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Wikileaks and the Unintended Consequences of Freedom of Information.

Commentary, 7 September 2011
Technology
Wikileaks' recent foray back into the headlines has exposed an organisation that is driven more by a dangerous determination to monopolise the public debate, rather than a genuine interest to inform it.

Wikileaks' recent foray back into the headlines has exposed an organisation that is driven more by a dangerous determination to monopolise the public debate, rather than a genuine interest to inform it.

 Cyber Desktop 2

By Valentina Soria, Research Analyst at RUSI

In an analysis published a few months ago, RUSI identified several categories of security breaches likely to result from the release of thousands of diplomatic cables by the whistleblower website Wikileaks.[1] That analysis aimed to prove that, despite every genuine attempt to responsibly edit all the material available, the sheer volume and nature of that documentation would make it virtually impossible to avoid even inadvertent leaks which could compromise the national security of several countries.

If that was not bad enough, the latest developments in the 'Wikileaks saga' have highlighted even more clearly the negative implications that an unregulated and uncontrolled flow of information can have in the era of the 'democratic' Internet.

By deciding to finally publish the whole archive of 251,000 cables at its disposal without prior redaction on 2 September, Wikileaks has undermined the claim that they might responsibly pave the way for a new and empowered form of investigative journalism.

There has been no attempt this time to remove names of activists, whistleblowers and informants who had spoken on condition on anonymity. According to the Associated Press, a review of 2,000 recently released cables reveals the details of at least ninety sources who had specifically asked to be protected.[2] With several thousands of the latest files marked as 'strictly protect' (among the highest US security classification) still to be scanned, that number can only grow.

A calculated media strategy?

The current Wikileaks strategy is also particularly telling of the way the organisation views itself, and also sheds light on its real priorities.

Wikileaks  has clearly admitted that the decreasing coverage of Wikileaks-linked affairs by traditional media outlets during the past few months was the main reason behind its decision to considerably step up the release of US diplomatic cables.[3]

It then began a 'blame game' as soon as it realised how the deliberate choice of making available un-redacted files could have backfired. This had already been allowed to occur previously, when 92,000 Afghan War logs, published in July 2010, revealed details of US informants whose safety was then feared to be in jeopardy. The fundamental difference is that, at the time, Wikileaks was perhaps too inexperienced to appreciate the full repercussions of such a security breach. This could explain why the organisation has since tried to boost its legitimacy and authority by allegedly making quite an effort to accommodate a commitment to transparency and openness with the need to protect individuals and sources.

By way of contrast, it is not unreasonable to believe that the latest disclosure of sensitive information might have been a deliberate, and frankly desperate, attempt by Wikileaks to regain the media central stage and attention.

The organisation has tried to justify the latest disclosure by pointing to a security breach by the Guardian newspaper. According to this allegation, a book published by a Guardian journalist last February revealed the top secret decryption password necessary to access the whole, un-redacted version of the 'Cablegate' archive.[4] Despite this being the case, Wikileaks has nonetheless failed to explain so far why appropriate measures to remove the uncensored cables have not been taken since February, when the potential breach was first exposed. This is something which therefore raises several issues around the organisation's success and its future.

What now for the future of Wikileaks?

Whether they are directly responsible or not for the un-redacted cables' release, the latest turn of events has the potential to draw a fatal blow to Assange and his organisation.

If rumours that Wikileaks has lost control of its precious trove are to be believed, this would call into question  its ability to maintain operational security around its resources and indeed sources. It is hard to overestimate the reputational damage that this would bring about, and the survivability of the organisation could be at stake if potential whistleblowers were to be deterred from coming forward in the future.

On the other hand, the haste in which Wikileaks has chosen to release such cables for fear they could have been published by other websites once un-encrypted is a sign that the organisation's greatest fear is to lose the 'monopoly' over sensitive, uncensored information which it has been able to enjoy so far in a relatively undisputed way.

Likewise, if directly responsible, Wikileaks's reckless determination to recapture the media central stage could in fact have the opposite effect. The critical relationship with traditional and authoritative media outlets, upon which the organisation has vitally relied on so far, may now have broken down irremediably. The joint statement of condemnation of this irresponsible release by its previous media partners means they have come to appreciate that the nature of Wikileaks puts it out of their control and therefore carries the risk of eventually damaging their own interests.

What was, until a few months ago, an invaluable source of inspiration and information for sensational news stories, has all of a sudden become an uncomfortable liability which could jeopardise the very raison d'etre of investigative journalism. It is important to remember that  investigative journalism cannot exist without a proper guarantee of protection for its sources, something which Wikileaks has shown it does not necessarily view as a priority.

Editors and publishers will always be bound to some sort of ethical standards which will force them to take into account the effects of what, and how, they communicate to the public. Although substantially lowered, such editorial standards still apply in the case of Wikileaks. This was one of the main reasons why Wikileaks tried, and succeeded, to forge a strategic partnership with authoritative international newspapers which could guarantee such high editorial standards. That partnership had been instrumental for the organisation to acquire the necessary legitimacy and authority to be regarded as a reliable venue for remarkable covert stories. In other words, Wikileaks had the key to the treasure but lacked the craftsmanship to unlock it.

The latest initiative could cause Wikileaks to lose its reliable image: the decision to resort to a poll on Twitter to determine whether or not all the remaining cables should have been released could indeed have been an attempt to avert this from happening or to prove that the organisation still enjoys a great deal of legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of its followers.

Ultimately, Wikileaks could well remain influential, but this won't automatically make it authoritative. The key to professional authority lies in the ability to set the tone of the public debate while retaining a commitment to a set of ethical standards which ensures that media can be held accountable for how they manage information. In this sense, Wikileaks still has much to learn.  

The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

NOTES

[1] Valentina Soria, 'The Wikileaks Cables: Damaging more than reputations?' RUSI.org, http://www.rusi.org/analysis/commentary/ref:C4D2DD4B6DB505/

[2] Cassandra Vinograd and Matthew Lee 'Wikileaks Site Comes Under Attack', MSNBC, 30 August 2011

[3] 'Australia Condemns "Irresponsible" Wikileaks Cables Unredacted', BBC Online, 30 August 2011

[4] 'Row Between Wikileaks and Guardian Over Security Breach', BBC Online, 1 September 2011

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