Monday, July 26, 2010

The End of Secrecy

I'm not going to comment much on the substance of the WikiLeaks documents on the war in Afghanistan. I'll trust Blake Hounsell that there's not much surprising in them and conclude with Adam Serwer that this indicates reasonably good reporting on the subject.

Part of what led to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the big change that the Chinese government took after the confrontation in Tienamen Square was the ease with which information could be shared. At that time, it was fax machines and e-mail. External storage for computers still relied on desk-top boxes with media the size of half a ream of paper. Now I've got the cutest little neon-green two gegs the size of my thumbnail.

What's worse is that attitudes are changing. "Information wants to be free." We've been hung up lately on the economic meaning of that last word, but there's another meaning as well. Bloggers link to the documents they're working from; the MSM prefers to consider those documents proprietary. And you've read about the end of privacy via Facebook, Twitter, and all those other newfangled things that the commenter frequently doesn't know how to use.

So Chelsea Clinton's wedding is a sort of secret, but even the New York Times knows that it will be in Rhinebeck, New York, this weekend.

Jay Rosen points out that WikiLeaks is the world's first stateless news organization, but I think that the novelty goes beyond that. It is also a non-corporate news organization. It has had to work a strategy to get the corporate news world (suitably international: New York Times, Guardian, Spiegel) to pay attention. Will there be a symbiosis?

Depending on how deep the expectation of information being free goes, and I think it goes very deep, particularly in people aged less than forty, governments need to think about how this is going to affect business as usual. It would be interesting to know who leaked these documents and why. (Do we know it's a single person?) The comparison is being made to Daniel Ellsberg, with implied parallel motivation, but we don't know that yet. Very likely it is a parallel motivation combined with the assumption of information being free in a way that nobody in Ellsberg's time was likely to have.

Frank Munger asks today why such a heavy penalty was levied for a security breach. Again, we don't know, but it may be a reaction to reinforce the old attitudes toward secrecy. During Bill Clinton's presidency, the Department of Energy declassified an enormous amount of weapons data. Now the DOE is trying to put that horse back into the barn. The people who might want weapons data are likely to be operating from different motives than Ellsberg or WikiLeaks. But those changing attitudes will have an effect there too. It's time to think about new ways, beyond keeping control of the information, to prevent nuclear proliferation.

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