Friday, 3 December 2010

Wikileaks: The Invincibles

This is the first blog in a week, for two reasons really. First, I've had a lot of catch-up work to get done, and perhaps more importantly, I got Assassin's Creed this week which has taken up a good chunk of my life. Today's will look at Wikileaks, not so much this particular leak, but why they're now in such a position of power.

Much has been made of the latest leaked US cables, and the various revelations within, from the calls to have an air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, to China calling North Korea a 'spoiled child', and allegations that Russia has effectively become a 'mafia state'. How accurate all these allegations are remains to be seen but it's clear that they've made not so much ripples but tidal waves in international relations.

I think, however, that criticism of Wikileaks and Julian Assange in particular fails to see the important point that has come out of the past few leaks. Even if Assange was locked up tomorrow and Wikileaks disbanded, their ethos and skills would be passed on. Nothing would change, leaks would still happen just as often and with just as much impact. You can't kill an idea.

So much of the discussion about Wikileaks is about whether or not they can be silenced and whether they should be. You can be sure that if Wikileaks weren't the people making these things public then there'd be plenty of other people who'd be willing to fill the niche.

And even more than that, the media frenzy over them that is fed by hyperbolic statements like that from Hilary Clinton saying they were an 'attack on the international community', only feeds their influence. Just look at what happened when the British Police tried to muscle in and police the internet.

After the first student protest, a website gave advice to those present about how to avoid prosecution. It was a relatively small website and I'd hazard a guess that few people had heard of it outside certain small circles. Then the Met decide that they don't like that information being available on the internet and try to ban it, succeeding in taking down the website. Within minutes dozens of sites posted their own copy of the offending text, and the original website found a new home within a day. All that was achieved was that the police ensured that the traffic to the website sky-rocketed because of all the publicity. Completely counter productive.

The same thing happened with Wikileaks. Their original domain name got taken down, it took them a matter of hours to get it back up. And the fact that they've managed to keep online despite massive hacking attacks is nothing short of remarkable.

It only takes a tiny minority of people in any given organisation to have a sense of moral duty to lead to these kind of leaks. Once you have the motive, the actual getting hold of the information doesn't tend to be all that difficult. Just as technology means it's easier than ever for leaders to keep tabs on their electorate, so it works the other way around. In days gone by you'd need to smuggle out hard copies of incriminating evidence. These days all it takes is one USB and suddenly you can carry around hundreds of thousands of files.

Once you accept that future leaks are inevitable, you can move on and try to find a way to minimise the likelihood that someone would want to leak data and minimise the damage done by said leak. I think a lot of the attraction to whistle blowers stems from the fact that too many governments are over eager to use the 'national security' defence to withhold embarrassing information. Of course some information needs to be secret, but too often things are kept private simply because they wouldn't look good out in the public.

How far should we go to make sure governments and organisations share information and how do we decide what information should be protected?

That's where we need to look, not to whether or not Julian Assange is a good guy, that's irrelevant. He's the front man for a much bigger organisation, and that organisation is just the current manifestation of a trend that is here to stay. As long as you have disaffected people, you'll have leaks, so you can safely assume they'll be here for quite some time to come.

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