WikiLeaks and the death of private information

By Mandy De Waal 8 December 2010

Just as water runs downstream, data moves from a private to a public space and wants to be replicated. That’s the view of Marc Smith, an academic, author and expert on the structure of internet social media. Smith says WikiLeaks’ real lesson is that the age of private information will soon be over as content cannot stay obscured for long. By MANDY DE WAAL.

If the US state department can’t keep information private, who can? That’s the question social scientist Marc Smith asks as WikiLeaks announces it will continue releasing US embassy cables despite frontman Julian Assange being arrested on charges of rape and molestation brought against him by two Swedish women.

Some people have argued information “wants to be free”; others reply that information “wants to be expensive”. But Smith’s argument is that information “wants to be copied”. “Information is a lot like DNA which seems to have only one thing on its mind and that is more copies of itself. Information may be a lot like DNA in that its teleology is reproduction.”

A sociologist studying computer-mediated collective action, inventor of NodeXL, and author of Communities in Cyberspace, Smith says no matter how strong the encryption or the security, it is only as strong as the weakest link. In the case of WikiLeaks’ war logs the weakest link was Private Manning. “There is always going to be a Private Manning which will make it virtually impossible to keep data private,” says Smith.

Smith says one of the biggest threats to the security of data is technological progress. “Any form of digital security you are promised today really can’t be very long-lived,” says Smith. “If I look at my first computer, no matter what it did to encrypt something, 20 years have passed and I am sure my iPhone could break any encryption that old machine created. Eventually private bits, even when encrypted, become public because the march of computing power makes their encryption increasingly trivial to break.”

WikiLeaks indicates a future where data can and will be coercively exposed. “Nothing can be fenced or protected, and I am not entirely delighted by this. The idea that information is not going to be public is just a foolish expectation. What Assange is telling us is no information is private and that’s not good news,” says Smith.

“There has to be an erosion in the very tools of communication now. Diplomats are all going to drop that BlackBerry as if it was hot, knowing that anything they say through any machine is likely to show up again. What has happened with WikiLeaks is a sign that there is no such thing as private.” Smith says that there are two future outcomes for all information. The one is oblivion and the other is public. “There won’t be any choices between the two, and what we are seeing is that private is a temporary condition.”

On the matter of Assange’s motivations, Smith, a distinguished visiting scholar at the Media-X Program at Stanford University, says the WikiLeaks founder is an individual who is acting without oversight or any kind of public endorsement. “Assange isn’t that democratic an actor. He didn’t ask the American people if they thought what WikiLeaks was about to do was a good idea and I don’t think he’s all that interested in what is good for the American people. This is not a selfless, non-violent protest kind of guy.”

Smith says while he is attracted to the content in the same way he is attracted to viewing the injured at a car accident, he’s not sure the attraction is all about the right reasons. “I don’t think this is behaviour that aligns with democratic ideals. Assange is acting unilaterally and without any institutional support. There was no referendum and no building of a movement. This is very much a unilateral, super-empowered individual and, as a result, it is not that different from other people who have used technology in a unilateral way.”

Then there’s the matter of Assange’s stockpile of information and the threat of this possibly being “let loose” if he is harmed. “The idea that Assange has a big stock pile of disclosures and has every intent of letting them loose one after the other reveals that his political agenda is anarchism. He has argued as much. This in a technical sense is that Assange is looking for those mechanisms that will cause damage to centralised authority. I could find some sympathy with this in theory, but less so in practice. It is clear that the sudden dissolution of central authority is in fact not a particularly good agenda from a peace, stability and lack of violence perspective.

“Assange’s political philosophy is ‘let the chips fall where they may’ because there is this original sin and it is to blame. In Assange’s view he is merely revealing this. I think he is being disingenuous and is causing potential harm. Even if it is argued this harm is offset by good, he is choosing unilaterally to make these decisions without any democratic process.”

Smith argues Assange has technical might, and is using this might as if it was right. “The fact that Assange seems small is not a justification for the unilateral use of force. He is a will-to-power actor doing because he can. He is not a consensus-building truth monger. I think this undermines him and leaves him very vulnerable. To the extent that the major world powers use their unilateral force, why is his use of force any more or less legitimate than theirs?” DM

Read more: The Guardian Live News Blog on the US diplomatic cable leaks, The rush to smear Assange’s rape accuser on Salon, Christopher Hitchens’ article “The WikiLeaks founder is an unscrupulous megalomaniac with a political agenda” on Slate, and everything about WikiLeaks at The New York Times.

Photo: Marc Smith, a distinguished visiting scholar at Stanford University who studies computer-mediated collective action. Photo: Korean National Information Agency.


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