When WikiLeak hackers took down MasterCharge, Visa, and PayPal after the arrest of Julian Assange, I thought of Stieg Larsson’s book, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” It’s a crime thriller. Fiction. Made up stuff, some would say. Yet the similarities between what happens in this last of the Millenium series and the headline-grabbing events concerning Julian Assange are striking. Hackers take revenge on the establishment in order to protect one of their own? Avenge injustice? Expose wrong-doing? It’s all there in Larsson’s novels.
Larsson sketched out a series of ten books in the early 1990s. He began writing sometime in 1997. Five years later he’d completed “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” and was working on “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” In the summer of 2003 he contacted a publisher. His manuscripts were rejected, not once, but twice. But Swedish publisher Nordstedts was interested. In late 2003 they offered him a contract. Larsson made minor changes in the first two books and completed the third in the next six months. Shortly before publication of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” Larsson died of a heart attack. His books became posthumous best sellers in Europe and in the United States.
The “WikiLeaks” connection is evident in the first book. Lisbeth Salander, the “researcher” hired by Mikael Blomkvist to assist in the investigation of missing heiress Harriet Vanger, contacts a “mysterious international network” of computer geeks. Trinity, one of the members of the group, helps Salander trace phone calls made to Vanger in Australia. Plague, another member of the group, provides Salander with an “electronic cuff” that enables her to take control of Erik Wennerstrom’s computer, and ultimately, to relieve him of several billion ill-gotten kronor.
By the time Larsson completed the third book of the series, the “Hacker Republic” he’d created was fully formed. It consisted of an elite group of hackers scattered across the globe capable of taking down companies and even governments. Yet they were devoted to truth and justice. If their activities sometimes landed them on the wrong side of the law, they could be forgiven. Their fight was against corrupt governments and corporate officials, their clients the innocent, the wronged, the downtrodden.
It is this network of shadow geeks that Salander calls from her hospital bed in Gothenburg. She has no where else to turn. Unless she can access secret files relating to her confinement in a mental institution when she was a child, she has no hope of proving she is innocent of the murder charges lodged against her. SAPO, the Swedish Secret Police, will continue their twenty-year vendetta against her, and she will spend the rest of her life in prison. Using a smuggled Palm Tungsten T3, she contacts her hacker friends.
“I’m under arrest by the government,” she tells them, then goes on to sum up her situation, including the bullet wound in her head.
Dakota jumps into the conversation: “This is an attack against a citizen of the Hacker Republic. How are we going to respond?’”
One of the hackers suggests a nuclear attack, another creation of a virus that would shut down the Swedish government. Lisbeth thinks this is overkill.
“Salander leaned back against the pillow and followed the conversation with a smile. She wondered why she, who had such difficulty talking about herself with people of flesh and blood, could blithely reveal her most intimate secrets to a bunch of completely unknown freaks on the internet. The fact was that if Salander could claim to have any sort of a family or group affiliation, then it was with these lunatics.”
Lunatics? Like Julian Assange? A man who would endanger the lives of secret operatives in his quest for truth and the freedom to disseminate it? A man so dangerous he must be put in solitary confinement for the alleged crime of rape? A man labeled a terrorist by none other than Vice President Joe Biden?
U.S. Government officials have called for Assange’s arrest on charges of treason. Some want him executed. Mastercard, Visa, and PayPal have refused to process payments to WikiLeaks. Amazon kicked WikiLeaks off its servers after taking a phone call from Senator Joe Lieberman’s staff. Another internet company, Tableau Software, admitted it disabled service to WikiLeaks because of pressure from Lieberman. The Senator intoned on MSNBC that “we’ve got to put pressure on any companies … which provide access to the Internet to WikiLeaks.”
Like Larsson before him, Assange is a journalist, publisher, and internet activist. He grew up in a world filled with cutting-edge technology, and he uses that technology to fight for what he believes. Both men have lectured widely on investigative journalism and the dangers of censorship. Each has devoted his life to promoting democracy, protecting the right to free speech, and exposing right-wing extremism. In a blog in 2007, Assange wrote: “Try as I may I can not escape the sound of suffering. Perhaps as an old man I will accept suffering with insouciance. But not now; men in their prime, if they have convictions are tasked to act on them.”
As publisher and contributor to Expo Magazine, Stieg Larsson lived for years under the threat of death from right-wing extremists and political enemies. He and his life-companion, Eva Gabrielsson, never married. Under Swedish law, couples who marry are required to make their addresses publicly available. Because of the credible death threats against Larsson, the couple sought and was granted masking of their addresses and personal data from public records. Had they married or become registered partners, this kind of “identity cover” would have been nearly impossible.
Because the magazine aims to “safeguard democracy and freedom of speech against racist, right-wing extremist, anti-Semitic and totalitarian tendencies throughout society,” it has been the target of violence since its founding in 1995. Its printing factory has been vandalized, its employees threatened.
If the fictional world created by Stieg Larsson mirrors the world in which he lived, and it clearly does, then the enemies who sought to kill him represent powerful forces within corrupt government institutions, corporate interests willing to abet these forces, and extremist organizations.
Considering the response of the WikiLeaks network to the incarceration of Julian Assange, could there be something akin to Stieg Larsson’s fictional Hacker Republic that exists in the real world? Are the WikiLeaks hackers the public persona of a force that has existed since the 1990s, a force that Stieg Larsson believed could be a force for good in the world? A new avenue of free speech that might finally break the power of corporate and governmental interests to control the flow of information for their own ends?
The final verdict in the Assange saga is yet to be written, but if Larsson’s fiction is based on truth, he has shown us a path to freedom as powerful as any that has appeared in many hundreds of years. Technology could be our greatest weapon against corruption and government misconduct.