prof. e.

Mass Communication, [multi]media, methodology and much, much more!

Archive for December, 2010

The End of Secrecy?

Posted by prof e on December 1, 2010

Julian Assange, the Australian founder (and some might say diabolical mastermind) of WikiLeaks, would like to put an end to secrets. And now, modern internet technology is bringing us closer to that reality. For as long as there have been secrets, people have been revealing them. A few months ago a college student outed his gay roommate by using a strategically placed webcam connected to the internet. The same global internet technology is now being used to anonymously distribute state secrets and classified military documents to a global audience.

I’ll briefly summarize recent events in the news. A 22-year-old Army PFC by the name of Bradley Manning is alleged to have downloaded hundreds of thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents while on assignment in Bagdad. Manning then allegedly gave the documents to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks – an organization of volunteer hackers devoted to, depending on whom you believe, “opening governments” or destabilizing the US and other world powers.* Because of the structure of WikiLeaks, the identity of leakers is protected by destroying any link between documents and their source. The reason Manning is a suspect is because he bragged online that he downloaded the docs and copied them onto his home-made Lady Gaga CD to make it easier to get them past security.  WikiLeaks has made several “dumps” of these documents over recent months, the most recent being this weekend’s release of approximately 250,000 documents related to world diplomatic efforts. One world leader called it the “9/11 of diplomacy.”

It should be noted that WikiLeaks is not acting alone. First, WikiLeaks’ technical infrastructure is supported by servers rented from Pirate Bay and Amazon (Update: according to the NYT, Amazon has booted WikiLeaks from its servers). Additional server resources have been necessary as WikiLeak servers have suffered DOS attacks at the hands of a self-described “hacktivist for good” who goes by the name of the Jester. Second, WikiLeaks depends on disgruntled insiders to feed it with information. And third, and perhaps most importantly,  it needs the cooperation of the world press to make its actions visible to society. In this most recent case WikiLeaks has the cooperation of the New York Times in the US, and the Guardian in the UK. Once leading mainstream media report on document releases the story is out and the effect is fully realized.

This the not the first time the NYT has been involved in a leak of US government secrets. Perhaps the most famous example is Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. In late 1969, Ellsberg used an earlier technology (photocopying) to leak classified military papers to the NYT and other newspapers. Convinced that the US government was misleading congress and the American public, Ellsberg acted hoping that the revelations revealed by the documents would force the government to change course. Many believe that the release of the Pentagon Papers was a significant turning point in our commitment to the war in Vietnam. Time will tell if Pfc. Bradley Manning’s actions will have a similar effect on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the mean time, those who believe that his actions are those of a patriot, and not a traitor, can join the Bradley Manning Support Network here.

The recent actions of WikiLeaks remind us of the challenge of balancing first amendment freedom and national security in a modern world where technology allows us to set in motion significant actions with a few clicks of a mouse. And while the ends sometimes justify the means, it is also true that actions taken for what may appear to be a noble cause may have far-reaching implications that demand and deserve careful consideration.

P.S. It’s not easy being a rogue leaker. US Senators are calling for Julian Assange to be tried under the Espionage Act of 1917. Assange, who is already on-the-run, is now listed on INTERPOLs Most Wanted List for an alleged crime of rape and molestation that took place in Sweden. Not surprisingly, the timing of these allegations is questioned by WikiLeak supporters.

*There is an interesting interview on TED Talks that will give you some additional background on Assange.

Posted in 1st amendment, journalism, new media, politics, regulation | 22 Comments »