What is all of the fuss about?

Written By: - Date published: 8:47 am, December 1st, 2010 - 8 comments
Categories: interweb - Tags: , ,

I’ve just been quite amused this morning reading all of the faux outrage about the Wikileaks ‘leaks’. What people seem to not be thinking about is the trend that is inherent in digital age of the flow of information.

There has always been an inherent design conflict in giving widespread access to information. On one hand it allows better service for people and organisations. On the other hand it means that less material can be kept secret because giving more people access to information and more opportunity to whistleblow when people see a problem or an ethical conflict. That has always been the inherent conflict.

In the case of the material leaked by Wikileaks, the access to the information was a direct result of the 9/11 attacks. In the aftermath of that, it was clearly identified by several inquiries that there was sufficient information to have prevented the attacks in the possession of the US government. But that information was bunkered between competing and uncooperative agencies. As a consequence, the information was made more widely available across agencies. I’ve seen varying estimates in my reading that between two and three million people had access to at least some of the information in the Siprnet network.

Siprnet has grown tremendously over the last decade, as following September 11, the U.S. government has moved to link the archives across various departments and embassies, all in the hope that the intelligence they contain would no longer be siloed. Since then, more U.S. embassies have been added to Siprnet so that both military and diplomatic information can be easily shared. In 2002, only 125 embassies were on Siprnet. By 2005, there were 180. Yesterday’s Wikileaks release had data from over 270 embassies and consulates.

According to The Guardian, an internal guide for State Department staff advises them to use the “SIPDIS” header only for “reporting and other informational messages deemed appropriate for release to the US government interagency community.” There are alternative networks for more sensitive communiques. Those dispatches marked “SIPDIS” are automatically downloaded onto its embassy’s classified website, and from there they can be accessed by anyone connected to Siprnet with the appropriate security clearance.

From what I’ve been reading most of the material appears to have been largely that, unclassified and relatively safe. But as Paul Buchanan points out on Kiwipolitico:

The latest document dump by wikileaks, more than a quarter of a million documents detailing “cables” (diplomatic messages) between the US State Department and 274 embassies and consulates from late 1966 until earlier this year, is a treasure trove for diplomatic historians and others interested in the minutia of diplomatic correspondence. As a recipient of such cables in a former life I have found it highly entertaining and informative to read the musings of US diplomats about foreign leaders, sensitive subjects, US perspectives on those subjects at given points in time, with a fair bit of gossip thrown in. Many of these communications came from junior diplomats as well as ambassadors and other senior department officials. Most of them (half) were unclassified, 42 percent were classified “confidential” (the lowest security classification), 6 percent were classified “secret,” and 2 percent were classified “Top Secret-NOFORN” (NOFORN means no foreign eyes may read the document).

You’d have to question why much of this material isn’t part of the public domain anyway. If there is one thing that the net shows as being one of its most effective traits, it is that many eyes are often better than a few. Putting some of this material up in a public network would probably have more intelligent people picking over it looking for finding nuggets of information and speculation that aren’t seen in a more closed group.

Of course there is the other side, as expressed by Russel Brown at Public Address

More in this case than the previous ones, we’re obliged at least to ask: do we want to live in a world without confidentiality? Would we hamstring our own government by making public every word that diplomats shared about another state? Or has the US simply corrupted its diplomatic service by expanding the role of diplomats in spying?

Would we be prepared to conduct our own affairs without privilege or privacy? Would Wikileaks founder Julian Assange do the same? Would the journalists writing the stories for major news organisations be able to work if they could never speak in confidence? And, not least, why is Wikileaks still declining to publish the secrets it has obtained from within governments who do not happen to be the United States of America?

Well it is pretty clear that Assange is having the same standard applied to him, with a media circus being orchestrated by ambitious prosecutor in Sweden in what is increasingly looking like a case of Assange having rather too many girlfriends at the same time. A press release by Assanges lawyer states:

Both women have declared that they had consensual sexual relations with our client and that they continued to instigate friendly contact well after the alleged incidents. Only after the women became aware of each other’s relationships with Mr. Assange did they make their allegations against him.

The absence of any charge being laid in this rather drawn-out investigation does tend to support that viewpoint.

Speaking as someone who has been playing around with digital information for most of my life, the only thing that surprises me about this type of public release of information is that it has taken so long to find an outlet. If you look back into the speculative fiction you’ll find some quite detailed analysis of the implications of widespread digital information in such works as David Brin’s Earth published in 1990 and set in 2038 with some quite extraordinary legal structures required to keep any information secret even by state structures.

While there are technical idiots like Sarah Palin wanting to launch illegal cyber attacks against Wikileaks, this has two major flaws. Firstly I can’t think of anything more likely to get the technical support of the net techs to ensure that any such an attempt will fail, and that is despite the way that Assange’s rather interesting ideas about cooperation are viewed around the net. Secondly it will simply accelerate the spread of sites worldwide designed to proliferate the release of information because of it’s fossilized 20th century viewpoint about trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle. It doesn’t help the debate about what is legitimate to conceal to try to use an authoritarian attack on the nature of the net. You don’t get the voluntary cooperation of the people who make the net operate – you just piss them off.

I’ll continue to watch the ensuing debate with interest..

8 comments on “What is all of the fuss about?”

  1. Pascal's bookie 1

    Good take on related aspects here:

    http://www.balloon-juice.com/2010/11/30/a-nation-of-secrets/#more-53796htm

    Galison has a number of targets in this piece. But the biggest one, or at least that which resonated now as I read this essay again, is that once you set out down a road where each unknowable fact needs its hedge of other secrets to preserve the original wall of ignorance and so on…you end up in a position where it becomes impossible for the governed to give informed consent to their governors…..

    …I understand the view that unfiltered dumps of classified documents about anything can be reckless, or worse. But at the same time if Wikileaks did not exist, it would be invented. When we make more secrets than knowledge we can share, that ever-growing Fort Knox of unknowing will inevitably draw its safe crackers. And if we are horrified when those crackers actually steal something we care about, we might want to look again at how we decide how much we think it wise not to know ourselves.

    • Olwyn 1.1

      “The deeper issue is that of the paternalistic state, one in which secrets are kept simply because everything runs so much more smoothly if we don’t know precisely what is being done, to and for whom.”

      This is right I think. It is an issue of trust at the most fundamental level. We understand that the PM cannot incorporate a regular door knock to every house to say things like, “I know this guy’s a monster, but he is buying our lamb,” or “Our troops are presently at this mountaintop address, but please don’t tell anyone.” But when we come to fear that the general good has been replaced, or relegated to a sometime, maybe issue, by other priorities, then secrecy takes on a more sinister aspect.

    • lprent 1.2

      But at the same time if Wikileaks did not exist, it would be invented.

      And that is the essence of my argument. The underlying communications technology of the net makes it feasible. The underly social structure of having reasonably transparent societies creates the ‘demand’ for access to this type of information. The sanctions available for those trying to prevent access are stunted because of the fragmented legal frameworks unless they want to adopt the Bulgarian umbrella sanction (ie Sarah Palin is a heir to the logic of the Bulgarian states security logic). There isn’t a widespread consent about what should and should not be visible.

      It is inevitable that there should be a Wikileaks, and the only surprising thing about the whole thing is that it took this long for the first one to appear.

      The great firewall of China is an example of the alternate system where there is an ever increasing amount of people, resources and effort required to stand in the same place. I’ve been watching that Canute solution for a while as they keep trying to block access to information with an ever-increasing affective access by the population that they are trying to ‘protect’. For that matter the NSA’s slowly failing efforts to track information on both the wireless and wired networks where the amount of information keeps overwhelming their available hardware, let alone the software and people resources.

  2. Bill 2

    That’s a disingenuous defence for state secrecy from Russel Brown there.
    A state is nothing like a person.
    What I do is rightly my business, and my business only unless what I do impacts on others.
    What a state does is rightly the business of every citizen that state claims authority over unless what it does impacts on others.

    As for the apparent insignificance of the information; in the same way as a person may draw reasonable conclusions about another’s character based on what they say on insignificant issues, or accurately second guess actions or opinions on more serious matters from observing the behaviour in relation to less significant matters, the same can be said for drawing conclusions about the character and possible actions of states and their agencies. So trivia is not necessarily insignificant.

    But putting all the above aside, I’d think it a good thing to rip any veil of mystique from those who would claim to hold a legitimate authority over us regardless.

  3. Lanthanide 3

    I haven’t read the post, or the comments. But a story on slashdot is about forthcoming leaks:

    Assange: “The coming months will see a new world, where global history is redefined.”

    Blurb: “Among data to be released are tens of thousands of documents from a major US banking firm and material from pharmaceutical companies, finance firms and energy companies”

    Excerpt from article, interview with Assange:
    “Q: Continuing then: The tech industry?

    A: We have some material on spying by a major government on the tech industry. Industrial espionage.

    Q: U.S.? China?

    A: The U.S. is one of the victims.”

    Could peak oil be leaked once and for all?

    Here’s the slashdot link, the link to the article itself currently seems down due to overloading:
    http://news.slashdot.org/story/10/11/30/1849235/WikiLeaks-Will-Unveil-Major-Bank-Scandal

    • Draco T Bastard 3.1

      http://blogs.forbes.com/andygreenberg/2010/11/29/an-interview-with-wikileaks-julian-assange/

      In a rare, two-hour interview conducted in London on November 11, Assange said that he’s still sitting on a trove of secret documents, about half of which relate to the private sector. And WikiLeaks’ next target will be a major American bank. “It will give a true and representative insight into how banks behave at the executive level in a way that will stimulate investigations and reforms, I presume,” he said, adding: “For this, there’s only one similar example. It’s like the Enron emails.”

      Which will be good. The public at large really do need to know that the banks are ripping them off.

  4. Pascal's bookie 4

    Don’t know if anyone has linked to this mindfuck of an essay on what wikileaks is about, (if so, apologies).

    Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; “To destroy this invisible government”

    Kind of defies excerpting as any excerpt would be misleading, but here is the intro:

    The piece of writing [from Assange] which that quote introduces is intellectually substantial, but not all that difficult to read, so you might as well take a look at it yourself. Most of the news media seems to be losing their minds over Wikileaks without actually reading these essays, even though he describes the function and aims of an organization like Wikileaks in pretty straightforward terms. But, to summarize, he begins by describing a state like the US as essentially an authoritarian conspiracy, and then reasons that the practical strategy for combating that conspiracy is to degrade its ability to conspire, to hinder its ability to “think” as a conspiratorial mind. The metaphor of a computing network is mostly implicit, but utterly crucial: he seeks to oppose the power of the state by treating it like a computer and tossing sand in its diodes.

    If the essay gets wikileaks right, (and wikileaks tweeted a recommendation of it, which suggests it does), then the reactions from the US re: reforming the diplomatic information flow systems to prevent leaks, are exactly the sort of reaction wikileaks seeks. Reducing internal trust within the security apparatus degrades that apparatus’ ability to ‘think’.

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