The End of Secret

Wikileaks are in the news again. For those with their head under a rock (in which case, why are you reading this?) Wikileaks is a website that allows corporate or government whistleblowers to anonymously release private/secret documents into the public domain. A few months ago it was US Army reports on casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. This week it is US Diplomatic Cables.

There is, of course, a lot of embarrassment at these leaks. There is currently much posturing by the US State Department about how lives will be lost now that this information is in the public domain. It is, apparently, an “attack on the international community”. Bunkum.

While I am sure various governments are embarrassed by revelations that their officials have described Kim Jong Il as “flabby”, or that China think North Korea is acting like a “spoiled child”, or that the King of Saud wants the US to bomb Iran, none of these “revelations” will come as a surprise to those within diplomatic circles. This kind of chatter goes back and forth constantly between allies and enemies alike and I am sure far worse things are said behind closed doors than have been revealed here.

The idea that somehow lives are in danger from the leaks is dependent on these stories being genuine revelations to the people involved. Which is ridiculous. Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are clearly bonkers, but neither of them is so bonkers as to launch an international war because some foreign diplomat said mean things about them. The fact that Saudi Arabia wants a war on Iran is a really useful revelation at this point – if we are building up to another war in the Middle East, surely having the motivations in the public domain is a good thing?

No, far more significant than any individual revelation here is what these leaks represent. All of these cables were secret. They were official documentation of things said behind closed doors, often by individuals at the highest levels of government and diplomacy. They are the meat and veg of historians, thrown into the here and now instead of lying hidden in archives for decades. They are the diplomats’ dirty laundry, and they are now on display for everyone in the world to see.

What this represents is something that technologists have been aware of for a long time now: There is no secret any more. Any opinion or communication that is electronically recorded (or even said in the vicinity of a connected individual) now has the potential to be copied and disseminated around the world. A piece of paper or a tape can be physically located and kept under lock and key. Copies can be restricted in number and distribution kept to a minimum. That is just not possible any more.

Any email, word document, video or piece of audio can be copied indefinitely and transmitted anonymously. There is no system of copy protection or security than cannot be circumvented with effort – either internally or externally – and the contents distributed. Two million US citizens had potential access to this information; how many thousands of them had a USB stick and the ability to circumvent whatever copy protection existed? Once in the public domain this information can be replicated and disseminated indefinitely – even a government-led DoS on Wikileaks will be ineffective as the information is now with the New York Times, the Guardian and on thousands of private computers worldwide.

This is a morality tale for us all, not just for governments and diplomats. The very act of writing this post on my computer opens me up to the possibility of the information escaping beyond my control. I could refrain from publishing the post, leave the original in Word on my laptop, but the very fact that it exists in electronic form (rather than in my head) leaves me open to exactly the same kind of invasion as has happened to the US State Department this week. A housemate could sneak this out on a USB stick; a hacker could pluck it straight of my hard drive. The potential is there purely because these thoughts now exist in 0’s and 1’s.

Whether this change is good or bad is somewhat irrelevant. I personally would welcome the release into the public domain of all diplomatic cables. I’d like to be able to know what the British Cabinet discuss behind closed doors (especially what they discussed in 2002 and 2003, in the run up to the Iraq war). I’d like to know if the police suspect me of something, or if there are significant criminals in my neighbourhood.

Would it be better if some information remained secret? Of course it would. But we are moving into a world where “secret” just cannot exist. There will be many highly paid and talented individuals who will work hard to keep secrets, but the very nature of our digital world will make it harder and harder for those secrets to be successfully kept. Human error, deliberate subterfuge and the clamour of conscience will conspire to continue these releases into the public domain. If it wasn’t Wikileaks it would be someone else.

It is really rather ridiculous to shoot the man shouting fire when the world around you is burning. Welcome to the end of secret.


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