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..