WikiLeaks Asks For Anonymous Bitcoin Donations
On Tuesday the secret-spilling group announced via Twitter that it will now be accepting donations of Bitcoins, a wholly digital and theoretically untraceable currency.
As I wrote in this feature about Bitcoin for the magazine in April, Bitcoins are created with cryptographic functions and then stored and exchanged without the help of banks. So in theory the currency prevents any institution from tracking the flow of money, and prevents any bank from either blocking transfers to a certain party or freezing anyone’s account. Both of those problems have struck WikiLeaks in the last six months, as Visa, Mastercard, and Bank of America have all cut off donations to the group and PayPal and the banking arm of the Swiss postal service PostFinance have both frozen WikiLeaks-associated funds.
Showing its usual flair for controversy, WikiLeaks has adopted Bitcoins just as public debate over the crypto-currency has begun to heat up. Earlier this month Senators Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin called for the shutdown of Silk Road, an anonymous marketplace that uses Bitcoins to sell contraband, including a wide range of illegal drugs. In his public statements regarding the site, Schumer focused his ire on Silk Road but also referred to Bitcoin as “an online form of money laundering used to disguise the source of money, and to disguise who’s both selling and buying the drug.”
When I spoke last week with Gavin Andresen, one of the lead developers on the open-source and decentralized project, he countered Schumer’s criticisms by comparing Bitcoins to other pseudo-currencies like prepaid gift cards and frequent flier miles. ”We feel like innocent bystanders,” he says. “We can’t control what Bitcoins are used for: great things and things that aren’t so great. That’s the nature of the beast.”
Plenty of legal businesses accept Bitcoins, after all, in exchange for all sorts of merchandise. But so does LulzSec, the donation-funded hacker group that has been rampaging through dozens of data breaches targeting PBS, Sony, the U.S. Senate and others since it emerged last month.
Bitcoins’ independence from banks is only one of the features that make them attractive. They’re also created at a set pace designed to prevent inflation, which has helped fuel rapid growth in their valuation over the short period since they’ve become widely used. In just the time since my April article, Bitcoins have jumped from an exchange rate of around one to a one to close to 20 dollars to one bitcoin, a rate that some critics say shows the currency’s unstability.
WikiLeaks has been actively trying to raise funds in recent weeks, even auctioning off eight seats at a lunch with founder Julian Assange and philosopher Slavoj Zizek. The current price of a seat ranges from $573 to $835 with five days left in the auction.
With Bitcoin WikiLeaks may be simply trying to solicit donations in a form that it believes is set to appreciate, or it may trying to offer its donors a way to give without revealing their sympathy for a controversial site. Either way, its new funding move will only offer more anti-Bitcoin ammunition to Schumer, who has never been much of a WikiLeaks fan.