A Criticism of Wikileaks

This blog has been saturated with Wikileaks commentary recently (one, two, three, four in a row).  Allow me one more on the basis that it adds a dash of caution to the Kool-Aid.
Reading various commentaries about the Wikileaks and its #Cablegate releases, I think a balanced consensus is emerging around the publication of Government information.  Everyone agrees that the near-mythical “launch codes” should be kept secret (although how one would actually go about launching a nuclear weapon if one did have the codes is never explained).  Back in the realm of the possible, examples such as the identities of Iraqi and Afghan translators working for Nato forces are obvious no-nos.  The risk of harm is obvious and the possible chain of events that might lead to someone coming to harm is quite direct.  But when government policies, attitudes and diplomacy is concerned, there seems to be a feeling that The People’s Right To Know outweighs any tangental negative effects it might have on the governing class.  Administration embarrassment is not a genuine national security issue.  For the most part, Wikileaks seems to be adhering to similar principles, and many of the leaked cables are indeed gossip and opinion.  Not facts that can be turned into weapons.  It seems the journalists covering the publication for Wikileaks media partners (for example, the Guardian) have taken care to self-censor when National Security is genuinely at stake.
One example from a few days ago stands out, that of the list of facilities crucial to US National security.  It lists pipelines, chemical labs and undersea fibre-optic stations that, if attacked, would cause major problems for the US economy and wellbeing of its citizens.
The cable is listed as secret, but a defender of freedom of information might point out that the information it contains is available elsewhere.  It does not take a Pentagon analyst to work out that the major pipelines are critical pieces of infrastructure, as are cable landing points.  Anyone with a basic knowledge of the economics and history of medicine would already know that a facilities that manufactures insulin and vaccines are important establishment for all humanity.
However, let us remind ourselves of a blogpost at Minority Report on the subject of anonymity (which I enjoy referring to from time to time):

Its when computers talk to other computers that liberty disappears. Because a computer can correlate countless bits of data and create new records that would take many humans exponentially longer to do. And that gap, or grace period, is actually where anonymity lies, or did.

I think this same thought could apply to the secrecy of government information, too.  Sure, any old terrorist cell, given Google and a couple of live minds, could come up with a similar list of mission-critical targets for attack.  If they stumbled accross Neal Stephenson’s masterful long-form report on the FLAG-project, they would know exactly where to find fibre-optic landing stations on any continent – Stephenson, ever the geek, includes precise GPS locations as his chapter headings! But crucially, these searches will take a little time.  You do need to do some thinking and some searching, which takes a lot of man-hours.  And (to paraphrase David, above) in that gap, that grace-period, may be where our national security lies.
This is, for me, the strongest argument I can think of against the Free Information Fundamentalism preached by Wikileaks.  But even then, this only counsels against the disclosure of some very specific types of information, not the wholesale immorality of the project.

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2 Replies to “A Criticism of Wikileaks”

  1. Exactly Robert, if wikileaks simply offered up stale lists – I think we could all go home.
    I’ve always loved the “launch codes” mythos, and you uncover it nicely here. Making verified contact with a nuclear submarine is not easy to do. Who would have thought??
    The launch code is another “stale list” – it is one instance of data that could be made redundant just as quickly as it was made. The secret is how any one part of code knits with the another bit to create a valid authentication. Beyond this, the real secret is the role nuclear weapons would actually play in any war.
    Lists of infrastructure points are probably also stale in their own way.
    The German high command could have wasted time trying to find weak spots in the Maginot line. Had they found any “secret list” – the French could have countered this rather easily. But the actual secret was that the French army needed the defensive wall to buy them time to moblise in the event of an attack. Once that was realised, of course the German Army just went through via Belgium – from where a quick attack was not expected.
    So yes, there surely exist documented secrets that would lift the kimono too high, but there is no sign so far that wikileaks is worth breaking the internet to stop.

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