Saturday, 11 December 2010

Leaking in the Facebook Age

Everyone who's on Facebook knows (I hope) that anything you post can become public property.  You may think that your privacy setting will protect you, but if you'd be embarassed to see that photo in your local newspaper, then don't post it.

What's clear from the unfolding Wikileaks saga is that the same applies to diplomatic correspondence.  You may think your cables are confidential and sent through a secure network, but electronic data is so easily transportable that you have to expect that sooner or later it will get out.

This is part of the reason why the focus on Julian Assange is misplaced.  You will have noticed that even though Assange is in prison, the leaks are still being published.  The internet is a dispersed medium, definitively a network, and if you cut off one person from it you damage that person, but the network just finds another pathway. 

In response to the push in the US and elsewhere to prosecute Assange, many jounalists have pointed out that leaking is a time-honoured practice in politics and media, and that it is so widespread that the ramifications of making it illegal would impact on every media outlet in the world and on much of the practice of politics.  Politicians regularly leak confidential documents for a whole variety of reasons - to undermine an opponent, to test an idea before officially putting their name to it, to create a media buzz about an upcoming announcement.  Sometimes confidential documents are leaked because public servants believe the information is being wrongly suppressed.  Sometimes people leak from noble motives, sometimes from base ones.

Two things are different about Wikileaks.  The first is the sheer volume of material.  This is not a single report or document, it's hundreds of thousands of them.  The net is cast widely and fairly indiscriminately.  Most leaks are strategic and purposeful in a specific way.  This one is more like an explosion in a paper factory - its purpose is the act of leaking itself.

The second is the control of the information.  Normally leaking is very selective.  The person with access to the information seeks out a sypathetic journalist or two, hands them a document or briefs them, and the journalist writes the story.  It's highly controlled, highly contained.  Wikileaks, in the other hand,  has posted the original documents on its website and anyone can google them and read every single document.  They encourage as many people as possible to mirror their site and to store the material.  Neither the leaker nor the publisher has any control over what will happen with this information.

What will happen after the initial flurry of outrage and scapegoating?  Well, the most likely short-term response will be to slam the door firmly shut on the empty stable - to boost computer security, reduce the number of officials with access to confidential information, create new laws to punish future leakers and those they inform.  It's human nature.  When you feel threatened, make a new rule.

And after the new rules have also been broken, or proved unworkable?  Perhaps our leaders, and those who serve them, might have to think about the relationship between their private and public behaviour.  Will what they say in private stand the cold light of publicity?  When they stand up in public, are they speaking the truth?  Are their private lives consistent with their public lives?  And if they are consistently honest and speak the same truth in private and in public, they might find that we are actually able to bear it.  They might find that an increasingly informed public will be able to make mature judgements even if the message is not what we want to hear.

We live in interesting times!

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