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Why Wikileaks will lead to more secrecy, not less

We need to think carefully about whether we really want Wikileaks to make our national security decisions for us


 

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange

Wikileaks has struck again. This week’s release of thousands of diplomatic cables from U.S. embassies follows the publication of hundreds of thousands of documents containing operational information about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. These massive data leaks, while lauded by many, underline the tension between a government’s justifiable need for secrecy and the public’s demand for more open and transparent governance. Ironically, Wikileaks will likely lead to less public knowledge of government actions rather than more.

In recent years, there has been an exciting and growing movement pressuring governments to make more of the data that they collect public. Many rightly argue that these data, if released in a machine readable format, can be put to a wide range of beneficial uses. And it is catching on. Many municipal governments have begun to release a wide range of data sets, including property, public transportation, traffic, and crime data. The Liberal party of Canada and the Conservative government in the UK, have both put forward initiatives which would take significant steps in making government more transparent and help citizens to build on the data they have a right to use. This is all unquestionably positive.

By highlighting a core tension in the open data discussion, however, Wikileaks puts much of this progress in jeopardy. While few would argue that leaked data is open data, or that all data should be open, the case of Wikileaks reminds us that data exists on a continuum from highly classified to open. In certain policy areas, we need to think carefully about who we want making the final decision over secrecy—the governments that we elect, or individuals over whom we have no control. No issue better exemplifies this dilemma than national security data.

There are undoubtedly benefits to these latest data releases. First, the more we know about the torture perpetrated by Iraqi and American forces, the less likely we are to give future governments the legal or political authority to do so. Second, the more we know about the shocking levels of civilian casualties, and the strategic and moral consequences of such folly, the more attention we are likely to pay to how and whether our governments fight wars. Third, the data released will provide journalists and scholars with a previously unavailable view into war fighting. Finally, and most importantly, seeing the blunt, gory, and often grotesquely mundane details of war, provide us with a level of honesty about the actions that we as citizens sanction. We are surely better for this.

But there are also costs, two of which will have implications for those seeking more transparent government. First, there is a very real potential that these data will lead to the deaths of Afghan and Iraqi citizens. While Wikileaks founder Julian Assange claims the website scrubbed out information that could harm western forces, ordinary Afghans and Iraqis weren’t as lucky. As a result, the names and locations of people who have risked their lives to help us have been made public. Even if none of these people are ever harmed, shouldn’t it be our democratic government making this decision, not a disgruntled junior soldier or a highly secretive organization? Leaving such decisions to the discretion of Assange is grossly irresponsible.

Second, these releases of data will likely lead to a more closed government. While many interpret it as progress when any and all data is made public, these national security releases will likely have the opposite effect. Much of the information released was classified at a low level. This means that it was widely available to, and presumably used by, a very large number of people in the U.S. military and the diplomatic community. It also makes it susceptible to leaks. The certain result of the leaks is that this type of data will be more highly classified from now on, making it of less use to those tasked with protecting us. Another possibility is that this type of data will no longer be recorded at all, with governments doing more and more of their business verbally, or in absolute secret.

These are bad outcomes for those that want more open and transparent government, as well as for those that believe, as I do, that much more information about how our government fights wars on our behalf should be subject to public scrutiny.

Taylor Owen is a post-doctoral fellow at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia. Read more at TaylorOwen.com.


 

Why Wikileaks will lead to more secrecy, not less

  1. Nonsense we would be hard pressed to have a more secret government. Your other premise that lives will be lost is also questionable at it's base. Does this author believe that the lies told both to get this country into war and those that keep us there are without lives lost. Having any group that can counter balance what any government has to say is worth it's weight in gold. WikiLeaks may in fact begin to save lives just by those who would choose to deceive the public wondering if they would be exposed.

    Lying and spinning information should never have become a vocation for so many. The people have a right to know what a nation does in their name.

  2. That's a very important point and thank you for making it Mr. Owen. The buffoon Assange doesnt care though, he mainly cares about getting his ugly mug on the front page.

    So the price for knowing that the head of CSIS complains about bad court decisions to his US counterparts (SHOCKING!!!) is greater government secrecy, more red tape, and a less informed public. Awesome.

    • your an idiot do not procreate please

  3. This piece does an excellent job of identifying the issues, but the conclusions with regards to how this hurts open government are really weak. The issues the US faces with data are solved simply by having people ask to access it rather than making it generally available to everyone with clearance, and this particular data being less public would not have much impact one way or another on the general movement for transparency and accountability in government. The points about how it should be the elected government making the decisions with regards to releasing this information are similarly weak: it was the US government that did a poor job of protecting this information in the first place that allowed it to be leaked.

    Wikileaks is far from ideal or perfect, but pointing at them for this mess rather than at the US for their poor security is pretty dense. Wikileaks is a mostly neutral conduit for the information that is leaked to them; as soon as it looks like they are stepping in to favour one group or another or to stop specific leaks, people leaking to them can no longer be guaranteed that the information they submit will be release. Wikileaks is obliged to release what is sent to them, and that includes files like these is they're leaked to them by disgruntled low-ranked soldiers like Bradley Manning.

    Looking at Wikileaks strictly through the prism of the leaks regarding the US military and diplomacy misses the undeniably good work they have done elsewhere. Their previous handling of leaks regards Scientology, or exposing corruption in Kenya, or their apparent upcoming release about US banks. There's so much they do that helps to show the need for more openness and accountability.

  4. This is also going to cost taxpayers money. MacLean's recently posted how it took several hours and about 10 individuals to get a 75 word memo out regarding the earthquake this past summer. The more government needs to vet, secure and monitor its data the thicker the layers and cost of bueaucracy. A government can label something 'confidential' and hope people will treat it as such, or they can spend money to secure it to a higher degree. We can thank Wikileaks for likely making government even slower and more expensive than it already is.

  5. This is a piece of nonsense, yes. It's one thing to have Glenn Beck/Dennis Miller entertainment, it's another to have from PhD-inebriated mouthpiece for the U.S. State Department. Look, my friend, they have enough of those below the border damning the truth with faint praise, and we have that imbecile 'joker' Flanagan safely tenured in Alberta. Let them suffice you.

    Daniel Ellsberg has virtually identified himself with Wikipedia's goals, and even Assange himself. The Pentagon papers hardly put lives in safety in Vietnam, but it sealed Johnson's coffin by the Spring of '68.

    –dan, University of British Columbia.

  6. It is my opinion that this author, Taylor Dean, is correct when he states that the Wikileaks expose will increase secrecy . The Internet is this "wonder" technology to which everyone in the whole world has access – except those in countries ruled by dictators . In all truly free societies everyone has free access to all this Internet information. . But all of us should stop and think twice about this unfettered freedom. The companion to rights is responsibility . Everyone wants to exercise their human rights but not everyone shoulders the responsibility to use that freedom wisely. For any one of our western democractic governments to try to protect their citizens from indiscriminate terrorism by fanatic nutcases , they must protect certain classified information. The result of these "leaks" will force governments to MORE secrecy not less.
    Juanita Rathbun
    Fonthill ON

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