Now that Julian Assange has been arrested in London after seven years in exile at the Ecuadorian embassy, many are wondering if anything will happen with the “dead man’s switch” that Assange and WikiLeaks have talked about in the past. Read on for more details about the dead man’s switch, its history, and what we know so far about the insurance files.
Assange is accused of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for agreeing to break a password to a classified U.S. government computer, related to Chelsea Manning’s release of classified data in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Justice for the Eastern District of Virginia. The arrest happened shortly after Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno withdrew Assange’s asylum.
Assange now faces extradition to the United States, but his lawyer has vowed to fight extradition, AP reported. When Assange appeared in Westminster Magistrate’s Court, District Judge Michael Snow found him guilty of breaking his bail conditions, saying that Assange was a “narcissist who cannot get beyond his own selfish interests.” Assange’s next court appearance will be May 2 via a prison video-link, where he will face an extradition hearing. Another extradition hearing is scheduled for June 12.
What’s still unclear at this time is what might happen with the dead man’s switch that Assange has talked about in the past. WikiLeaks has released numerous insurance files as a type of “deadman’s switch.” Downloaders get an encryption key, but they need a second one before they can actually unlock the file. The insurance files operate as a type of backup. If anything happens to WikiLeaks, the second key is released, giving everyone access to the file, according to comments WikiLeaks and Assange have made in the past. However, these are typically insurance files to ensure that a pending publication is actually released. It’s unclear how many (if any) are actually related to Julian Assange’s safety or WikiLeaks’ existence in general.
Insurance files have been released by WikiLeaks multiple times. One of those insurance files was released in June 2016:
The June 2016 dead man’s switch was the subject of a lot of speculation in late 2016 when rumors had spread that Julian Assange was no longer alive and people wanted proof of life. A tweet by WikiLeaks in October 2016 revived those rumors, as some mistakenly believed that the following tweet was connected to the dead man’s switch.
However, as Gizmodo reported, the pre-commitment wording above meant the codes provided proof that related documents hadn’t been tampered with. They weren’t actually dead man’s switches, but digital fingerprints of upcoming releases. So if you see a pre-commitment tweet, that is not a dead man’s switch or a means to decrypt an insurance file.
A file that is genuinely a dead man’s switch is typically labeled “insurance” in a WikiLeaks tweet, such as what the June 17, 2016 tweet above shows. These need a second decryption key to open. That decryption key is the dead man’s switch that people are waiting on.
Let’s look at the June 19, 2016 file for more details on how that works. The June 19, 2016 insurance filed was just called “WIKILEAKS INSURANCE” but some wondered at the time if it was a deadman’s switch connected to Hillary Clinton somehow. It’s important to point out that this particular encrypted file was going to be released if WikiLeaks was prevented from releasing planned publications connected to the 2016 election, which they did release.
The June 2016 tweet provided a link to download a torrent file called WIKILEAKS INSURANCE 2016-06-03. The file was listed as being 88 Gb. An insurance file is typically an unredacted version of a file that WikiLeaks is planning to release. On a Reddit thread about the drop in 2016, posters theorized that the file was likely 88 GB (gigabytes) not 88 Gb (gigabits). The 88 GB size would be a huge size and might indicate that the file includes videos and other larger documents. Or, as one person on Reddit theorized, it might contain some junk files to fill up space, or it may actually be more than 88 GB if any files are compressed. What’s in the file was all speculation and is not known.
Another example of a WikiLeaks insurance file dates back to February 2012. In an interview about the insurance file with Eric Scmidt, Julian Assange said:
We openly distribute … encrypted backups of materials that we view are highly sensitive that we are to publish in the coming year… So that there is very little possibility that that material, even if we are completely wiped out, will be taken from the historical record… Ideally, we will never reveal the key… Because there is things, like, … redactions sometimes need to be done on this material.”
Here’s a look at some other insurance files that WikiLeaks has tweeted or talked about.
In July 2010, an Insurance file was added to the Afghan War page on WikiLeaks. It may have been connected to U.S. diplomatic cables. Some news reports said that insurance files in 2011 were decrypted, but WikiLeaks stated this was inaccurate.
Another insurance file was released in February 2012.
In August 2013, three more insurance files were released. The contents are not known.
A different insurance file was released on December 19, 2016. We also don’t know what the contents of that file are:
A more recent one was released in February 2017, which WikiLeaks said was for a pending publication.
You can see all the insurance files by going here and searching for insurance.
It’s important to note that not all of these insurance files are dead man’s switches meant to be held onto for all time. WikiLeaks has said that sometimes these files are just to nullify attempts to stop them from publishing a specific publication. It’s an encrypted version of an upcoming publication.
So it’s unclear how many of the insurance files that WikiLeaks has tweeted before are actually dead man switches in case something happens to Assange or WikiLeaks itself. A story by Wired in 2011 indicated that at least some are insurance files just for this purpose, however. Daniel Domscheit-Berg wrote a book called Inside WikiLeaks, talking about how he and a WikiLeaks programmer had seized their submission system and some documents that were there at the time. In the article, Domscheit-Berg said he didn’t know what was in an encrypted WikiLeaks file that was posted to the site that previous July. The file had been sent to politicians, journalists, and others. According to Wired, WikiLeaks planned to distribute a password for that file if anything “grave” happened to WikiLeaks staff or if anyone tried to take down WikiLeaks. Domscheit-Berg thought this included Assange losing a legal battle, according to Wired.
We will update this story as we know more.