Diplomacy has always involved dinners with ruling elites, backroom deals and clandestine meetings. Now, in the digital age, the reports of all those parties and patrician chats can be collected in one enormous database. And once collected in digital form, it becomes very easy for them to be shared.
Indeed, that is why the Siprnet database – from which these US embassy cables are drawn – was created in the first place. The 9/11 commission had made the remarkable discovery that it wasn’t sharing information that had put the nation’s security at risk; it was not sharing information that was the problem. The lack of co-operation between government agencies, and the hoarding of information by bureaucrats, led to numerous “lost opportunities” to stop the 9/11 attacks. As a result, the commission ordered a restructuring of government and intelligence services to better mimic the web itself. Collaboration and information-sharing was the new ethos. But while millions of government officials and contractors had access to Siprnet, the public did not.
But data has a habit of spreading. It slips past military security and it can also leak fromWikiLeaks, which is how I came to obtain the data. It even slipped past the embargoes of the Guardian and other media organisations involved in this story when a rogue copy of Der Spiegel accidentally went on sale in Basle, Switzerland, on Sunday. Someone bought it, realised what they had, and began scanning the pages, translating them from German to English and posting updates on Twitter. It would seem digital data respects no authority, be it the Pentagon, WikiLeaks or a newspaper editor.
Individually, we have all already experienced the massive changes resulting from digitisation. Events or information that we once considered ephemeral and private are now aggregated, permanent, public. If these cables seem large, think about the 500 million users of Facebook or the millions of records kept by Google. Governments hold our personal data in huge databases. It used to cost money to disclose and distribute information. In the digital age it costs money not to.
But when data breaches happen to the public, politicians don’t care much. Our privacy is expendable. It is no surprise that the reaction to these leaks is different. What has changed the dynamic of power in a revolutionary way isn’t just the scale of the databases being kept, but that individuals can upload a copy and present it to the world. In paper form, these cables amount to some 13,969 pages, which would stack about 25m high – not something that one could have easily slipped past security in the paper age.
To some this marks a crisis, to others an opportunity. Technology is breaking down traditional social barriers of status, class, power, wealth and geography – replacing them with an ethos of collaboration and transparency.
The former US ambassador to Russia James Collins told CNN the disclosure of the cables, “will impede doing things in a normal, civilised way”. Too often what is normal and civilised in diplomacy means turning a blind eye to large-scale social injustices, corruption and abuse of power. Having read through several hundred cables, much of the “harm” is embarrassment and the highlighting of inconvenient truths. For the sake of a military base in a country, our leaders accept a brutal dictator who oppresses his population. This may be convenient in the short term for politicians, but the long-term consequences for the world’s citizens can be catastrophic.
Leaks are not the problem; they are the symptom. They reveal a disconnect between what people want and need to know and what they actually do know. The greater the secrecy, the more likely a leak. The way to move beyond leaks is to ensure a robust regime for the public to access important information.
Thanks to the internet, we have come to expect a greater level of knowledge and participation in most areas of our lives. Politics, however, has remained resolutely unreconstructed. Politicians, see themselves as parents to a public they view as children – a public that cannot be trusted with the truth, nor with the real power that knowledge brings.
Much of the outrage about WikiLeaks is not over the content of the leaks but from the audacity of breaching previously inviable strongholds of authority. In the past, we deferred to authority and if an official told us something would damage national security we took that as true. Now the raw data behind these claims is increasingly getting into the public domain. What we have seen from disclosures like MPs’ expenses or revelations about the complicity of government in torture is that when politicians speak of a threat to “national security”, often what they mean is that the security of their own position is threatened.
We are at a pivotal moment where the visionaries at the vanguard of a global digital age are clashing with those who are desperate to control what we know. WikiLeaks is the guerrilla front in a global movement for greater transparency and participation. There are projects like Ushahidi that use social networking to create maps where locals can report incidents of violence that challenge the official version of events. There are activists seeking to free official data so that citizens can see, for example, government spending in detail.
Ironically, the US state department has been one of the biggest cheerleaders for technical innovation as a means of bringing democracy to places like Iran and China. President Obama has urged repressive regimes to stop censoring the internet, yet a bill before Congress would allow the attorney general to create a blacklist of websites. Is robust democracy only good when it’s not at home?
It used to be that a leader controlled citizens by controlling information. Now it’s harder than ever for the powerful to control what people read, see and hear. Technology gives people the ability to band together and challenge authority. The powerful have long spied on citizens (surveillance) as a means of control, now citizens are turning their collected eyes back upon the powerful (sousveillance).
This is a revolution, and all revolutions create fear and uncertainty. Will we move to a New Information Enlightenment or will the backlash from those who seek to maintain control no matter the cost lead us to a new totalitarianism? What happens in the next five years will define the future of democracy for the next century, so it would be well if our leaders responded to the current challenge with an eye on the future.
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