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Wikileaks December 3, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in politics.

Normally I try to stick to science and things affecting education (or just not write much), but I find the Wikileaks thing in the news lately fascinating for several reasons. The most mundane of which is I’ve always been interested in international diplomacy and this gives quite a peak into what conversations were actually going on. When I was reading lots of books (more on that in a future post, if I get back to posting) one of the topics was international relations. In many cases the authors would use public actions to infer the diplomacy that must have gone on behind closed doors. This gives us a glimpse into that – and I can’t wait to see more articles sifting through the cables.

I suspect how you feel about Wikileaks depends on where you sit on two issues. First, do you trust your government when it comes to doing the right thing internationally? If the answer is no, then I would guess that anything that makes the government more transparent you will like. The other axis is how much damage you think this causes to the US’ ability to conduct international relations and, perhaps, how important it is to get unvarnished opinions from others around the globe without their fear of their words being published. The balance of those two issues probably governs your basic reaction. Personally, I’m more concerned about the latter.

But that isn’t what prompted me to write this.

Everyone is going after Wikileaks. They have been kicked off servers in the UK, now out of Amazon, and as I write this their servers are offline or at least not responding. My guess is that since countries are out to get Wikileaks and its founder, its life is going to be short. But… I think it doesn’t matter what happens to Wikileaks.

When you break it down, Wikileaks is doing two things, well, three things.

  1. First, Wikileaks receives the secrets. Someone sends it to them with the expectation that they will publish the secrets and do their best to keep them secret.
  2. Wikileaks does do some filtering – removing names, etc., and other things that are obvious references to names that might get people killed or similar.
  3. Indexing and collation. This is especially true of the latest batch of cables – if Wikileaks had dumped the complete trove on the web it would have been a lot less accessible or interesting to most of us. Right now you can just browse their website and look at topics and look at the cables that concern that topic.
  4. Finally they publish the secrets to the web and the world.

I think it is a given that as long as you have humans working with secrets you’ll have leaks. So I don’t think the source of leaks in the world is going to dry up. I think this is especially true now that Wikileaks has shown everyone how easy it is to publish the secrets. But lets say Wikileaks goes away, and that the world is successful in keeping new Wikileaks clones from being created. Now what?

Well, we already know how to widely publish something we aren’t supposed to with very little effort. It is called file sharing! Once a file gets started it is very difficult to tell exactly where it came from – and so it quickly becomes anonymous. That takes care of step #1 and #4. What about #3? I’m going to go with crowdsourcing here. The idea is that some data is published and then the people who are interested will comb through it and publish their findings online. Blogs, tweets, etc. That takes care of #3.

This isn’t without problems in the future. For example, #2 won’t be dealt with – or you’ll have to rely on every single person who is combing through the data. Second, #4 isn’t going to be as nice – it will be spread all over the web. Perhaps more serious is the way #4 will occur – most people who put up the information will also put up a interpretation – perhaps cherry picking the comments. We saw a classic example of this with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ClimategateClimateGate. I’m not sure how well #1 is going to work. Doing that with file sharing isn’t trivial. You have to have a computer connected to the net and up and running long enough to publish the fact that you have this file – something someone leaking a secret may not like to do. There are other methods – but it is unlikely that the person who has access to the secrets also knows how to publish them anonymously and effectively.

None-the-less the information is out there for all to see. Now that these leaked secrets have gotten so much publicity and people will start to realize how easy it is. So, while Wikileaks might disappear I think the cat is out of the bag, so to speak. You know the saying, right? Don’t write anything in email you wouldn’t want repeated, even if it is a private email… well… more proof!


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