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Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Walls have ears... And soldiers have memory sticks

You can listen to my musings contained in the post below on the Pod Delusion, around 18 minutes in (but the whole show's well worth a listen):

Walls have ears... And soldiers have memory sticks

The publication of tens of thousands of field reports from Afghanistan  last week by Wikileaks is proving more controversial than the whistle-blowing websites so-called collateral murder video.

This despite the absence of a so-called smoking gun revelation - and without a high-impact video.

Collectively the leaks suggest a far higher civilian casualty rate than previously revealed - and paint a picture of progress very different from the official version of events

Open or Censored?

But what interests me about this leak in particular is not only the fury from Washington and unprecedented rhetoric against Wikileaks – some actually calling for the extraordinary rendition – read kidnap – to face justice in America of founder Julian Assange, but also the moral questions raised by the publication of raw data that could potentially identify intelligence sources, putting real lives at risk.

As someone ideologically opposed to most forms of censorship this got me thinking about the balance between free speech – the right to publish leaks and other human rights such as the right to privacy and the right to life itself.

How would I feel should my financial records leak from my bank or Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and wind up being published on the internet?

For some the risk of embarrassment is replaced with a real threat to their personal safety should a leak involve police records - lists of informants, suspicions of abuse or spent criminal convictions – which could lead to revenge or vigilante attacks.

But do I really find myself arguing for censorship or government control? Do I trust one's elected representatives will remain sufficiently upstanding not to fall into pits of self-interest and hide shameful truths and malpractice in order to further their own political and financial interests?

The moral dipoles

Rejecting censorship and allowing free and open access to information invites the inevitability that both Good and Evil information will be available. Optimism, or is it naivety, makes me believe Good will prevail – and the overall impact on society will be positive.

So In applauding Wikileaks for the previous release of the collateral murder video (clearly in the public interest with no risk to civilian informants) I must accept that such releases comes part-and-parcel with the irresponsible - in my opinion - disclosure of 75,000+ field reports from Afghanistan.

Such moral dipoles permeate the internet. Open access to user-generated art and culture comes with pornography; humanitarian, charity and volunteer causes sit in cyberspace alongside right-wing hate forums and terrorist training materials; child protection organisations : child abusers.

Do we really understand the implications of truly free speech in the data age? 

Although often miss-attributed to Voltaire himself, probably the most famous quote on free speech was penned by Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her biography The Friends of Voltaire "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

But we are now in genuinely uncharted territory. Whether or not Voltaire said these actual words of merely believed the principle which they summarise, the French army of the 18th century was never overly concerned about leaks of classified datasets via the internet.

I feel Powerful yet simplistic summaries like Hall’s don't do justice to the new moral questions raised by our ability to gather, store, analyse and widely disseminate vast quantities of information.

In addition, Society now must deal with a blurring of the line between speech and publication. We may treat our use of Twitter, Facebook and internet forums as speech, yet there’s a global reach to each word spoken and a [semi-] permanent and searchable record of most "conversations".


Rights to free speech must be viewed in balance with the rights of others, such as their right to privacy and freedom from persecution.

As highlighted earlier with my concerns about leaks of personal data, claiming an inalienable right to publish information as an extension of the free speech argument clearly risks prejudicing the rights, freedoms and even the safety of others.

So instead of continuing to equate free speech with releases of leaked data and “defending to the death” these rights, is it now time to acknowledge a new era and re-evaluate whether established philosophies hold when dealing with gigabytes of data in place of spoken sentences and printed word.

Yet I'm not arguing we should simply abandon the views of past great liberals thinkers as some, perhaps many - whilst not quite foreseeing the internet - had predicted an age transformed by the ubiquitous availability of books and knowledge.

Public interest and trusted credible intermediaries

Wikileaks and similar websites raise questions society has never previously had to face. Decisions about what constitutes public interest were once handled in private in the newsrooms of more traditional print and broadcast media.

Such publications are able, through established reputation, to strike a balance between public interest and the need to withhold sensitive information - often their credibility allows reporting of such stories without a need to publish the details.

What surprised me with this most recent case is that Wikileaks actually worked with such trusted news outlets up-front, yet published the bulk of the raw data regardless.

I take issue in the case of the war logs not from their leaking but from their near-raw publication, so what motivated Wikileaks to break from their established modus operandi of verify then publish? What lead them to work together with The Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel - all of whom carry sufficient credibility to break this story without publishing the actual leaked data?

Was it solely in order to handle the 15,000 withheld "sensitive" reports, or just a smart PR move?

An imperfect force for Good

On balance and despite reservations I still feel that leaks, and, importantly, the potential for leaks, acts as a force for Good. Yes the situation is not perfect, but there are few absolutes in life - I feel inclined to support Wikileaks' stance even though the recent leak left me in a deep moral quandary.

Civilian lives in Afghanistan might be saved in the long term even though the lives of informants could be in jeopardy because of this leak, since the pressure from those at home in the US and UK outraged at the true civilian death toll may force a change of strategy - which may otherwise not occur, here saving lives.

Public leaks can prevent further leaks. The logic goes that if a soldier is able to leak sensitive information to the media it's clearly also plausible that data is being leaked covertly to the enemy, the army being none the wiser.

It's unforeseeable that the US Army and other partners won't now already be taking steps to improve data security.

Publicity, trust, responsibility and the natural moderation of joint enterprise

But Is Wikileaks a renegade organisation, and does the organisation hold an immense power which could be "misused"?

Sure - there’s the potential for future "mistakes" - i.e. damaging revelations which don't strike the right balance between public interest and personal protection.

But despite the media hype, Wikileaks is not a one man show. It relies on goodwill and joint enterprise, public trust and support, and it's this reliance on the public which ultimately acts as a strong moderator of power.
Without public support the website is impotent. To achieve impact, revelations must be published on a site which attracts substantial mainstream visitors and whos authenticity can be trusted.

A reliance on joint enterprise simply for the geographically distributed trans-jurisdictional “bulletproof" hosting and mirroring means a massive coordinated abuse of power is less likely to happen, just as the use of social networks for publicity leaves the online community to act as a filter.

It's just a website!

Wikileaks - it's just a website, and the nature of the internet means those who disagree with the principles by which it operates can create a rival: a counterbalance.

And, as a news source, it's a relative newcomer and just one amongst many thousands.

Absolute power

In the furore surrounding one particular leak it’s easy to over-emphasise the potential for harm but it’s also important to remember that leaks, and, importantly, even just the risk of a leak, usually acts as a force for Good.

Whilst several commentators have argued that certain difficult aspects of life and in particular warfare should be delegated by the people to their elected governments, I don't share their view that public oversight of our armed forces should be limited to scrutiny of the information government chooses to release.
The ability for any one individual to blow the whistle provides a backstop and serves as a reminder to everyone that power over others does not come without boundaries.



  1. This is really thoughtful and interesting James. Thanks for posting it. Got me thinking. I agree that on balance leaks are a force for good, but good judgement is required to ensure real security issues are not breached. One additional point on the pro-leak side perhaps is that of government transparency and accountability. I am increasingly feeling that the Pentagon is just throwing dust in our faces when it attacks wikipedia, trying to distract us from the real issue, which is their evident mismanagement of the war. Again, thanks for this very good post.

  2. It's a little bit of a shame that this has come to light in such a high profile context.

    The internet is amoral, or morally independent: while supporting the overriding principle of free speech, I nevertheless fear the power of an organisation such as wikileaks. Whatever your politics are, Governments do have moral oversight and are run by the consent of the people. Wikileaks is run by two or three people who decide what is "good" and what isn't with no oversight whatsoever.

    We know full well the subtle impact of propaganda claiming to be news (c.f. tabloid reporting of immigration, youth crime etc etc) which has a serious impact on public opinion, but which presents one extreme perspective only.

    No issue can be reported without a perspective slanting it one way or the other and the danger of Wikileaks is that we will never know their agenda. We can't vote them out, nor can we petition them for a change in position.

    Free speech is an essential part of our modern society and leaks are, as you say James, an important part of checks and balances. May be sceptism is unhealthy in this realm, but I feel deeply uncomfortable that one unaccountable person (or organisation) has the potential for so much power


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