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WikiLeaks and society - Shining a light in our dark corners

GOVERNMENT and private sector power-brokers who have recognised the challenge posed by organisations like WikiLeaks and Cryptome are probably appalled by the publication of classified documents on the Afghan war.

Yesterday America’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates said WikiLeaks is "morally guilty" over the release.

The publication may cause sleepless nights for some of those in public or international commercial life whose default position is assertive and aggressive secrecy.

Security and police chiefs, regulatory authorities, senior civil servants and the various quangos that operate at an arm’s length from public scrutiny already have taken account of how easily their confidential files can be made public, especially with the help of a crusading whistle-blower.

The practice of cabinet ministers initialling documents to indicate they had read them came to an end when the Freedom of Information Act was enacted in April 1998, so a whole range of new electronic and procedural measures are in place to preserve the comforts conferred by invisibility.

There are very many valid and important reasons for official secrecy but in too many instances information that should be readily available is routinely buried behind a curtain of convenience, very often just to protect officials or elected representatives.

One of the revelatory and entertaining breaches of this omertà was the recent publication of the expenses claimed by the members of the Houses of Commons and Lords. Knowing that your local representative claimed expenses for a duck house may not be as important as knowing what is going on at the dirty end of a war but all information informs our relationship with the democratic process. All of it is valuable.

Self-serving secrecy is an accusation that has been levelled at the Health Service Executive on a too regular basis and experience suggests that this suspicion is justified. The recent saga surrounding the death of children while in State care showed this in its worst light, though HSE chief Professor Brendan Drumm insists the organisation is obliged to protect the identity of vulnerable children. Even public representatives have frequently expressed great frustration at the catch-all stonewalling perfected by the health authority.

Just as the HSE seems to resent being held to account, others in other spheres will regard the WikiLeaks Afghanistan publication as treasonable. They believe it endangers the lives of soldiers or their Afghan supporters. Others will recognise the process as being irreversible and behave accordingly, making their communications channels ever more impenetrable. They may even modify their behaviour in a positive way to avoid being shown in a bad light. Information security is a huge business but WikiLeaks boss Julian Assange has ensured that it will be a growth industry for the foreseeable future.

The internet has, for good or ill, made many of the old boundaries that protected power and secrecy obsolete. We can, no matter what our motivation, access and share information instantly and globally.

Maybe it’s not too much to hope that, with the help of organisations like WikiLeaks or Cryptome, the battered old idealism resting in the phrase "a citizen’s right to know" might become a force for good. After all, as we have been told so often by those who would impose further restrictions on our liberty, only those with something to hide should fear exposure.