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With Vault 7, Assange shows his political nous

With the document dump dubbed Vault 7, WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange has shown that he not only knows how to run an organisation that caters to whistleblowers worldwide, but that he is also a very clever political operative.

There's one extraordinary characteristic of the 8761 documents that were released on Tuesday US time: there is not a single line of code that can be used for a malicious attack on current software.

Yes, there are plenty of details about hacking tools and malware for various operating systems, but no code for a single weaponised exploit has been released.

And there is a good reason for this. Assange is aware that sometime later this year he and his lawyers may well be in the fight of their lives if Ecuador asks him to leave its embassy in London.

At that time, Assange would like to have some good cards in his hand. And nothing would be better than code for a huge number of weaponised exploits for current versions of operating systems like Windows, macOS, OS X, Linux, Android and iOS. Not to mention Solaris, and the BSDs.

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Julian Assange: wily political operator.

The release of such exploits would make an already bad situation a nightmare. And nobody in business or government would want that.

Now this may well be the speculation of a feverish mind. But these tactics have been used in the past with spectacular success. One can use a simple word and call it blackmail.

Or one can take a leaf from the great investigative journalist Seymour Hersh who calls it The Samson Option. That's the name of a book he wrote many moons ago, about Israel's nuclear programme.

The late Yitzhak Shamir, a wily veteran of many a spat with his Arab neighbours, used the tactic when the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein threatened to hit Israel with what he claimed were his chemical weapons during the 1991 Gulf War. Iraq had invaded Kuwait and a multinational coalition had formed to try and eject Hussein from the neighbouring emirate.

Shamir's response, according to Hersh, was to position launchers for nuclear weapons — no weapons, mind you, for Israel's policy has always been never to deny or admit that it has them — in an open place where they were sure to be picked up by American spy satellites. His message to George Bush Senior was simple: if Hussein hits us, we will nuke him. In other words, if we have to go, we will take the whole lot down with us.

Bush got the message. Extra anti-missile units were deployed to Israel and the country rode out the conflict with very little missile activity in its environs.

So too with Assange. For a long time it has been rumoured that the Americans are ready to indict him before a grand jury the moment they can bring him to the US. If he is out of the Ecuadorian embassy, he will be sent to Sweden and from there it will be a long ride to Washington DC.

And he knows that his life will end in prison if he has no chips with which to bargain.

But if he has good cards in his hand, then the US will have to cut a deal with him. He knows that. So too, do the powerbrokers in the US.

In the old days, the saying was that the golden rule prevailed: he who had the gold made the rules. The new gold is code. Exploit code is 24-carat gold. Those who have it will make the rules.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.