Wikileaks and radical transparency

The one thing that the internet does more than anything else, is that it brings the cost of distributing information to zero, no matter how far you are distributing it. We’re only now, I think, starting to be aware of the consequences, let alone learn how to deal with them.

A great example of this disruptive power of the net as a publishing platform emerged this weekend with a further release of confidential communications from US Embassies, on the website Wikileaks.

Most of the damage will be in terms of embarrassment and in personal relationships rather than security threats. Indeed, I’m not entirely convinced of the worth of this activity by Wikileaks – although I suspect that the interest here is less in the message and more in the medium.

One thing that struck me when listening to some of the commentary on the television news yesterday was how many times it was said that there was nothing new here, that everyone within diplomatic circles and the attendant press knew all this stuff anyway, it just wasn’t reported on.

That really annoyed me.

It goes back to the point that the blogger Paul Staines, AKA Guido Fawkes, often makes about lobby journalism and its negative effect on our democracy. I’m sure we all have our own views on Staines’ work and his politics, but I totally am behind him in his efforts to report on what used to be the unreportable. The idea that there is a cosy club in Westminster that decides what we proles can and can’t read really gets my goat.

It turns out the same thing was happening in the world of international diplomacy too. ‘Everyone’ knew that the Saudis hated the Iranians, apparently, but nobody thought to write about it in case somebody got upset.

In steps the internet, and now any can publish to a massive, world-wide audience. People without the bonds of whatever gentlemen’s agreement exists can get hold of information and put it into the public domain – then sit back and watch the crisis unfold.

It is in this radical transparency that I think the effects of the open publishing and data movements will be most keenly felt. Not a state-sponsored publication of how much a government department spends on paper clips.

I’m not saying that this will always be a good thing. Indeed, for government to work effectively there must be, where appropriate, methods of working in an environment which protects secrecy.

Incidents like this will also result in governments shutting down even more, becoming less open, and locking down their communications channels to prevent similar incidents.

But if there is one thing that is becoming abundantly clear, security will always be breached, firewalls hacked, data leaked. Computer security is an illusion, and a potentially dangerous one.

A quote I find myself repeating over and over at the moment is from Scott McNealey, who in 1999 when still CEO of Sun Microsystems said “You have no privacy. Get over it.”

Act like you have no protection and you’ll find that is the best protection you can get.

2 thoughts on “Wikileaks and radical transparency”

  1. Right on!

    I’ve been advising that, basically, you shouldn’t type stuff into computers unless you’re willing to risk it becoming public. While there are steps you can take to reduce the risk (encryption and other things you control – not things like google’s privacy settings), it only reduces the risk. There is still a risk.

    But I still get challenged by so-called “ICT Champions” who seem to get paid to teach people how to use snake oil privacy settings. :-/

    Do you think people realise how WikiLeaks shows no-one has a zero risk of publication? If the US government can be leaked, why will small associations be immune?

  2. Small side note: Where I wrote “other things you control”, I mean things you have sole control over. Yes, you have some control over privacy settings, but you share control with the site’s owners and operators.

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