how we were doing. We expected all of these attacks and if you looked at my public statements and some of the comments tweeted by Wikileaks in the lead up to my Internet being cut off and that difficult diplomatic situation, we were saying, you know, the attacks were going to come in. We're going to need people to defend us; we're basically going to need an army to get through this."
But then the care for WikiLeaks escalated, and Assange lost control:
"And then the concern for how I was doing, and why I wasn't being seen etc., arose.
And what we had hoped is that those people concerned with my safety would direct their attention to those people who are responsible for this situation - that's the UK Government, the US Government, and the Ecuadorian Government.
But, when the concern became very prominent, the result was a black PR campaign trying to infest the concern and take it off somewhere else. And largely succeeded.
Fabricated messages claiming to be from our staff were posted on 4chan, Reddit, etc. On videos claiming to be from Anonymous. Completely fabricated. Dozens of them. And what was their intent? What were they calling for? They were calling for people to not trust Wikileaks. To not give it leaks, and to not give it funds. I mean, it's obvious who benefits from the production of such a black PR campaign."
To counter these rumors, Assange had to show some proof of life. But how do you proof on the internet that it is you, who is alive? There have been a lot of claims that Assange should just use his PGP key to sign a message. In the AMA he explained why he does not want to do so:
"But a PGP signed message doesn't tell you who has issued it at all. It's just a claimed message. So let's look at what kind of precedent we would be setting. We'd be setting a precedent that when there's concern about whether one of our staff has been kidnapped, or me, that concern can be alleviated simply with an issuing of a message of the text, which is coupled to a particular cryptographic key. Now, if Wikileaks is under serious threat, then it's quite possible that it might lose control over its keys."
Cryptography does not prove identity, but only mathematics. It proves that a key is used - but not, who possesses this key. Thus Assange found that the best option to proof that he is alive was to speak in a video.
"Because even if you were under duress - and there are various forms of duress that could be applied - if it's live, you've got a few seconds to put things out, you can slip in code words with what you're saying - I'm not buy the way, I'm not - you can slip in code words in what you're saying that people, your people, could then see."
And he told the people that he is fine:
"So, yes, I'm alive and free from duress, but I am in a very difficult situation. I have been for six years. Let's not think that I'm not in a difficult situation. As I've explained, this embassy is surrounded by a high-tech police operation, intelligence operation - it's a really difficult situation. I haven't seen the sunlight in four and a half years. It's a tough situation. I am tough, but, you know, you should be concerned about the situation."
But is this enough? Is a video proof enough that Assange is alive? Is it not possible that the video was produced beforehand, and that the questions Assange answers have been fabricated?
"So in thinking about real-time proof of life. Well, intellectually the most interesting one is to take the most recent block in the blockchain, the Bitcoin blockchain, give the number and at least eight digits or something of the hash. And then maybe to throw out this hash by sign language. That's kind of intellectually entertaining."
This proof, however, Assange explains, is anything but perfect:
"While it's intellectually entertaining, the problem with it is this: it's very complicated, the underlying technology. And so it has the same flaw that sophisticated voting machines have - cryptographic voting machines. Which is the average person can't understand whether the security claims are in fact borne out. Now, experts might be able to - but the average person can't. So now you're back to a social proof."
After he had granted this, Assange read out the number and hash of the latest block:
"So this is block 445706, and the hash is 178374f687728789caa92ecb49.
Ok, I think I made a mistake in the block number. It's just going to drive everyone crazy. So the block number 447506 - see this is how you can tell it's real time is the mistakes. Has: 178374f687728789caa92ecb49."
It is easy to check if Assange is right. If you are too lazy to use your bitcoin client to check the blockchain directly, you can use a block explorer like blockchain.info and look at the block. Check.
But what exactly does this say? If you are no Bitcoin expert, you might wonder, why the number and hash of a block can serve as proof. To understand, you first have to know that a block number is something like a time or date. But a time not the same as the standard time of humanity, but some inner clock of Bitcoin; that is, the sequence of blocks. Since this series happens to be sometimes faster and sometimes slower, depending on the power and luck of miners, it is nearly impossible to correctly guess what block number will be at a particular time in the future.
Secondly, it is completely impossible to guess the correct hash of a unfound block. The hash is what the miners search for using their big farms of mining chips. To find a hash you need to take the hash of the previous block, the transactions you include in the block, some more data and a random value, and throw this through a hash algorithm. If the result matches specific conditions, a miner finds a block. Since you cannot know the credentials of the hash in advance, it is impossible to fake it. Not just somehow, but with absolute certainty.
So, Assange delivered an incredibly strong proof that he is alive now. There is no doubt left, if you understand to some degree, how Bitcoin works.