On 16 October 2016, WikiLeaks posted a series of cryptic numeric tweets, leading many onlookers to conclude that founder Julian Assange was in danger and likely dead (and thus a dead man’s switch had been activated):
pre-commitment 1: John Kerry 4bb96075acadc3d80b5ac872874c3037a386f4f595fe99e687439aabd0219809
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) October 16, 2016
pre-commitment 2: Ecuador eae5c9b064ed649ba468f0800abf8b56ae5cfe355b93b1ce90a1b92a48a9ab72 — WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) October 16, 2016
pre-commitment 3: UK FCO f33a6de5c627e3270ed3e02f62cd0c857467a780cf6123d2172d80d02a072f74 — WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) October 16, 2016
Supporters of WikiLeaks around the world are downloading a file the site calls an insurance policy. The files are encrypted with a code so strong it’s unbreakable, even by governments. If anything happens to Assange or the website, a key will go out to unlock the files. There would then be no way to stop the information from spreading like wildfire because so many people already have copies. “What most folks are speculating is that the insurance file contains unreleased information that would be especially embarrassing to the U.S. government if it were released,” said Declan McCullagh, chief political correspondent for CNET, a CBS company.
Not long after the mysterious tweets appeared in October 2016, a Twitter account associated with Anonymous asserted that they were not indicative of harm coming to Assange — he was presumably, fine and the tweets were a form of data integrity verification:
Clarification: Wikileaks tweeted out sha256sum coded messages, not deadman keys. Assange is fine as far as we know. Carry on. — Anonymous (@YourAnonNews) October 17, 2016
A Gizmodo article described the series of tweets and their less ominous potential purpose:
Much as these tweets provide great fodder for conspiracy speculation, the secret to their meaning is hidden in plain sight. “Pre-commitment” in this case is a references to a cryptographic scheme to prevent unreleased information from being tampered with. Essentially those unique codes are proof to anyone reading the documents in the future that their contents remain unchanged: alteration to the leaks will likewise alter those 64-character codes.
The same strategy was used by Tor Project developer Andrea Shepard in a warning shot that may have helped reveal years of Jacob Applebaum’s sexual misconduct. Likewise, Edward Snowden tweeted (and quickly deleted) a similar code in August, though its meaning remains uncertain. A torrent file and accompanying SHA-512 hash was even used by someone on Reddit’s r/SilkRoad to share sensitive forum information. The tweets from Wikileaks appear to be in line with these prior examples—and surely a true “dead man’s switch” unleashing all the data Assange currently possesses would amount to much more than three measly leaks.
WikiLeaks regularly tweets about Assange’s status and whereabouts, and shortly after the cryptic tweets were posted, WikiLeaks proclaimed that a “state actor” had cut off Assange’s Internet connection at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where Assange had remained since seeking asylum from that country in June 2012:
Julian Assange’s internet link has been intentionally severed by a state party. We have activated the appropriate contingency plans. — WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) October 17, 2016
Many commenters have been connecting the alleged severing of Assange’s Internet connection with WikiLeaks’ recent release of sensitive material about Hillary Clinton’s campaign and/or claims that WikiLeaks is working with the Russian government to assist Donald Trump’s campaign, suggesting that the U.S. government is (or influenced) the “state party” behind the act:
John Kerry has threatened the Ecuadorian President with “grave consequences for Equador” if Assange is not silenced @StoneColdTruth
— Roger Stone (@RogerJStoneJr) October 17, 2016
One of the odder theories holds that former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson, who had recently paid a visit to Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy and brought him some bags from the Pret A Manger sandwich chain, might have been involved in nefarious doings:
@alburyj GET ASSANGE OUT OF THERE AND INTO HIDING. How do we know that Pamela Anderson isn’t working 4 someone to set up him up?
— Rosa Marzullo (@niftyrosa1) October 17, 2016
Later that afternoon, WikiLeaks’ official Twitter account said that the Ecuadorian government had cut Assange’s access:
We can confirm Ecuador cut off Assange’s internet access Saturday, 5pm GMT, shortly after publication of Clinton’s Goldman Sachs speechs.
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) October 17, 2016