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