In the Age of WikiLeaks, the End of Secrecy? | The Nation


In the Age of WikiLeaks, the End of Secrecy?

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The End of Secrecy
Let’s posit that what Assange is doing is “radical transparency,” i.e., publishing everything he can get his hands on. He has not, in fact, been doing that, though he is obviously publishing a great deal of raw material. Given that the Internet is a realm of abundance—not scarcity, like the old ink- and airtime-based media—this is a feature, not a bug. Raw-data dumps of previously private or secret information are now part of the media landscape. As Max Frankel, former executive editor of the New York Times, recently put it, “The threat of massive leaks will persist so long as there are massive secrets.”

This essay is adapted from Micah Sifry’s new book, WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency.


About the Author

Micah L. Sifry
Micah L. Sifry, a former Nation associate editor, is co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, editor of its...

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Security expert Bruce Schneier makes a similar point. “Secrets are only as secure as the least trusted person who knows them,” he wrote on his blog a few weeks after Cablegate erupted. “The more people who know a secret, the more likely it is to be made public.” Somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000 military and diplomatic personnel had access to the SIPRNet system that Bradley Manning is alleged to have tapped. The government doesn’t know precisely how many people overall have security clearances to classified information. Based on reporting from the Government Accountability Office, Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert, estimates that this number is 2.5 million.

In other words, since this kind of “radical transparency” is technologically feasible, like it or not, it is a given. Efforts to stop it will fail, just as efforts to stop file-sharing by killing Napster failed. As Schneier sagely points out, “Just as the music and movie industries are going to have to change their business models for the Internet era, governments are going to have to change their secrecy models. I don’t know what those new models will be, but they will be different.”

Fourteen years ago, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan led the bipartisan Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy. Its recommendations are worth revisiting in light of WikiLeaks. “It is time for a new way of thinking about secrecy,” the commission’s report began. “Secrecy is a form of government regulation. Americans are familiar with the tendency to over-regulate in other areas. What is different with secrecy is that the public cannot know the extent or the content of the regulation.” The Moynihan Commission was examining a condition not unlike that of the present day, where millions of people had security clearances and hundreds of thousands of new “top secret” documents, whose disclosure could presumably cause “exceptionally grave damage to the national security,” were created each year. But the commission was convinced that the culture of secrecy was out of control and hurting the country:

Excessive secrecy has significant consequences for the national interest when, as a result, policymakers are not fully informed, government is not held accountable for its actions, and the public cannot engage in informed debate. This remains a dangerous world; some secrecy is vital to save lives, bring miscreants to justice, protect national security, and engage in effective diplomacy. Yet as Justice Potter Stewart noted in his opinion in the Pentagon Papers case, when everything is secret, nothing is secret. Even as billions of dollars are spent each year on government secrecy, the classification and personnel security systems have not always succeeded at their core task of protecting those secrets most critical to the national security. The classification system, for example, is used too often to deny the public an understanding of the policymaking process, rather than for the necessary protection of intelligence activities and other highly sensitive matters.

Well before Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and thumb-size memory sticks, Moynihan foresaw that the information age would make the culture of government secrecy untenable, even picturing a time “when fourteen-year-old hackers in Australia or Newfoundland” could penetrate the government’s most sensitive secrets. With his commission, mandated by an act of Congress, he tried to turn the paradigm on its head. “The great discovery of Western science, somewhere in the seventeenth century,” he wrote, “was the principle of openness. A scientist who judged he had discovered something, published it. Often to great controversy, leading to rejection, acceptance, modification, whatever. Which is to say, to knowledge. In this setting science advanced, as nowhere else and never before.”

It is long past time for governments to embrace this paradigm. “Where you’re open, things will not be WikiLeaked,” says Christopher Graham, Britain’s information minister. “Quite a lot of this is only exciting because we didn’t know it.” He adds, “The best form of defense is transparency—much more proactive publication of what organizations do. It’s an attitude of, ‘OK. You want to know? Here it is.’” Jeff Jarvis, a professor at the City University of New York Journalism School, argues that government should be transparent by default, and have to justify when it chooses to make something secret, not the reverse. And he, too, sees something positive in the impact of WikiLeaks. “Perhaps the lesson of WikiLeaks should be that the open air is less fearsome than we’d thought,” he blogged. “That should lead to less secrecy. After all, the only sure defense against leaks is transparency.”

People who think more transparency will lead only to the hiding of secrets deeper in the bureaucracy, or that it will prevent government officials from conducting any kind of meaningful business, and that as a result we will know less, not more, about the workings of government or the powerful should think again. By that logic, we should require less public disclosure, not more. Why ask campaign contributors or lobbyists to disclose any of their activities? In fact, when people think what they’re doing is subject to public view, their behavior generally changes for the better. Thus Cablegate—which exposed many sovereign powers to a new level of public scrutiny, warning them that more such scrutiny is always a possibility in the future—should, on balance, lead to better behavior. Why? Because the cost of maintaining the contradictions between what you say in public and what you do really has just gone up another notch.

Carne Ross is a British diplomat who resigned his post at the United Nations over the dissimulation that his government practiced during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. “From now on, it will be ever more difficult for governments to claim one thing and do another,” says Ross. “For in making such claims, they are making themselves vulnerable to WikiLeaks of their own.” If all it takes is one person with a USB drive, the “least trusted person” whose conscience may be pricked by a contradiction in his or her government’s behavior, that information can move into public view more easily than ever before. That is the reality of the twenty-first century. It would be far better for all of us if our governments and other powerful institutions got with the business of accepting that transparency will be a new fact of life, and take steps to align their words with their deeds. In that respect, Hillary Clinton should thank Julian Assange rather than apologize to world leaders for what he did.

Judging from another “Internet freedom” speech Clinton gave in the wake of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, a new era of openness and candor is not upon us. She declared America’s support for the “freedom to connect” online “to solve shared problems and expose public corruption,” and she insisted that “governments also have a duty to be transparent,” but insisted that WikiLeaks could somehow be walled off from these principles because it “began with an act of theft.” “Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase,” she declared, as if that meant the information in those documents was somehow unfit for public consumption or discussion simply because they weren’t leaked in the proper way, say to Bob Woodward. For someone who has tried to be an Internet progressive, it was a singularly ostrichlike move. And unfortunately for Clinton and all the other world leaders, burying your head in the sand doesn’t make bottom-up transparency disappear.

Two, Three, Many Leaks

That’s because the genie has escaped from the bottle. Whatever else you may say about Assange, his greatest contribution to global enlightenment is the idea of a viable “stateless news organization,” to use Jay Rosen’s phrase, beholden to no country’s laws and dedicated to bringing government information into public view. Even if Assange—who has just lost round one of his fight to avoid extradition to Sweden to face rape charges—goes to jail and WikiLeaks is somehow shut down, others are already following in his footsteps. Or as futurist Mark Pesce nicely put it, “The failures of WikiLeaks provide the blueprint for the systems which will follow it.”

Since Cablegate, several independent WikiLeaks-style projects have announced themselves, including: BrusselsLeaks.com (focused on the European Union); BalkanLeaks.eu (the Balkan countries); Indoleaks.org (Indonesia); Rospil.info (Russia); two competing environmental efforts, each claiming the name GreenLeaks; and the Al-Jazeera Transparency Unit, which in January began publishing (with the Guardian) a cache of documents from inside the Palestinian Authority that exposed the minutes of high-level PA negotiating sessions with Israel and the United States. Some recent graduates of the CUNY Journalism School launched a simple tool, Localeaks, for publishers interested in attracting whistleblowers. And even the New York Times announced it may create a special portal for would-be leakers.

Perhaps the most important of these fledgling efforts is OpenLeaks.org, which is being built by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Herbert Snorrason and other former WikiLeaks associates. Of all these efforts, OpenLeaks is most likely to have the technological and cryptographic skills needed to succeed in a world filled with shady actors opposed to transparency. And unlike WikiLeaks, it is designed to be decentralized.

In mid-December, Domscheit-Berg told me that OpenLeaks was trying to correct mistakes in the WikiLeaks approach. “I am not into being a leader, and I don’t trust the whole concept of leaders either,” he said, adding, “If you follow the debate around why we left the WL [WikiLeaks] project, you will find that a strikingly important detail.” He described OpenLeaks as more of a technological service provider to many media organizations, as well as others with an interest in opening up information, like NGOs and labor unions. Instead of acting as a central hub for leaks, it will provide a dedicated website for handling leaks to each entity. In his view, this approach has several advantages:

Firstly, the system will scale better with each new participant. Secondly, the source is the one that will have a say in who should exclusively be granted first access to material, while also ensuring that material will be distributed to others in the system after a period of exclusive access. Thirdly, we will make use of existing resources, experience, manpower etc [to] deal with submissions more efficiently. Fourthly, we will be able to deliver information more directly to where it matters and will be used, while remaining a neutral service ourselves. And last but not least, this approach will create a large union of shared interests in the defense of the rights to run an anonymous post-drop in the digital world.

Of course, we can’t take for granted that the powers that be will let this happen without a fight. In that respect, the battle over WikiLeaks has had another salutary effect: it has delivered a wake-up call to everyone who thought the free and open Internet was a settled fact. Freedom of the press is no longer the exclusive province of those who own one, but while the Internet has drastically lowered the barriers to entry into the public sphere, it has not eliminated them. Right now, unpopular or disruptive speech online will probably exist in a twilight zone, semi-free, sometimes capable of threatening powerful institutions and other times subject to their whims. What’s needed is much more robust discussion of how the Internet can become a genuinely free public arena, a global town square where anyone can speak. Or, to be more precise, an Internet whose underlying architecture is really free of government or corporate control, as decentralized and uncontrollable as life itself.

This essay is adapted from Micah Sifry’s new book, WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency.

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