Censorship

10 arguments for and against WikiLeaks

Is WikiLeaks a whistleblower or a spy? Is transparency more important than privacy? Jaime Henriquez looks at both sides of the issues that have emerged in the wake of WikiLeaks' actions and provides a poll for you to share your opinions.

The recent release of more than half a million confidential documents from the U.S. Army and State Department by WikiLeaks has brought some interesting issues into sharp focus and led to accusations and heated debate between WikiLeaks' supporters and detractors. TechRepublic readers, even if they haven't taken a side in the argument, are particularly well placed to think about technology's implications and to give an informed and well-reasoned opinion. Here are five pairs of opposing viewpoints on issues raised by the actions of WikiLeaks. See where you agree and disagree, then weigh in by taking our poll at the end of the article.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: WikiLeaks is a whistleblower

Exposing the misdeeds of the powerful is a long and honorable tradition. It is often cited as the fundamental purpose of a free press. True, this often means breaking confidentiality, but then you'd expect misdeeds to be hidden. The greater good to society justifies "spilling the beans." Besides, organizations and governments frequently let confidential information slip out on purpose to anticipate reactions to stating it openly.

2: WikiLeaks is a spy

No government or organization intentionally leaks thousands of confidential internal documents. WikiLeaks is accepting stolen property and passing it on via the Net to anyone who cares to take it. Furthermore, it's concealing the identity of the source. Granted, WikiLeaks is not being paid to gather and pass on stolen information -- but it is benefiting from significant publicity. And what, exactly, is the misdeed here that justifies theft and disclosure? Where's the greater good? Is WikiLeaks exposing misdeeds for the good of society or just airing the dirty laundry of people it doesn't like?

3: Reactions to its releases have been hysterical

Secretary of State Clinton called it "terrorism," despite the lack of death and destruction of property. It's not a cyberwar attack, it's embarrassment. Calling it terrorism is an insult to people who've suffered actual terrorist attacks and suggests that any response could be justified as part of a "war on terror."

Apparently, the government is unwilling or unable to take WikiLeaks to court for its actions. Instead, we've seen responses that smack of Nixonian harassment: resurrection of unrelated criminal charges, denial of service attacks, and pressure put on WikiLeaks' business partners.

4: Reactions to its releases have been understandable

No one likes to be outed, and the diplomatic cable releases in particular seem to have demonstrated that "this could happen to you." Rather than conspiracy, the reactions have come from a shared aversion to having internal communications made public. Already dealing with disclosures on Facebook and Twitter, organizations now see an example of complete exposure -- the equivalent of stripping someone naked and throwing them on the street. Even WikiLeaks itself seems uncomfortable with having its internal communications laid bare, decontextualized, and broadcast to friends and enemies alike.

5: WikiLeaks is right to release the source documents

WikiLeaks is just demonstrating its credibility: withholding its own bias, allowing people to come to their own conclusions, and enabling further research. Prior to release, it tries to verify the genuineness of the documents, protect the source, and limit collateral damage. Given WikiLeaks' commitment to transparency, it would be hypocritical to conceal the source documents. Besides, source documents are more effective in mobilizing public opinion.

6: WikiLeaks is wrong to release the source documents

This is raw information -- unverified, unanalyzed, and without context. By failing to provide more information, WikiLeaks leaves the documents as vulnerable to misrepresentation as drunken Facebook pictures... and there's another problem.

In the days before cell phones, the university I worked for postponed making its staff directory available over the Net when a sharp techie pointed out that you could sort the database by phone number and see who was living together. Data mining has evolved greatly since then, in scope, power, and the range of people who practice it. Unintentional disclosure is big business, which makes dumping large quantities of raw data on the Internet reckless at best and at worst an abdication of responsibility.

7: Secrecy is passé

Twenty-first century information wants to be free, and we should get used to it. Given current trends, secrecy is increasingly obsolete. Power no longer lies in monopolizing information. Power lies in what you can do with it. Digital electronic data is routinely copied during regular processing. Diverting a copy and distributing it worldwide is the work of minutes. Security measures like encryption are matched by increasingly cheap processing power. The process is inevitable and irreversible. WikiLeaks is just a convenient scapegoat.

8: Secrecy is not passé

Information about individuals and organizations is increasingly exposed to theft, misuse, and data mining. Our privacy depends on the ability to keep information secret (secure). Perfect security may be unobtainable, but perfection is not required -- just enough security to keep abuses to acceptable levels. Secrecy is not obsolete, just lagging. Technological change leads to new abuses, creating new challenges to security, but society adapts. To meet the innate need for privacy, we learn what to reveal and where, and how to keep secret what we don't reveal.

9: Going forward, transparency is more important than privacy

Centralization of information and control proceeds apace. Governments and multinational organizations by their nature pose serious difficulties for civilian regulation. With greater concentration of power and increased computerization come shorter reaction times -- and awareness is the precondition of any reaction. Financial markets can spike or crash in minutes. Without sufficient transparency, all we can do is clean up after the catastrophe.

10: Going forward, privacy is more important than transparency

As more and more interaction is mediated by computer, it is subject to surveillance, gathering, and processing in ways that are difficult to detect. Information is increasingly bought and sold as a commodity, so previously acceptable disclosures -- like giving your phone number or email to a store -- must be reconsidered. Fast, powerful and inexpensive data mining, combined with large amounts of accessible data, makes privacy more important than ever.

Take our poll

Share your opinions by answering these questions and then join the discussion below.

31 comments
gmanis
gmanis

My thoughts on the subject. Privacy, as I see it, is the effort by an entity to keep factual information about said entity concealed from public view. Secrecy is the effort by entities to conceal private or public information known by said entities about other entities by keeping said information out of view or by covering up said information with believable false information. I believe privacy should be respected while secrecy should not necessarily be. If information is being kept secret, then privacy has already been compromised to a certain extent. Examples: The CIA concealing personal information about it's agents would be privacy. The CIA concealing information about a government or about a completed military operation is secrecy. Communication between two people could fall into either category or even both. Concealing information about an active, authorized operation (military or otherwise) is secrecy, but if revealing said information could endanger the success of the operation or the health and well-being of people involved in or around the operation, then the information should be kept confidential until the operation is completed.

Henriquez
Henriquez

Apotheon, Your definition of "privacy" is too narrow Exactly how do you expect a library to get back the books you borrow if it doesn't keep a list of what you borrowed (and presumably read)? That's the information that they try to keep secure. Library borrower records are clearly not between two people, therefore they fall into your "secrecy" category. And secrecy, you say, is either (a) not doable and therefore a waste of time, or (b) actively bad and better replaced by transparency. So, then, should a library that keeps such records not bother to secure them? Or should they try to run without keeping a record of what you borrowed? Your feelings about the Census Bureau, though interesting, are not to the point. They have information about many people, information which, because it was felt to be private, they are required to keep secure. However, it's clearly "secrecy" rather than "privacy," by your definition. Do you want that information opened up to anyone who wants it? Would the people who lobbied for laws requiring the Census Bureau to keep it secure want it made "transparent"? Interesting idea about voting. Admirable. It's also clearly not between two people -- therefore, by your definition, it's "secrecy." So why bother keeping it secure? Or are there some kinds of secrecy that should be secure? There is a difference between privacy and secrecy, but it's not as simple as you make it. Defining it as communication between and about two people excludes a great deal of information collected by organizations from and about individuals in the normal course of business, some of which feels very private. I'd like them to keep that information secure (to the degree possible), and not just give it up as a bad job. Jaime

realvarezm
realvarezm

One thing is for sure when you hold or contain information about a country or somebody; history has taught us that 90% of the time is for dark and evil intentions or purposes. When you use a government to conceal, lead or approve decisions that goes against the wellbeing of the people or against their believes or freedom, then you have to hide it behind secrecy. Jesse Ventura the ex-governor is a good example of a concern citizen. He will read, investigate, question or even put himself in the spot just to prove theories and find the truth about what he cares. Here is a guy who was in a position of power and knows the system from the inside and now everybody is calling him a wacko! When he speaks about things that disturb the dictators that are running USA (not the democrats and republicans, the people above them) And yet you see CNN and FOX talking trash about Julian Assange, Jesse Ventura or anyone who starts questioning the status quo. Why the FCC or private cable companies doesn???t broadcast TV channel like Aljazeera, Spanish television or telesur from Venezuela (I know! the word enemy, terrorist or boring pop in your brain, the media has taught you well) USA is becoming a big joke for their citizens with reality shows growing like fungus in every network you tune in. And one day when you read the truth in an indepedent media you think. That cannon be true! my government could never do that! Is jealousy or bad propaganda from other countries who want to destroy our way of life? Wake up! USA lost the American dream years ago but the media keep feeding you with that death idea. Is sad, but the saddest thing; is happening in a global scale and the ones that are refusing o resist to this conspiracy are considered the enemy or they just bored you.

message4me
message4me

The word "leaks" is BULL. Documents don't just leak out of the system, they are stolen. We used to call this treason and you would be prosecuted. These men should have been arrested. If you want more transparacy from the government than we need to push for better laws that will hold the government accountable. Democracies are supposed to have some degree of transparacy.

Con_123456
Con_123456

As you might realize, Wikileaks does not provide any sensitive information. They are publishing only what looks sensitive but actually is not, mainly gossips. So the purpose of Wikileaks is not to provide a sensitive information at all. The true purpose is just to cause a medial scandal about the alleged leak of information. All this as a public opinion preparation for the stricter control and censorship on Internet by intelligence services and governments. Directed by FBI.

sboverie
sboverie

The controversy around Wikileaks needs to be settled in a court of law. I am not talking about the rape charges, I am talking about the legitimacy of the released diplomatic cables and other items. The court of public opinion does not carry the full weight of a court of law. One argument that was not mentioned is whether Wikileaks qualifies as news media. This may not be something that can be determined in a court.

wieloszynski
wieloszynski

1. Seriously, neither the leakers or Wikileaks knuckleheads know what is true or not in those docs. They "think" they know what is real and what isn't, but that presupposes that all of the docs are indeed what they say they are; can they EVER be sure that they aren't selectively available docs bent on distorting information? The US intelligence community should never be considered stupid. 2. How do the WikiLeaks knuckleheads determine what to redact and what not to; where do they say their authority to edit what we see is from , exactly? 3. How do the WikiLeaks guys hope that our diplomats will now communicate on issues of the day since they cannot possibly hope to report candidly about their insights and opinions? Are the WikiLeaks knuckleheads in a position to be candid about their operations, and will they submit to the same "transparency" standard? 4. Will the ~66% of the folks polled herein who voted for more transparency and less secrecy open up their lives to us? Warts and all?

sanderscg
sanderscg

In this instance, Wiki did no intentional whistleblowing - they just had access to a bunch of confidential correspondence and threw all of it out for the world to see. Some of it was inflamatory, but I have yet to see any true 'whistleblowing.' A twelve year old could play a better prank - ridiculous!

St_Alphonzo
St_Alphonzo

People with power should get used to being transparent. That's the only way to secure truly rational decisions and actions from them.

bluelans
bluelans

There is no conflict between privacy and transparency.

jkameleon
jkameleon

All the Wikileaks leaks is a carefully selected, heavily redacted pro-war-political-agenda-laden chickenfeed, peppered with Lindsay Lohan/Paris Clinton/Brittney Spears style celebrity gossip about politicians. It's a PR stunt, the kind of which is usually pulled when all credibility is lost. Even the media circus around Wikileas alone should be suspicious enough. Had Wikileaks really leaked something relevant, it would be totally ignored by the mainstream media. Cryptome.org, for example, had been around far longer, and leaked far more, yet it's hardly ever mentioned by MSM. And it never, ever compromised any leaker.

apotheon
apotheon

There is no conflict between privacy and transparency. Privacy and secrecy are not the same thing. Some of the questions asked in those quiz blocks at the end of the article are essentially unanswerable because they fail to recognize the difference between secrecy and privacy as security concepts.

tmudditt
tmudditt

If all leaks were published the truth would be buried in a morass of unverified information, and who polices the people making the accusations if they know that they can say anything without any comeback. Public figures and organisations have people/departments to manage and manipulate stories in their favour. What about some poor sod who just made a mistake, or some jealous person who just wants to cause harm. An unverified 'fact' is speculation not truth. Even truth must be placed in context to mean anything and can be altered by 'interpretation'. Politicians and Lawyers are especially adept at selecting a context that makes the truth support them and their point of view.

apotheon
apotheon

The truth of the matter is that wishful thinking won't help much. Sure, I'd like it if a library tried to keep my reading records secret -- but that doesn't mean I have much faith in its ability to do so. > Your feelings about the Census Bureau, though interesting, are not to the point. They have information about many people, information which, because it was felt to be private, they are required to keep secure. However, it's clearly "secrecy" rather than "privacy," by your definition. Do you want that information opened up to anyone who wants it? The point is that it's already pretty much open to whoever wants it, because it's not really securable information in that context. You are aware that census records were used to find Americans of Japanese descent and lock them up in internment camps in World War II -- right? Where's the "privacy" in census records? The answer is simple: it doesn't exist. I would love for that information, as well as library records, to be kept "private". All the wishful thinking in the world will not make it so, though. > Defining it as communication between and about two people excludes a great deal of information collected by organizations from and about individuals in the normal course of business, some of which feels very private. You cannot reasonably trust an organization. If you wish to trust an organization anyway, you should be aware that fulfillment of that trust is not a reasonable expectation. > I'd like them to keep that information secure (to the degree possible), and not just give it up as a bad job. I would like that, too. They won't do a very good job of it, though. What they should do is minimize what data they need, through innovative business models and similarly nonstandard practices that allow them to operate without collecting information about us that we would rather not get out. The moment they start collecting that data in a form retrievable by members of the organization, the secrecy of that information being compromised is only a matter of time and luck. Period.

apotheon
apotheon

"Treason" is what people like Thomas Jefferson were committing when they signed the Declaration of Independence. I'm not saying WikiLeaks is up to that standard of honor, but we should be very careful how we use and judge the word "treason".

techrepublic
techrepublic

Wikileaks is just another porn site. If there wasn't any money in it, it wouldn't be there. Julian Assange (Wikileaks founder) is writing a book about himself and even trade marking his name. Maybe I'll be proved wrong and he'll post the book on Wikileaks for free download. Or maybe someone working for the publisher will steal a copy and post it on Wikileaks. Now that's what I would call irony.

apotheon
apotheon

> The US intelligence community should never be considered stupid. I disagree. They can certainly be considered infinitely devious -- but that doesn't preclude stupidity, of which there's a fair bit. > How do the WikiLeaks guys hope that our diplomats will now communicate on issues of the day I don't know about the guys at WikiLeaks, but I for one would hope they will communicate openly and honestly. > 4. Will the ~66% of the folks polled herein who voted for more transparency and less secrecy open up their lives to us? Warts and all? You're welcome to my secrets. You are not welcome to my privacy. There is a difference.

apotheon
apotheon

This is just how government tries to keep secrets.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Here I thought you wanted to look at all of what it is Wikileaks does instead of just the Gossip that they where given. Seems strange to me that people accept Printed Media as having the right to obtain secrets from different Governments but On Line Media which is what Wikileaks claims to be are exempt. But just an observation here Wikileaks has leaked some very [i]Public Interest[/b] Material which has been picked up by the Main Stream Media but then again what is currently being released is in itself not in the Main Stream Media but the Gossip and Sensational Papers/Media. Real Main Stream Media is at best only giving it a Cursory Glance but most are now ignoring it. Of course the Murdoch Gutter Press are thriving in it but this is also the same organization that is guilty of breaking into Voice Mail of people and stealing things for their Papers. :D OH just in case you didn't see it [b]Collateral Murder[/b] which was released by Wikileaks which was quite damaging to the US Government and particularly those flying the Helicopter and the ones giving the orders to shoot is a very big thing on the Net and has been covered by most of the Main Stream Media sensibly. ;) What I find funny is that Wikileaks was OK provided that they didn't post anything damaging to the US hitting China was perfectly OK but touching anything from the US just isn't acceptable. Hypocrisy is unpalatable in my book and that is what I'm seeing a lot of lately. I personally think that Wikileaks and it's founder are not all that Important or even reverent but with all the [b]Free Publicity[/b] that they are currently getting with people complaining about their actions it is making many others take an interest who in the past would have dismissed this crowd as Idiots. :0 Col

apotheon
apotheon

Technically, it doesn't look like WikiLeaks compromised a leaker, either. The leaker compromised himself, outside of any dealings with WikiLeaks.

Henriquez
Henriquez

I'm indebted to Apotheon for linking to the article by Chad Perrin which distinguishes between secrecy and privacy as security concepts, but the distinction is not entirely clear to me. Quoting Perrin, secrecy "attempts to hide information that can be gleaned through simple observation and analysis from others" and privacy "attempts to keep communications between people from being intercepted." Isn't an Army incident report [as in the Iraq war reports] a communication between people -- the writer and his or her superior(s)? And isn't a cable between diplomats also a communication between people? So, aren't both of those 'privacy' according to this distinction, when Perrin clearly sees them as 'secrecy'? I should have been clearer about the definitions I was using for security, transparency, privacy, and secrecy. By security I mean techniques for limiting access, for whatever reason. Privacy and transparency I used in order to label two ends of a spectrum. At one end (theoretically) all information is kept secure, at the other, none. In reality, of course, we can and do have both, but not, I think, applying to the same thing. Privacy and transparency may not be in conflict -- although I suspect that the State Department and Wikileaks would disagree -- but they are certainly in tension. The balance between privacy and transparency is the crucial thing. It may be that, as Perrin says, "transparency is good for the people," but is unlimited transparency still good? And for which people? As for privacy vs. secrecy, I'm willing to be convinced that there is an objective distinction here, but I wonder if it's simply a matter of perspective: the security of myself and those I trust is privacy (good); the security of those I do not trust is secrecy (bad).

Henriquez
Henriquez

"Sure, I'd like it if a library tried to keep my reading records secret -- but that doesn't mean I have much faith in its ability to do so." Neither do I ... and less these days. :) What I was objecting to was the implication that libraries, etc., shouldn't bother trying, or that such information should simply be made available to anyone who wants it. "You are aware that census records were used to find Americans of Japanese descent and lock them up in internment camps in World War II -- right?" Yes, I am, thanks. Nasty as that one is (and a similar breach of promise during World War I), those are the only leaks that I'm aware of in more than 150 years. Even flawed security has some value. "What they should do is minimize what data they need, through innovative business models and similarly nonstandard practices that allow them to operate without collecting information about us that we would rather not get out" You're quite right, minimizing the information collected is crucial. The bank doesn't really need to know who you are ... they just need to know it's the same person asking for their money back. Whatever information gets collected and kept is all too likely to be used for purposes the user didn't intend -- even if it doesn't inevitably get spilled into the public domain. Thanks for the discussion. Jaime

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

They sell their stories to the media, just like the wire bureaus of the 20th century..

apotheon
apotheon

> Isn't an Army incident report [as in the Iraq war reports] a communication between people That's only the case while it is being communicated between two people. The same applies to the diplomatic cable. > Privacy and transparency I used in order to label two ends of a spectrum. The problem is that it's not private if it's about more than one or two people, or if it's about someone other than the person trying to keep it secret. Information you keep to yourself that is about you and only you is private. Information you share with another person and it is only about you or that other person (or both), it's private. If you're storing or communicating information about people other than you and the recipients of the information, or if it's about the activities of a group that just happens to include you, it's secret instead. Transparency and secrecy are ends of a spectrum. Privacy is not opposed to transparency -- which is about sharing that which is not private to the person who has it under lock and key. The rest of what you say uses the basic assumption that privacy and secrecy are essentially indivisible, so it is -- in my estimation -- meaningless. For the record, I'm Chad Perrin.

apotheon
apotheon

> What I was objecting to was the implication that libraries, etc., shouldn't bother trying, or that such information should simply be made available to anyone who wants it. Who implied that? The implication was that the way to protect privacy is to not turn private data into organizational secrets. If you want something to remain undiscovered, don't make it an essentially unprotectable secret in the first place. > Yes, I am, thanks. Nasty as that one is (and a similar breach of promise during World War I), those are the only leaks that I'm aware of in more than 150 years. Even flawed security has some value. The point is that the census shouldn't exist. It's basically just a way to create security vulnerabilities. If you're trying to argue for census secrecy, you're fighting the wrong battle -- like arming sociopaths with really nice knives and fighting to pass a law requiring them to promise they won't hurt anyone.

apotheon
apotheon

Privacy is about what's personal. Secrecy is not. > I'm thinking of, for example, the local library, which normally attempts to keep circulation records (what books you've read) secure. Frankly, the library shouldn't be keeping records of what you read without your permission, anyway. Once you share your reading habits with the library, though, you've given up on privacy related to those reading habits, by conveying that information into the hands of an organization, trusting policy to keep your secrets. This should all give a whole new meaning to an old aphorism (Benjamin Franklin, I think) for you: > Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead. It works because once two of the people are taken out of the equation it becomes personal and private again. > Or the Census Bureau, which is legally obliged to keep the information you send it secure. The Census is one of the stupidest ideas the founders ever had for how this government should be run. It's beyond stupid. If ever there was a need for a Constitutional Amendment, eliminating the National Census from the Constitution is such a need. . . . et cetera. > Or the Electoral Commission, when you vote. Votes can be kept private. On the other hand . . . There's contractual secrecy. In such circumstances, if someone induces you to give up your privacy with regard to information personal to you, and as part of that inducement contractually agrees to keep it secret, a failure of the contracting party to keep that secret is actionable. Yes, you should know that there is now a nontrivial danger of your secrets being exposed, and of them no longer being a matter of privacy per se, but that does not relieve the contracting party of responsibility for violation of the agreement in question. Furthermore, engaging such an agreement on false pretenses -- such as knowing that in the future the secrets would be divulged, or knowing that there is no actual threat to the contracting party because no negative consequences would apply for divulging those secrets while contracting with the private party as though such consequences would apply, should be considered a willful violation of privacy and an instance of actionable fraud.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Information about my personal economy belongs to me. The Bank as an entity has some kind of access to it, but no person at the bank has a right to pore over it without my consent. If the bank tells an employee to do just that, then the bank is violating my privacy. If on the other hand I know something sensitive and confidential about a third party, a person C, then I would be violating C's privacy, were I to divulge that information to another. Sensitive communications between employee and company are not private. No-one expects that the communications can't be circulated to other employees for comment, for example. Non-circulation, is one basic property of all private information. Also the distributive nature of the obligation to keep the information under wraps : all that come to know the private information of another are obligated to respect that persons privacy... unlike with sensitive but nonprivate information which can in fact be "fairly obtained" and then used. If you overhear a conversation between people who share inside information about a big company, and you're not connected to them in any way, and you're not an insider yourself - then you can freely go and act upon the information, the culpability belongs with the people carelessly sharing information, not you. You can't broadcast the information though, as that would be market manipulation.

Henriquez
Henriquez

Your distinction's pretty clear to me now. If I may paraphrase, privacy is between two people and about two people. Everything else is secrecy, and "secrecy (as opposed to privacy) is essentially untenable." But this would seem to exclude a significant amount of information which might normally be considered worth a degree of security, namely, communication between a person and an organization. I'm thinking of, for example, the local library, which normally attempts to keep circulation records (what books you've read) secure. Or the Census Bureau, which is legally obliged to keep the information you send it secure. Or the bank, which tries to keep your financial information secure. Or the Electoral Commission, when you vote. Do all these fall under secrecy, and constitute examples of protecting "the wrong things"?

apotheon
apotheon

> If privacy applies to communication between two people, does it make a difference if one end of that communication is an organization, or a group? Yes. > For example, let's say a reporter files a story with his or her editor at the home office. Would this be privacy or secrecy? What does the editor do with it -- put it on a file server accessible to everybody else in the office, who aren't supposed to share it with anyone outside the office? That's organizational secrecy, then. The moment it leaves the hands of the individual correspondence and organizational policy becomes the only protection there is against a leak, it's no longer "private". > If communication between two people is only privacy "while it is being communicated between two people," does that make keeping it secure after it has been received an example of secrecy? If the editor encrypts it using a key that only (s)he has so that only (s)he can decrypt it later, and tries to keep it from being accessible to others even though it's encrypted, it's still private. Things can be private while stored, as long as it's not public or organizational storage where policy is the only thing keeping others from leaking it. Secrecy is mere policy.

Henriquez
Henriquez

I appreciate the clarifications, but I have a couple of questions -- just to be sure I understand the distinction you're making. If privacy applies to communication between two people, does it make a difference if one end of that communication is an organization, or a group? For example, let's say a reporter files a story with his or her editor at the home office. Would this be privacy or secrecy? If communication between two people is only privacy "while it is being communicated between two people," does that make keeping it secure after it has been received an example of secrecy? Jaime