The Wiki leaks are not the end of all secrets
The latest Wikileaks disaster for the U.S. government may centre on the actions of its diplomats rather than its soldiers, but Cablegate and the Afghan and Iraq War Diary data dumps are all crises of information control and management.
In a press briefing on Monday U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary P. J. Crowley was quizzed about the government’s policies and practices of storing information.
There is, as Crowley said, tension between “the need to protect or the need to know” when it comes to information – and this is true in all spheres, not just government bureaucracies.
Replication of information has been the purpose of many different kinds of communication technology literally for millennia. The fifteenth-century printing-press enabled production of multiple identical copies, but digital technologies have taken this infinitely further because they don’t have physical form.
By the time all the Cablegate documents have been publicly released the three dumps will total in the realms of three-quarters of a million files, a scale which is unprecedented in large part because before the advent of digital technologies it was impossible.
Crowley said, it’s “the digitization of the information” that is at issue here, although it has, as he pointed out, “great values and benefits.”
Managing digital information, from an individual to an institutional scale, is difficult not only for practical reasons – ease of transmission in particular – but also because the technology and the possibilities it offers change so quickly that social and cultural systems seem to struggle to keep up; the problem of movie and music piracy and the problems it causes to traditional copyright legislation and practice are a good example of this.
Wikileaks possession and publication of such vast amounts of classified information would have been impossible without digital technologies. Yet a closer look at the details of how and what is being published shows how important global reactions, desires, and expectations are in determining what was actually made public.
The Afghan War Diaries were released without alteration. Names, places and other such details were included, drawing criticism not only from the U.S. and other governments but from the press association Reporters Without Borders.
A few months later the Iraq War Diaries were released, and redacted so that many names, places, and other details such as army unit numbers were not made public.
According to the Wikileaks website before the first Cablegate documents were made public or shared with major international news outlets, dialogue with the State Department was attempted to determine which they “should look at with extra care” during the redaction process.
The State Department “refused to provide that information, or negotiate any other agreement.” However this refusal is constructed – as akin to refusing to negotiate with terrorists or determination to cover up at all costs, rather than reduce harm or something in between – that the request was made suggests a very different approach to that taken less than a year ago.
Exactly why these changes have been made is an open question. The Wikileaks website points out that despite continued accusations that their publications put individual lives at risk, no report has ever showed that they “caused harm to any individual.” Pressure brought to bear by the U.S. and other governments is designed to prevent rather than simply redact information. It is likely that the changes are a response to the fact that the criticisms of publishing unredacted material came from a variety of sources, not least the general public.
Whatever the reason, however, the fact remains that the decision was taken; just because the technology to ‘dump’ data in the most literal sense of the word is available, it doesn’t mean it has to be used. The decision to redact was not just made by the members of Wikileaks, but by the global community which responded to its earlier actions.
Significant amounts of commentary from around the world calls Cablegate, in essence, a world-changing digital revolution. It may be so, and of all the examples of digital technology changing and challenging our society, Wikileaks data dumps have certainly received the most press in the last year.
The good news, however, is that the changes wrought by digital technology may be inevitable, but they are not completely out of control – our society and culture are not entirely at the mercy of technology. The horse might be galloping, but there are still hands on the reins.
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