Inside Wikileaks's Servers
I talked to Jon Karlung, the chairman of the company that looks after the leak-ennabling activist organziation's data, about his fight for online freedom.
The meeting room at Pionen. All photos by Emil Nordin
One hundred and fifteen feet deep under ground, inside a mountain on the Southside in central Stockholm, behind huge doors that look like a gateway to the future, lies one of the world’s coolest offices.
The first thing you’ll see when you enter this place are two massive engines that automatically start in case of a power shutdown. These are authentic German submarine engines. The mountain walls inside are covered with green plants that give you the impression that they provide the place with additional oxygen. There’s also a huge soundproof glass cube that floats above the floor, serving as a meeting room. The round carpet inside looks like the moon.
This is Pionen, one of Swedish internet provider Bahnhof’s many data centers. It’s a venue inherited from the Swedish civil defense that was built during the Cold War. During a short period in the 1990s it used to be a popular hub for Stockholm ravers. But eventually, it became what it is today: the home to Wikileaks’s servers.
“They operated their main servers from here. Later, it became common to set up servers that mirror their machinery," Jon Karlung, the CEO of Banhof, tells me. "That wasn’t ideal for us since we’re hosting a business solution, and they were saving money setting up things in a different way.
“In December 2010, when Wikileaks was at its peak, CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, and tons of other media were here. [Wikileaks’ founders] were at some hotel room somewhere launching this thing. The media wanted something visually appealing, and if there is a James Bond–looking data center around the corner, well…”
Karlung is 50 years old and very tall. He describes himself as something of a rebel, and after spending pretty much an entire day with him, I think I agree. I get the impression that this is a man who is very intelligent, who likes to play fun and games, and who fearlessly walks his own way at all times—for better and for worse. “I guess [our competitors] can get a bit uncomfortable sometimes,” he tells me as we’re drinking coffee in one of the more standard office-looking corners of Pionen.
Jon Karlung standing in the doorway to the room at Pionen where he keeps machinery for channeling heat from servers
After the coffee, he shows me around. I get to see servers IRL for the first time in my life—the things that store the stuff that makes up the internet. They're smaller than what I had expected, but inside are endless corridors of virtual information.
We’re discussing big data, the massive collections of everybody’s online behavior and information.
“It is possible to gather big data and analyze it, and receive amazing things and knowledge from it," Karlung says. "However, these days it’s possible to use this to shackle people. I guess you can say that there are so many things that happen in our lives online. And if you’re in this—let’s call it a closed ‘universe’—there are a few, big, dominating players who plan out the rules in that universe. I think that this ultimately is a philosophical matter. Like, what is it to be a human being?”
Sweden has recently become an attractive player on the international data center market—particularly since Facebook opened its first European data center in the northern city of Luleå last year. It’s due to the Nordics’ cold climate (which helps lower the cost of keeping the servers from overheating) that the interest in building data centers is growing. In September 2013, Microsoft announced the construction of a $250-million data center in northern Finland, and in March it was announced that Facebook would build a second data center close to its first.
Naturally, this growing interest in the Nordics is received with open arms by the governments. The data centers offer jobs in places that have been depopulated in the last couple of decades.
As we talk, Karlung tells me about a deal he has with Fortum, which is a Swedish energy provider: Instead of channeling the heat from the servers through vents and tossing it into the open air, Fortum uses the runoff to heat apartment blocks in Stockholm. Karlung says data centers where the heat isn’t taken care of and recycled cause some pretty serious pollution.
“The servers create energy, and it’d be crazy to waste it,” he says
Karlung with one of his servers
Karlung shares his personal contact details on each and every press release posted on Bahnhof’s website and personally deals with the company’s press matters. When I ask him if he ever gets unpleasant phone calls from people who think he’s annoying, he doesn’t look bothered at all: “I let them say what they have to say and that’s it.” He tells me that it doesn’t matter if his phone number is listed or not—if someone would want to hurt him, they will find a way to do that one way or another.
But why would anyone want to hurt a CEO of an internet provider? Well, Karlung likes to pull practical jokes and perform media stunts, which he’s been doing ever since he began working at Bahnhof in 1996.
“I’ve been in this game ever since the 'Wild West years'—when internet was like this immense power, something positive and fucking cool," he says. "If I look back at how it was in the beginning, it was a positivity that broke free. You could access things on a global scale that hadn’t been possible before—things that we take for granted today. Back then, it was freedom online, freedom of speech—not an internet used as some kind of control mechanism, it wasn’t used in a repressive way.”
The internet was made available for the Swedish public in 1994. Up until then, it had only been a service for government bodies, businesses, and universities. Internet provider Algonet—which no longer exists—is often referred to as Sweden’s first commercial ISP. But that same year, in a basement in Uppsala, Oscar Swartz set up another company that would prove to be more successful: Bahnhof.
At that time, Karlung worked as the editor-in-chief for the men’s magazine (now a porn publication) Aktuell Rapport. He joined Bahnhof two years later when he figured that it could work to bring the magazine online. “I had been working at Aktuell Rapport for quite a few years and was pretty tired with all that," he says. "It wasn’t like the ultimate dream to keep on working with that kind of thing for all eternity. Naturally, I wanted to do something else with my life, so the question of, What can I do now? arose. So I was looking at things from a technical point of view and thought, Maybe I can do this online? But, well, it kind of fell through.”
Instead, his technology hobby took over, and Karlung left the magazine. “[The internet in the mid 90s] was so much fun! It was incredible," he says. "It was the one thing that made it possible to log on and discover the world in ways that were completely new. I mean it was a revolution that was very positive.”
The 'Alien' server hall in Kista, outside of Stockholm
One common perception that people have of Karlung is that he’s a provocateur. In 1997, he and his then companion Swartz staged a news story about Cambodian dictator Pol Pot coming to Sweden—a complete lie—which was picked up by Reuters.
“It was pretty mad in itself. But it took a while before they figured it out. And it did cause a mess," he says. "But that was like a market-based practical joke, which showed some of the possibilities the internet has. Practical jokes are always fun if they have a serious message embedded into them. Practical jokes without any substance aren’t fun. In this case it was about the fact that you can’t trust information online. That’s given today, but back then, people considered information online to be the truth.”
Whatever people think of Karlung, the fact is that behind the humorous take on media and sci-fi designed data centers, is a person in a very rare and powerful position. Being the CEO for an internet provider gives him the means to effect, and possibly change, the centralized direction he’s fearing that the internet is currently taking.
“Then there was this thing with North Korea [in 2001]. They wanted us to build an internet that wasn’t the internet. They wanted a fake Yahoo, a fake Altavista [a search engine prior to Google], and a range of different websites, so that the people of North Korea could surf in a kind of small world—almost like in the Truman Show. They were supposed to surf on a mini-internet, thinking that it was the real internet. And then there would be people monitoring and controlling everybody online. People might laugh about that today and think of it as silly, but as a matter of fact, we’re in a situation where a few big players control the internet. And we are made to believe that it’s free and open. So that image of things might not be that bad.”
The deal with North Korea didn’t happen. “Plenty of things are possible—I mean you can rob a bank if you want—but this didn’t feel right even though it was an exciting thought.”
Karlung is the kind of guy who likes to take action when it comes to things he believes in. Sometimes in pretty weird ways. In 2013, Wired reported on what was, according to that magazine, “the single most enjoyable comment on the year’s NSA spying scandal.” One evening, Karlung and his friend Love Ekenberg made a video starring three gingerbread men, titled Gingerbread Data Center: NSA & Sweden Eat Cake. The film takes place at Pionen and the gingerbread men represent NSA, the Swedish Security Police, and FRA, which is the National Defence Radio Establishment in Sweden. These three institutions are government bodies that Karlung associates with internet surveillance. And he’s not particularly fond of them. The video ends with a thank you to Edward Snowden.
Video making goes hand-in-hand with Karlung’s first experiences of the internet. “I did experimental films—and this was before video! I did 16-mm films and animations and arty stuff or whatever you like to call it. [The gingerbread video] was something we did pretty quickly, but in pretty much the same kind of spirit as those I did in the beginning.”
The gingerbread video is nothing compared to some of the hands-on measures Karlung has been doing over the years. For instance in December last year, Karlung had several meetings with the Swedish Security Police—which might explain their representation in the gingerbread video. “They wanted to access our systems in a standardized way, so that they in a standardized way could get access to a kind of information they considered having the right to access," he says. "And we considered that wrong.”
In a response to what he believed was wrong, he decided to secretly record one of the meetings with the police. Furthermore, he handed over the recordings to the news desk at Swedish public service radio. They broadcasted the entire thing. “That might be a little bit outside of the box of what you normally do as a technical provider, but who else would do that?" he says. "There isn’t anybody else! That’s the thing. There isn’t anyone else who has that kind of access, or who is like a spider in a web at a technical provider, and who’s actually interested in these issues.”
Karlung walking on the imported lava stones in Kista
It might be thanks to the fact that Sweden is pretty progressive in terms of freedom of speech that Karlung is able to do these stunts without getting into trouble. Or maybe due to the fact that he always seems to have the law on his side.
Over the past decade, Bahnhof has only had one major legal issue. In 2005, the Swedish Anti-Piracy Agency alongside music giants Universal, Sony, and EMI, reported Bahnhof to the police for unlawfully spreading copyrighted files. The police searched Pionen and allegedly found the files. This was during a time when piracy was a hot topic in Sweden. The goal with the search was to find file-sharers who were customers at Bahnhof.
Bahnhof responded with a lawsuit against the Anti-Piracy Agency on the grounds that material had been placed on the servers by an infiltrator from the Anti-Piracy Agency. Eventually, a deal was settled, and didn’t result in any legal consequences for anyone involved.
It might sound a little odd, but Karlung’s ability to combine his hobbies and concerns with his business has given results. Despite being one of Sweden’s smaller operators, serving about 100,000 households, Bahnhof has become a trusted internet provider with a unique trademark. And it seems to be going well. The company has an annual turnover of about half a billion Swedish kroners ($88 million).
It’s not only Pionen that is designed in a spectacular way. One of Bahnhof’s newest data centers is located a bit outside of the Swedish capital in the suburb Kista.
From the outside, this building looks like an actual space base. There are giant, square-shaped container-like rooms made out of armor-grade steel. These various armor blocks are connected with an air-filled tent—just like you’d expect a house in space to look like. And the entire construction stands on top of red lava stones, which are imported from Iceland. All in an attempt to give the place a feel of how it would be like to be on Mars. And if that wasn’t enough: upon entering this planet, Karlung shows me (with the excitement of a child) how the doors that open the armored rooms—in which the servers are stored—make pschhh sounds. They open in a just about identical way as the doors on the spaceship in the movie Alien.
Design aside—it is the company’s caring attitude towards the privacy of their customers that makes it unique. Probably also the fact that some of Bahnhof’s clients happened to have been big actors within the freedom of internet movement—such as WikiLeaks back in 2010.
“I was pretty naïve, and was going to auction out everything [from Wikileaks] on eBay and donate the money to Reporters Without Borders. That was the plan. But it all fell through due to eBay not being deigned to deal with that kind of thing. The server was sold for like a couple of hundred thousands [kroners] to a guy who had used his dad’s credit card. So obviously we had to withdraw the entire thing and were like, 'Fuck this.' We actually still have both the [Wikileaks] web server and database.”
Karlung at Pionen
Bahnhof continues with their political fights for what they believe is right. In 2014 alone, Karlung and his company have been involved in two pretty chaotic media hunts, both which are related to gathering and use of personal information online.
“It all comes down to freedom online without it being someone else’s business," he says "I mean, if I get a phone call from someone, what gives a third part the right to record that conversation, store that information for all eternity, and use it for their own purposes?”
In January, Sweden saw a new type of online service called Lexbase. It’s a business built around taking advantage of the country’s Freedom of Information Act. It’s essentially a search engine that allows its users to browse freely through criminal records of Sweden’s citizens. By typing in someone’s name, you’ll get access to some of that person’s dirtiest secrets.
Although criminal records have always been available to the public due to the Freedom of Information Act, Lexbase changed the process of getting hold of that information—from complicated bureaucratic procedures, to anonymous and easy online browsing.
Naturally, a shitstorm took place when the site was launched. But Lexbase’s founders failed to predict that it’s pretty upsetting for people when others take the right to share their private information with the world. Plus, the technology behind the website wasn’t advanced enough to handle the pressure. Within a few hours of the launch, Lexbase was hacked and crashed. Bahnhof hosted its servers, and became the center of attention once again. “The [founders of Lexbase] disappeared off the radar. We were left to act like some kind of press people for their stuff.”
Following the Lexbase crash, Karlung ended their contract and edited Bahnhof’s user terms. “Now, there’s one paragraph saying that you’re not allowed to engage in ‘irresponsible circulation of gatherings of personal information.’ One thing that’s always been written in the terms is that you’re not allowed to run things that don’t work from a technical point of view, or something that can cause us major technical problems. And the formalities around [Lexbase] were the fact that their net had big technological issues.”
The updated Bahnhof terms illustrate Karlung’s engagement in civil right matters once again—as well as the success of his company. His unique position in the middle of the world wide web is in the center of another ongoing controversy.
On April 8, the European Court of Justice declared the controversial Directive 2006/24/EC—aka EU’s Data Retention Directive (DRD)—invalid. The DRD has, ever since it was introduced in 2006, been subject for debates about privacy issues and human rights matters. During the time when it was valid, the DRD made it compulsory for internet providers in all EU countries to track, collect, and store people’s online data, i.e. anything from your browsing history to chat logs and emails. Government bodies could then access this information if considered important or useful, such as during a police investigation.
Once the DRD was gone, Bahnhof erased all of its customers’ stored data and immediately stopped the gathering of new data. But despite the court’s ruling on EU-level, Sweden’s government—which voted in favor of the DRD on a national level in 2012—did not remove the directive in the country’s laws.
Following Bahnhof’s decision to stop the gathering of data, a conflict arose between the company and the Swedish state. Sweden’s Post and Telephone Board ruled that the DRD would continue in Sweden regardless of what the European Court of Justice had determined. Karlung refused to follow the directive, and on July 8, he turned himself in—confident that the case would eventually be brought up in the European court. “If you’re managing a telecom operator, you obviously see things that you don’t necessarily see from the outside. I mean I see what’s possible and in what ways you can use current technology to control [things].”
But despite that Karlung has repeatedly confessed to breaking the law—on both Bahnhof’s website and via letters to the Post and Telephone Board—action against him has still not been issued by the Swedish state.
Due to Sweden’s apparent passivity in the matter (which is weird considering that they require all of the country’s internet providers to gather data), Karlung together with Swartz (who now sits as the chairman for the 5th of July Foundation, which works for freedom of speech online) have taken further action. On September 12, the pair reported Sweden to the European Court of Justice. Karlung wrote on his website that “We will take this all the way to the EU court. But the best thing would be if the court interfered and showed Sweden what way to go.”