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:


    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:

    • Draco T Bastard 3.1


      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’.

Links to post

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

  • Alfred Ngaro might be sorry – but to whom?
    The fact that the number of people classified as homeless on the Social Housing Register has doubled over the past year alone should be the real reason for Alfred Ngaro’s recent apologies, says Labour’s Social Development spokesperson Carmel Sepuloni. “As ...
    11 hours ago
  • Government’s data-for-funding backdown embarrassing
    The Government’s U-turn on their shambolic attempt to collect private client data from social services is an embarrassment for a senior Minister, says Labour’s Social Development spokesperson Carmel Sepuloni. “After months of criticism and mismanagement, the Government has finally cut ...
    12 hours ago
  • Overloaded hospitals reach crisis point
      The country’s hospitals have reached breaking point with some hospitals discharging patients to free up bed space and patients with serious injuries having to wait hours to be seen by a doctor, says Labour’s Health spokesperson David Clark.   ...
    12 hours ago
  • National fails on critical school building needs
    Students are paying the price of the Government’s failure to invest fast enough in school buildings to keep pace with Auckland’s increasing population, says Labour Leader Andrew Little. “Parents should lay the blame for their children having to put up ...
    19 hours ago
  • Tipping culture is not welcome in NZ
    Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett’s comments about tipping have been in the news and have sparked off a series of furious discussions about tipping in Aotearoa. From our point of view, tipping every time you’re provided a service is a ...
    GreensBy Denise Roche
    1 day ago
  • Mental Health a huge cost for Police
      The cost of dealing with mental health incidents for our police was a staggering $36.7 million which shows just why we need Labour’s fresh approach on Mental Health, says the Leader of the Opposition Andrew Little.   “Police now ...
    2 days ago
  • Grant Robertson: Speech to Otago-Southland Employers Association
    Thanks to the Otago Southland Employers Association and Virginia for hosting me this evening.  It is always a pleasure to come back to the city and region that shaped who I am as a person. I believe that growing up ...
    2 days ago
  • Renting a home in the Wild West
    It can be tough renting a place to live, and it could be about to get tougher. Radio NZ is reporting that the American Rentberry app wants to start operating in New Zealand. Rentberry allows landlords to play perspective tenants ...
    GreensBy Metiria Turei
    2 days ago
  • Free West Papua leader in Aotearoa
    Last week I hosted Free West Papua leader Benny Wenda at Parliament and travelled with him to a number of important events. Benny is spokesperson for the United Liberation Movement for West Papua and lives in exile in England. 14 ...
    GreensBy Catherine Delahunty
    4 days ago
  • Nats unprepared for record immigration
    National’s under-investment in housing, public services, and infrastructure means New Zealand is literally running out of beds for the record number of new migrants, says Labour’s Immigration spokesperson Iain Lees-Galloway. ...
    6 days ago
  • Labour opposes Ports of Auckland sale
    Labour would strongly oppose the sell-off of the Ports of Auckland to fix a short term cash crisis caused by the Government blocking the city’s requests for new ways to fund infrastructure, says Labour’s Auckland Issues spokesperson Phil Twyford. “National ...
    1 week ago
  • Workers pay the price of Silver Fern’s Fairton closure
    The threatened closure of Silver Fern Farms’ Fairton Plant in Ashburton raises serious questions about the Government’s support of the sale of half of the company to a foreign company, when it appears this outcome may have been inevitable, says ...
    1 week ago
  • National’s answer to the housing crisis: One new affordable house per 100 new Aucklanders
    National’s fudge of a housing plan will make Auckland even more of a speculators’ paradise, says Leader of the Opposition Andrew Little. ...
    1 week ago
  • Government can’t be trusted with private data
    The independent review of the Ministry of Social Development’s data breach in April has shown, once again, that the Ministry cannot be trusted with private client information, says Labour’s Social Development spokesperson Carmel Sepuloni. “The investigation by former Deloitte chairman ...
    1 week ago
  • Another crisis, another half-baked National plan
    The National Party may have finally woken up to the teacher supply crisis facing our schools but their latest half-baked, rushed announcement falls well short of the mark in terms of what’s required, says Labour’s Education spokesperson Chris Hipkins. ...
    1 week ago
  • Nats: Don’t bite the hand that feeds you
    Alfred Ngaro’s recent comments have exposed the Government’s ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you’ approach, says Labour’s Social Development spokesperson Carmel Sepuloni. ...
    1 week ago
  • Breaking news – National admits there’s a housing crisis
    National finally admits there’s a housing crisis, but today’s belated announcement is simply not a credible response to the problem it’s been in denial about for so long, says Leader of the Opposition Andrew Little. “National can’t now credibly claim ...
    1 week ago
  • Nats lay the ground for housing bust
    Goldman Sachs’ warning that New Zealand has the developed world’s most over-priced housing market, with a 40 per cent chance of a bust within two years, shows the consequences of National’s nine years of housing neglect, says Labour Housing spokesperson ...
    1 week ago
  • Well they would say that, wouldn’t they?
    Property investors’ lobby groups have been up in arms this week about Labour and Green parties’ plans to close tax loopholes and fix the housing market. That’s probably a good thing. Like an investor in any other sector, they expect ...
    GreensBy James Shaw
    1 week ago
  • Alfred Ngaro reflects National’s culture of silencing debate
    Image from Getty Images Community groups must be free to advocate for the people they serve. It’s these people who see first-hand if ideas dreamt up in Wellington actually work on the ground. It’s essential that they can speak freely ...
    GreensBy Jan Logie
    1 week ago
  • Bill English must reassure community organisations
    The Prime Minister must do more to reassure community organisations after Cabinet Minister Alfred Ngaro's apparent threats to their funding if they criticise government policy which has left a born-to-rule perception amongst many, says Labour Leader Andrew Little. “Alfred Ngaro ...
    1 week ago
  • Extremism and its discontents
    Another scar on global democracy appeared recently, this time in Germany.It seems that the number of soldiers on duty with extremist political leanings has become a concern to the military leadership in that country. Soldiers were found openly possessing ...
    GreensBy Kennedy Graham
    1 week ago
  • Government’s suicide approach disappoints
    Mike King’s sudden departure from the Government’s suicide prevention panel, amid claims the Government’s approach is ‘deeply flawed’, is further evidence National is failing on mental health, says Labour’s Deputy Leader Jacinda Ardern. “Mental health is reaching crisis point in ...
    1 week ago
  • National backs speculators, fails first home buyers
    National is showing its true colours and backing speculators who are driving first home buyers out of the market, says Labour Leader Andrew Little. “By defending a $150m a year hand-out to property speculators, Bill English is turning his back ...
    1 week ago
  • More oversight by Children’s Commissioner needed
    More funding and more independence is required for the Children’s Commissioner to function more effectively in the best interests of Kiwi kids in State care, says Labour’s spokesperson for children Jacinda Ardern. ...
    1 week ago
  • Labour to end tax breaks for speculators; invest in warm, healthy homes
    Labour will shut down tax breaks for speculators and use the savings to help make 600,000 homes warmer and healthier over the next ten years, says Leader of the Opposition Andrew Little. “It’s time for fresh thinking to tackle the ...
    2 weeks ago
  • Health of young people a priority for Labour
    Labour will ensure all young people have access to a range of health care services on-site at their local secondary school, says Labour’s deputy leader Jacinda Ardern. “Our policy will see School Based Health Services extended to all public secondary ...
    2 weeks ago
  • Ratifying the TPPA makes no sense
    The recent high-fiving between the government and agricultural exporters over ratification of the TPPA (Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement) is empty gesture politics in an election year. Ratification by New Zealand means nothing. New Zealand law changes are not implemented unless the ...
    GreensBy Barry Coates
    2 weeks ago
  • NIWA report proves National’s trickery re swimmable rivers
    National have a slacker standard for swimmable rivers than was the case prior to their recent so-called Clean Water amendment to the National Policy Statement (NPS), says Labour’s Water spokesperson David Parker. “The table 11 on page 25 of the ...
    2 weeks ago
  • MPS shows new approach needed on housing
    The Reserve Bank’s latest Monetary Policy Statement provides further evidence that only a change in government will start to fix the housing crisis, says Labour Finance spokesperson Grant Robertson. “It is more evident than ever that only a Labour-led government ...
    2 weeks ago
  • Fresh approach on mental health
    Labour will introduce a pilot scheme of specialist mental health teams across the country in government to ensure swifter and more effective treatment for those who need urgent help, says Labour’s Leader Andrew Little. “Mental health is in crisis. It ...
    2 weeks ago
  • Sallies back Labour’s plan for affordable homes
    The country’s most respected social agency has endorsed Labour’s KiwiBuild plan to build homes that families can afford to buy, and delivered a withering assessment of the National Government’s housing record, says Labour’s housing spokesperson Phil Twyford. ...
    2 weeks ago
  • Education is for everyone, not just the elite
    Proposals by the National Party to ration access to higher education will once again make it a privilege only available to the elite, Labour’s Education spokesperson Chris Hipkins says. “Speaking at the Education Select Committee, Maurice Williamson let the National ...
    2 weeks ago
  • Cancer support changes far too little, certainly late
    Anne Tolley’s belated backtrack to finally allow Jobseeker clients suffering from cancer to submit only one medical certificate to prove their illness fails to adequately provide temporary support for people too sick to work, says Labour’s Social Development spokesperson Carmel ...
    2 weeks ago
  • Kids must come first in enrolment debate
    The best interests of children should be the major driver of any change to policies around initial school enrolments, not cost cutting or administrative simplicity, Labour’s Education spokesperson Chris Hipkins says.   “The introduction of school cohort entry is ...
    2 weeks ago
  • Feed the Kids
    While in Whangarei last week, I had the pleasure of meeting Buddhi Manta from the Hare Krishna movement whose cafe is making lunch for some schools in Whangarei. His group have been feeding up to 1,000 primary school kids at local ...
    GreensBy Catherine Delahunty
    2 weeks ago
  • DHBs’ big budget blowout
    New Zealand’s District Health Boards are now facing a budget deficit of nearly $90 million dollars, a significant blowout on what was forecast, says Labour’s Health spokesperson David Clark.   Labour believes health funding must grow to avoid further cuts ...
    2 weeks ago
  • Govt plays catch up on drug funding
    The Government's backdown on Pharmac is welcomed because previous rhetoric around the agency being adequately funded was just nonsense, says Labour's Health spokesperson David Clark. ...
    3 weeks ago
  • Labour to build affordable homes in Hamilton
    Labour will build 200 affordable KiwiBuild houses and state houses on unused government-owned land as the first steps in our plan to fix Hamilton’s housing crisis, says Leader of the Opposition Andrew Little. “We will build new houses to replace ...
    3 weeks ago
  • Mental Health waiting times a growing concern
    There is new evidence that the Mental Health system is under increasing strain with waiting times for young people to be seen by mental health and addiction services lengthening says Labour’s Health spokesperson David Clark.   “Following yesterday’s seat of ...
    3 weeks ago