prof. e.

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

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.


22 Responses to “The End of Secrecy?”

  1. AJ said

    Interesting discussion… perhaps more online vigilantes will take over and join sides with “The Jester.”

    In all honesty, I don’t know what to make of this. I don’t believe in keeping secrets, but I don’t believe in threatening national–or global–security and diplomacy.

  2. Alex said

    I believe in exposing secrets and keeping them based on whether the exposure or confidentiality serves the largest portion of society. Oddly, society may never know if a particular truth will serve it’s greater interests lest it be known; Similarly, the benefit of concealing a truth would never be measurable for a society due to the ignorance of it’s existence.

    Imagine the consequences if human reproductive processes where never understood scientifically. Imagine if birth control methods were never developed. Imagine if the world continued to adhere to static religious ideas of pro-creation; consider that in barely 60 years the world’s population will likely double from present to 12 billion souls — and this is with birth control practices.

    Consider the danger of only 1 nation state possessing the knowledge of the atom. Which country do you feel deserves to be possessor of such power? For some this is a secret worth revealing at all costs — especially if it were a “terrorist state” that harnessed the power of nuclear energy first. For others, this is a secret that must be exposed at all costs, as the dread of what one nation might demand of others less powerful is too great a risk for humanity.

    C’mon folks the price of freedom is to forfeit the guarantee of security, right?

  3. AJ said

    Good point Mr. Alex. Freedom does not guarantee safety. I guess it comes to individual discretion; choose to check out WikiLeaks, or choose not to.

  4. Nichole Beaudin said

    it is so intresting to me that documents released can cause so much debate. If it is talked about this much and people have so much concern obviously it is over something that is important to be out in the publics eye. Where do we draw the line hoevever? I mean of course i would hope nothing gets leaked that would put my life and loves around me in question from other countries trying to be involved. Freedom is never free though is a very agreeable statement… Right?

  5. Alex said

    I thought about this issue a bit more and realized that it will be tempting for many responders to come down on one side or the other, to make a claim that either Assange is a dangerous spy or a champion of the people. So be it, but remember no one can claim that the exposure of particular information is more good than bad and vice verse.

    Take for example the U.S. Patriot Act. Critics of the Bush administration decried the enactment of this legislation as a contraction of American civil liberties, arguing that the Patriot Act was more a platform through which government could impinge upon freedoms, rather than secure them. Bushies justified the new power of the government to monitor the Homeland touting the preference to another 9/11 type attack. Critics of the Patriot Act further argued that the Bush administration should make transparent the methods through which they were preventing such attacks. Cheyney and the lot claimed that to declassify the information they acquired and used to fight terrorism was stupid, and terrorists would adapt to the methods and thus be successful in later attacks. To this day, Bush himself dismisses the other egregious failures of his term and clings to the lucky fact that there wasn’t another attack in the U.S during his presidency. It’s claimed that this is direct result of the Patriot Act, and because no disclosure on how the administration was preventing “terrorism” was allowed.

    Well, I’ve got news for ya. No one can ever be called upon to prove a negative. Even though there wasn’t another attack in the U.S during Bush’s presidency, not he nor the Patriot Act can be thanked for it. And secondly, because none of the methods in which the government used to thwart terrorism could wisely be made public, Bush cannot claim he or any part of his administration prevented it. Let me simplify further: You cannot prove there is NOT a computer screen in front of you if there isn’t a computer screen in front of you. Get it? You cannot prove a negative. You cannot prove you’re missing a tooth if you’re not missing a tooth.

  6. Chelsea Brigham said

    In my opinion, the “leaks” of government files should not be considered leaks at all. Any business of our government should be business of ours; withholding of course appropriate confidentiality. I agree with both Alex, and Aj and believe that we ultimately have the choice to be involved, and read these wikilinks, or not to. For many people, these files do not even exist because they are too wrapped up in other things to pay attention to any world/local/national news.

  7. Alex said

    Sorry to be rude, but saying freedom isn’t free is a just a simple-minded slogan. It’s like saying something is invaluable and in the same breath saying that it is costly. Freedom, like any value, is only worth what someone will expend to preserve it. And this opens the door to a whole host of justifications for “bad” actions toward others, especially when values are in contradiction. What people who use this type of reasoning are advocating is mere moral-relativism: an outdated world view clung to with sanctimonious conservative zeal and sadly excused by moderate liberal naiveté. If values are universal, but different societies hold different values — then who gets to decide the lengths one must go to in defense of them? How do we decide what to excuse and what to justify?

    If you’re a “patriot” and someone attacks your values, your economy, and your state — then you’re allowed to defend yourself, right? You can keep necessary secrets, destroy dangerous adversaries, and sacrifice the liberties of your citizenry in service of the greater good, true? If you’re a “terrorist” and someone attacks your values, your resources, your sovereignty, then you can cover & beat your women, dismember criminals, and execute infidels, correct? This is moral relativism at its best.

  8. AJ said

    Here’s a private blog offering an opinion that, the more I mull it over, the more I like:

    Maybe he IS onto something important…

  9. Matt Porter said

    Wow.. I dont believe in keeping secrets but when it comes to classified military documents then it is a serious problem. I laughed when I read his name was the jester cause it sounds like some CSI televison show name that you see. In the end the government should fix this leak problem once and for all because the US doesnt want this stuff floating around

  10. Erica Parsons said

    This is crazy! You would think that our military would have better security than it does. Hopefully we can get all this sorted out even though pretty much everything about our military is spread to countries who will probably take full advantage of these 250,000 documents.

    Erica Parsons

  11. Samuel Sumeracki said

    I’m somewhat on the fence with this matter. I am not like those who think that the people have a right to know everything government officials know. In many instances if we did then our own safety and freedom could be put at jeopardy. But from what I have heard about the leaked documents (I say heard because despite attempting to look at them, every attempt to download said files failed) they are mainly just different ways governments classify other leaders. It just seems like a note card describing “how to handle said leader”. I of course plead ignorance as I have not seen the actual documents, but from other news sources I have read that is mainly the type of documentation they discuss. I don’t think US Safety has been jeopardized by these leaks and therefore I am leaning more towards the “this isn’t that problematic” side of the spectrum.

  12. Gabby A said

    Not to seem paranoid or anything…but how do we really know that these wikileaks are ACTUAL confidential information? Who’s to say this isn’t some guy creating false documents? I mean seriously, how many times have you come across a wiki-page to do a paper for school, and you realize some of the information is false? Anybody can change a few words in a document before publishing it to the world wide web. And don’t you think the government would be doing a little bit more to stop this information from circulating, if it’s soooo secretive? If “The Jester” can do it, surely our trained government officials [backed by the CIA] can too. I don’t know. I’m not saying anyone should pass up the chance to read these “confidential documents” just in case they ARE real, and this is our only chance to receive some truth on shady areas of our government, but I would simply recommend not taking all of it as 100% truth.

  13. Dallan Whistance said

    Hmm this is one of the most interesting topics I have read about in a while. So whose fault is it? Is it ours as American citizens who put entirely way to much out there in the first place or is it the government for not stopping it…. I still think theirs alot of gray area that is not clearly covered in this story that needs to be exposed first. On the other hand how do we know this is all entirely true? This could be some guy “BS”ing us all. I dont understand how the government would not stop the info from circulating when they posses the power too.

  14. jb. said

    I think that the fact that we’re debating WikiLeaks at all is testament to how fed up the people are with a government that seems to deem everything from battle plans to a description of how you’re going to be fondled by the TSA “top secret”. I think there would be a lot more sympathy for “national security” (and less for Assange and WikiLeaks) if the term hadn’t been thrown around so flippantly by the current and last administrations.

    Transparency in government is incredibly important and while the need for some things to remain secret is obvious, those items need to be few and far between and not used as a way to hide stuff that could be merely embarrassing to those in power or infuriating to the people.

  15. Alex said

    So who determines what should remain confidential? If it’s so obvious, then define your criteria.

  16. Alex Miller said

    I think that secrets should be kept because of privacy. If secrets must be revealed than privacy would go out the window. No one can determine who should be able to keep secrets and who can’t. Revealing everyone’s secretes could have negative effects. In “The End of Secrecy” the author talks about how military government information was downloaded. this information deserves to be kept secret to protect the safety of the majority of society.

  17. Tyler Shomaker said

    This is interesting in that this has happened before during a war. I believe that the government should be transparent in all of its actions as long as it does not damage our national security. The end of secrecy should not have happened recently because the government should have always been public with its actions. I think that Bradley Manning should not be considered a traitor because his actions were not to harm the US but to help fix the problems it is facing. Now if he gave secrets about our new weapons systems to a foreign country then I would mark him as a traitor. This may be blown out of proportion but I believe we should not believe what the government tells us. I’m not a conspirator but I do know that everyone lies even our government.

  18. Tori Craft said

    We have been losing our privacy as humans increasingly more since day one of technology. Like with every technological advance, someone takes it and corrupts its power and capabilities. WikiLeaks seems like a great idea until highly legal issues arise and as mentioned above, lead to court cases because of the information shared or “leaked”. WikiLeaks makes people feel they have a sense of power apart from the government because of the confidential information they are able to partake in and raise awareness of, but the consequences that arise are, in some instances, detrimental. I think WikiLeaks will continue to be something that causes stir and controversy in the world of media and people will either hate it, love it, or not give a care in the world about it.

  19. Gaining privacy is a far stretch for most of us; however saying that it should be erased is absurd. Like the article stated, secrets have been leaked since the beginning of time, it is a natural way of life. I do believe in the 1st amendment rights to freedom of speech. However how far should one be able to take this right before it becomes traitorous activity? Why would you call yourself an American and willingly leak top classified information to sites that can be accessed by people all around the world? It doesn’t make any sense. People who do this should be prosecuted. The one example where the information concerning Vietnam was leaked to the public in an attempt to end the war was considerable because the American people were being lied to about events that were taking place. It is one thing to leak information to your own society of people concerning American problems. However if a person decides to leak top classified information concerning government/military actions, that if read could stir up trouble with other nations, than I believe that is criminal activity and they should be punished accordingly.

  20. Dom Harris said

    Secrets are a huge part of our society. Believe it or not the government has been hiding stuff from us for years. I believe they keep most stuff a secret because a lot of the things our country does would probably be frowned upon by many of our own people. Therefore our government doesn’t want to jeopardize its credibility especially with our own people. The truth most times can also do more harm than good.

  21. Selina Stokes said

    When the whole Wiki leaks situation was going on, I was so excited to think I was going to learn the secrets of the government and all that. But when I went online to look at them, I was stumped. I had no idea what to look for! I was just bombarded with all this information and I just did not have the patience to click around and find the good stuff. This is a good example of how vast the media can be. Yes, the information is out there, but that doesn’t mean that your entire intended audience is able to decode your messages. If Jullian Assange wanted to effectively make this information available to a mass audience, maybe he should have organized a little bit instead of just throwing it all out there.

  22. Ravyn Tanner said

    I don’t believe there is such thing as a “secret.” It’s always like the game of telephone, one person says something and by the time it gets to the last person, it’s just a bunch of blah blah blah that had nothing to do with the first statement. There is such thing as private though, and something like military documents should without a doubt be private. If you want to know about it, go risk your life everyday and join a military branch, otherwise, most that stuff is none of your business. The media tells us things we need to know, and that should be enough. It comes down to people’s morals and values and what they stand for. That man should have never done that with the documents, people trusted him with things that he obviously couldn’t handle. It’s sad to think that people will set aside what they believe in for a minute of fame. It’s a shame, honestly.

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