Not all government and business secrets should be made available to the public by whistleblower sites

Opinion by Nick Barron

All corporate and government data, however obtained, is not fair game. We need to draw a line somewhere...

All corporate and government data, however obtained, is not fair game. We need to draw a line somewhere...

In 1787, the reformer Jeremy Bentham embarked on an ambitious plan to change the nature of punishment: his ‘Panopticon'. This was a radical prison design, where the layout was arranged to simplify one-way surveillance of the prisoners by a small number of staff, “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind”, said Bentham. His Panopticon never got off the drawing-board, but its principle of perpetual surveillance resonates to this day.

Nearly 200 years later, in 1975, the classic science fiction novel, The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner, was published. In this prescient novel, the protagonist Nick Haflinger flits between stolen identities in a dystopian future where corporate greed has run out of control. In the fashion of early phone hackers, he programmes the global network using a touch-tone phone and releases a number of network worms (a term coined by this novel).

In the finale, Haflinger's most potent worm permeates the network, automatically publicising corporate or government fraud, and redistributing wealth Robin Hood-style, subject to a public vote via the network.

These two metaphors neatly bookend the extremes of the whistleblowing culture boosted by the internet and its resistance to censorship.

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, seems to go for the ‘panopticon' view, where secrets held by governments or businesses are automatically wrong, and should be available to view by anyone (except, of course, WikiLeaks' own private documents).

Older whistleblower sites such as the independent Cryptome.org take a more restrained view, leaking only documents that they consider are of specific public interest (ironically, including internal emails from WikiLeaks). In this respect, they act more along the lines of the Shockwave Rider model, although of course your view of public interest is likely to differ from theirs, or mine.

WikiLeaks' ‘publish and be damned' policy has brought criticism from whistleblowers such as Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists (http://tinyurl.com/252ahv9), a venerable organisation that has raised hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests and spearheaded the release of significant documents.

Recently, WikiLeaks has shot to the top of the news list with the release of thousands of diplomatic messages. So far, they have generated little real scandal, but undoubtedly harmed the diplomatic process. No one wants their off-the-record comments plastered across the tabloids.

There are good and bad guys on both sides. How many people realise that the key evidence for the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal was provided by Joe Darby, a 24-year-old Army reservist? Sgt Darby is the true hero of the whole sordid affair, but is almost unheard of.

Contrary to conspiracy theory, Darby's reports were promptly investigated and acted upon by the military chain of command; cover-ups are by no means ubiquitous.

Overclassification is a long-standing problem in the military world, with massive costs for little security benefit. Ironically, one of the most immediate effects of WikiLeaks' releases has been to restrict information-sharing in the US intelligence community. One of the key failures identified after 9/11 was the problem of over-compartmentalisation, where intelligence was not shared where it should have been. Things are now swinging back to the pre-9/11 days.

While it is tempting to see WikiLeaks as a crusader against corporate greed and government oppression, in reality its releases have been a double-edged sword. By removing all pretence of a public interest disclosure policy, the site has become a clearinghouse for stolen data, regardless of its value or relevance. As recipients of leaked data, we also need to remember that all information is only as good as its context, and treat it with appropriate caution and suspicion.

In my personal opinion, we need exemplars who are more like Sgt Darby and the fictional Haflinger – and less like Julian Assange.

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