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Wikileaks and Secrecy

January 24, 2007


Washington Post staff writer Elizabeth Williamson asks us to consider the following scenario:

“You’re a government worker in China, and you’ve just gotten a memo showing the true face of the regime. Without any independent media around, how do you share what you have without landing in jail or worse?” [“Freedom of Information, the Wiki Way,” 15 January 2007]

Of course it’s not just the Chinese regime that pursues policies that some find offensive. If plans proceed, a new web site is about to provide document leaders a way to expose what they consider unprincipled policies.

“Wikileaks.org is a Web-based way for people with damning, potentially helpful or just plain embarrassing government documents to make them public without leaving fingerprints. Modeled on the participatory, online encyclopedia Wikipedia, the site is expected to go live within the next two months. Organizer James Chen said that while its creators tried to keep the site under wraps until its launch, Google references to it have soared in recent days from about eight to more than 20,000. ‘Wikileaks is becoming, as planned, although unexpectedly early, an international movement of people who facilitate ethical leaking and open government,’ he said. The site, whose FAQs are written in flowery dissident-ese — ‘What conscience cannot contain, and institutional secrecy unjustly conceals, Wikileaks can broadcast to the world’ — targets regimes in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but not exclusively. It was founded and partially funded, organizers say, by dissidents, mathematicians and technologists from China, the United States, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa. The site relies on a worldwide web of volunteers and contributors to post and vet the information, and dodge any efforts to shut it down. To protect document donors and the site itself, Wikileaks uses its own coded software combined with, for the techies out there, modified versions of Freenet and PGP.”

Williamson points out challenges that immediately come to mind — how do you ensure that fraud is not perpetrated or that lives are not put at risk?

Steven Aftergood, an open-government advocate who runs the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News blog, … has declined Wikileaks’ invitation to serve on its advisory board. ‘I want to see how they launch and what direction they go in,’ he said. ‘Indiscriminate disclosure can be as problematic as indiscriminate secrecy.’ The thought that a nation’s defense plans could turn up as ‘you’ve got mail’ across the globe is a chilling one. So, too, is the potential for a miscreant to sow mayhem by “leaking” documents, real or fake. ‘Unless there are some kinds of editorial safeguards built into the process, it can be easily sabotaged. That was the concern I was trying to raise,’ Aftergood said.”

Wikileaks organizers response to such concerns is not very reassuring. They say the site is self-policing. Of course, they have little choice since they will have no way of determining a documents legitimacy. Offending regimes are certainly not going to help them authenticate them. I’m all for freedom of the press, good government, and information sharing, but I’m a bit leery that Wikileaks will help bring down bad governments.

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