Today is the day that WikiLeaks—despite reportedly being under a distributed denial of service attack—sprang its biggest leak ever, releasing hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and airing global diplomatic laundry for all to see. The Guardian has an interactive map of countries whose secrets have come out, and browsing it produces some interesting stories.
But the most interesting thing to me is not the contents of those stories, which enough other people are going to be covering today, but what the WikiLeaks organization represents for journalism in the era of the Internet—or, rather, how the Internet makes something like WikiLeaks possible.
In a way, it is analogous to what the Internet and print-on-demand technology have done for self-published books. Instead of having to go through the gatekeeping process of submitting work to a publisher, people can simply publish their own works on the Internet for all to view. Or perhaps a better comparison would be Wikipedia, an encyclopedia comprised of contributions from everyone and edited only by the community itself.
In the old days, potential leakers had to find someone willing to publish their leaked material who were willing to stand up to pressure not to publish or to reveal the leakers’ identities. It could be tricky to do. Wikipedia notes that Daniel Ellsberg offered the government documents that came to be called the Pentagon Papers to “Nixon National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Senators William Fulbright and George McGovern, and others, but nobody was interested.”
But WikiLeaks has become a sort of self-publisher for leaks. Originally used mainly to embarrass corporations and Scientology, in the last couple of years it has attracted notice from those privy to greater secrets, and has proven to be a fine destination for top secret material of all kinds. Since it is located outside the US, the amount of pressure our government—or anyone else, for that matter—can bring to bear on it has been strictly limited.
In 2008, a Swiss bank tried to get the WikiLeaks.org domain name shut down, but after only a month the Federal judge in the case reversed his decision—and meanwhile, WikiLeaks had been mirrored all over the Internet. For some reason the government has not been moved to try this for itself, even as it seizes the domain names of 70 Internet piracy-related websites. The most they can seem to do is interrogate any WikiLeaks-related individuals they can find, including one hacker whose only “crime” was to be listed on the seized cell phone of a WikiLeaks staffer.
And there may not be that much the government can do. The Hollywood movie industry has as yet been unable to get the Pirate Bay shut down, despite finally getting its founders sentenced to jail terms and fines, and they’ve been trying for years. Even if WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is tried and found guilty of an alleged rape in Sweden, WikiLeaks itself will go on—as might a competing leak site that former members of the WikiLeaks board who don’t like the direction it’s taking are planning to start.
Instead, the government seems to be busy tightening up security measures to prevent such leaks from happening again.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman released a statement after the newspapers began revealing the content of the documents, saying that the Pentagon is taking additional steps to "prevent further compromise of sensitive data." They include two reviews on the policy and technological shortfalls that led to the WikiLeaks disclosures.
Immediate recommendations include disabling Defense Department computers from being able to copy data to removable media, limiting the platforms to move data from classified to unclassified systems, creating a two-person handling system and developing a suspicious behavior monitoring akin to systems that help credit card fraud prevention. Several other efforts have been taken at Central Command.
But no matter what happens, leaks will always be with us. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” When hundreds or thousands of people have access to State Department secrets as part of their jobs, the chain of secrecy will only be as strong as its weakest link. And like encrypted content, classified documents suffer from their own version of the “analog hole”. If a person can see the material, so can a camera.
In the end, the problem may be akin to that which the copyright industry is facing from digital piracy. If they can’t stop it, they’re going to have to figure out how to live with it. It is going to be interesting to see if this leak of embarrassing diplomatic content is going to have any repercussions in the current diplomatic scene—and to see what else they end up leaking.