Leaked: Wikileaks and its lack of transparency
by Christoph Baade
Over the last few years the movement calling for open governments – even open societies – has definitely picked up steam. The concept of an open society consists of a bunch of different ideas and values, one being the belief in holding those in power, especially the government, accountable through transparency. So the organization Wikileaks, known for disclosing all kinds of secret documents, is part of the movement, right?
What if I told you it wasn’t? Even though the organization claims to ‘open governments’ Wikileaks might be setting the movement back. Just think about it: If someone stole one of your secrets and made it available online, would you stop having secrets? Or would you be more eager to protect the ones no one knew about?
In fact, no US policy has been changed and no government program has been cancelled due to Wikileaks spillage of a quarter million classified US documents. You could argue that Wikileaks’ efforts only hardened fronts and made it much more difficult for other (less radical) transparency advocates.
All of this is symptomatic for the controversy surrounding the organization Julian Assange founded in 2006. No one seems to know whether Wikileaks’ intentions are as good as it claims. Even though Wikileaks exists for almost a decade now, the jury is still out on it.
It’s funny that Wikileaks, committed to ultimate transparency, is so difficult to see through. It’s not funny that the one thing Assange claims to detest most, power without accountability, is basically the principle on which the whole organization operates.
But let’s get to the real question: Why is Wikileaks an important keyword of our time?
One thing can be said for sure: Wikileaks fits perfectly into the 21st century. A century, in which the Internet, once a magical and fun place, lost much of its innocence. Hacks, nude-leaks, the NSA, espionage, and data theft – all those things turned the Internet into an environment of distrust and caution. Wikileaks then took it to another level by showing us that nothing – not even things considered to be protected best – was ever private or secret information. By leaking everything, from government secrets to innocent sorority rituals, the organization seems to have declared war on any form of secrecy.
When it comes to the organization, or rather the phenomenon Wikileaks there really is the good, the bad and the ugly:
The Good: Through its leaks the organization has challenged society to rethink and debate the values and dangers of information in the digital age. Further, the leaks also unveiled horrific actions of governments and world leaders. By distributing certain information, Wikileaks actually has empowered the public to criticize and to hold governments accountable. Sadly, that’s not all they did.
The Bad: I’m all for dismantling hypocrisy and lies, that are causing problems in our society, but there’s a fine line between being a political activist and being a high-tech gossip. Why did the organization leak the script to ‘Indiana Jones 4’ or actor Wesley Snipe’s tax bill including his social security number?
I agree with you, Wesley. Which leads us to…
The Ugly: Wikileaks views all secrecy as an evil to be opposed. That’s why, as you can see, they leak everything without any filter and that is extremely dangerous. In their fight for ultimate transparency they willingly disregard privacy and intellectual property.
Who even decided that all secrecy is bad? Especially in international politics where so many egos are involved, there’s a certain sensitivity needed concerning what is and what is not said. But Wikileaks doesn’t care about that. All they care about is transparency, even when it comes at the price of putting people’s lives in danger and potentially damaging international relations.
Moreover, who even empowered men like Julian Assange to decide what should or shouldn’t be a secret? It wasn’t the public. Wikileaks empowered itself.
If you believe it or not: Wikileaks is symptomatic for the 21st century. We are living in times where knowledge – more than ever before – is power and where spreading information on the web can harm, even kill people. Times where an extremist sitting in front of a laptop can be more dangerous than the leader of an army.
Not only Wikileaks but also groups such as Anonymous are using the Internet’s anonymity and lawlessness for their own matters. Their motives can be questioned but their power to access and steal close to any information cannot be taken from them – and that’s new. Through anonymity self-proclaimed ‘hacktivists’ rid themselves of any accountability for their actions. So you’re pretty much left hoping that those guys hiding behind masks don’t have anything stupid in mind….
One thing is certain: Assange, Snowden and all their hacking descendants know that possession and ownership of goods (especially information) on the Internet will define how we live and grow up and that’s a scary thought if you ask me.
But let’s end on a fun note: In addition to all its political implications Wikileaks has also become part of our pop culture. Besides various books and documentaries, there’s a pretty good movie starring everyone’s new favorite actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, as Assange, who himself did this cameo appearance on ‘The Simpsons’:
I guess you can find humor in anything….
1. The article “Wikileaks’ war on Secrecy: Truth’s Consequences” from 2010 gives insight into the debate surrounding Wikileaks in light of the organization’s release of a quarter million diplomatic cables. It broaches the issue of overclassification of documents and addresses the upbringing and mission of Wikileaks-founder Julian Assange. It also speaks to the – then unknown but possible – repercussions and dangers of Wikileaks’ actions.
2. In his blog-entry Derrick Ashong suggests that Wikileaks is bad for all of us. He questions Wikileaks’ motive to release certain information and makes a very interesting argument that the organization is no longer solely a political instrument but rather a ‘TMZ for the Diplomatic set’. He also argues that, through its leaks, the organization has helped diminish the value of ‘whistle-blowing’ itself.
3. In his entry for the Federation of American Scientists, Steven Aftergood, expert on government secrecy, reviews Wikileaks’ due diligence. He points out where the organization failed to advance the discussion about opening governments and calls out Wikileaks for repeated unethical behavior and malpractice.
4. In 2010, TIME released their “Top 10 Leaks” in which the magazine ranked the most famous and sensational leaks in history. Besides the fact that Wikileaks appears twice on the list you can read about the Pentagon Papers and Watergate but most importantly you can find out why rapper Lil Wayne is at number 10.
5. At last here’s an idea so fascinating that I find it worth sharing: I broached the topic of cyber terrorism and also wrote about the group Anonymous. This article is about the idea that the US government should team up with Anonymous to disrupt online activity of the terror group ISIS. I wrote so much about the threat of hackers but in the article there’s evidence that hacking can also be used for a good cause.