Wikileaks, Mr Miyagi, cells and mass movements

This is the key question for the long-term impact of wikileaks:

Assange’s hypothesis may or may not be true, but his belief that WikiLeaks will lead to greater government transparency is blinkered in the extreme. Governments do not respond to security breaches by surrendering themselves to the fates. American foreign-policy bureaucracies have and will continue to respond to WikiLeaks by clamping down on the dissemination of information.

The effect of wikileaks is to clamp down on all partially-secret information. If you want to act, you now must make a choice: either you act entirely in the open, or you keep it all locked down*. Keep things partialy secret, but not entirely, and you’re going to experience the worst of both worlds.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s how political groups must act under threat from a repressive government. Choose transparency, act like Aung San Suu Kyi. Depend for your survival on public support domestic and international, on the efficiency of open communication, on having a morally-defensible public face. Or act as cells. Be small, be secretive. Renounce the possibility of building a mass movement. Be a small group of committed citizens, maybe not even knowing the names of one another.

But don’t choose a path in the middle. To adapt Mr. Miyagi:

Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later, [makes squish gesture] get squish just like grape. Here, karate secrecy, same thing. Either you karate secrecy do “yes”, or karate secrecy do “no”. You karate secrecy do “guess so”, [makes squish gesture] just like grape. Understand?

The same applies to governments, lobbyists, firms worried about leaking secrets to one another. The latest leaks were visible to 3 million Americans. It’s a reasonable bet that Russia and China had already gained access to them. Similarly I wouldn’t be at all surprised if big corporations already knew about some of what the State Department were secretly saying about them. You can easily imagine somebody in Bradley Manning’s position going on to work for Halliburton, bringing with him any documents discussing the corporation.

The bulk of the leaks consists of political analysis, gossip, pen-portraits of powerful figures. It’s the kind of commentary that circulates pretty freely among journalists, lobbyists, activists, civil servants and other politics nerds. People in power already had it, albeit not in written form. What’s new is letting the public into it, warts and all.

* The effect isn’t total, but it’s heading in that direction. In the specific case of the Bradley Maning leaks, some half-competent database management would have cut them off at the pass.

 

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