What a Kafuffle (old English word) Wikileaks has caused. Governments are moaning and getting quite aggressive, activists are up in arms and getting quite aggressive, the media are stoking it up and getting more excited than aggressive – all wonderful stuff. People are taking sides and the noise of opinion, dissent, anger and outrage is pumped up to maximum volume. But regardless of whether Wikileaks is a good thing or not, whether Julian Assange et al are the new media Messiahs or Cyber-Satans, the whole notion of what Wikileaks represents and the impact of this new ‘cost-effective political action’ is worthwhile pondering.
Is the phenomena anything new? The capability to issue confidential information to a global audience – leak – has been gathering pace since the internet became a mainstream interactive information platform, or Web 2.0. Wikileaks itself is in fifth year and had garnered over one million documents within its first year. And as a phenomenon, the are other organisations akin to Wikileaks such as the Chaos Computer Club, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and more recently openleaks and tradeleaks. Being an information guerilla is suddenly all the rage. But that’s the thing – it’s not new, it’s just become fashionable and has gained prominence in the mind of the public, despite being a fundamental part of the developing networked world. To those in smeared or embarrassed governments who have been shocked and surprised by this phenomenon, the question must be asked, where have you been for the last few years? And where they, and many of us, have been, to paraphrase BBC’s Bill Thompson, is ‘calling forth the network age, whilst carrying on in our daily lives as if nothing has really changed’. Wikileaks and all it entails is a fundamental and immutable fact of life in the 21st century information environment – that’s just the way it is going to be, rightly or wrongly. And alongside that will come a general recognition that information, whilst always a powerful tool, has become a lot easier to wield to massive effect, not only by governments and corporate behemoths but by the common man, sometimes called the ‘Whistleblower’.
Alongside this potential information tsunami, is the issue of privacy. What the Wikileaks phenomenon is doing for secrecy and privacy of diplomatic information (and let’s not forget also of corporate information) may have repercussions on personal privacy and our view of it. Facebook, wifi networks, internet purchasing, personal databases, google streetview etc have come under scrutiny regarding the breaching of personal privacy. If mighty governments cannot protect really important classified stuff what hope for me and my bank details? Undoubtedly many computer security consultants are already licking the lips in preparation for cyber-fortresses to be built to protect information. Despite the fact that it is a human being, not a machine at the core of leaking, via the internet or otherwise, will general concern generate universal measures over time which will drive the information environment back to the 1980s? Remember when there was no wifi, no USB memory sticks, no internet in workplaces, you still bought stuff using real money not electronic transfer? Are we heading back that way?
Perhaps not completely, but there will be no doubt some sizeable shifts as the potent mix of wikileakmania and IT security bubbles up. And then there’s cyber-warfare. The Chinese are often accused of being a menace in cyber-space, or the Russians when they close down It infrastructures of tiny Baltic states. Yet the activist backlash against suppression of Wikileaks – attacking Paypal, Visa etc – has highlighted another potent threat, one spawned and aided by a positive internet-age outcome: collaborative networking. Through collaboration, focussed around a passionate cause, a mighty army of computer-literate operatives, from Delhi to Dallas, can present a cyber-threat that maybe even the Chinese may baulk at. This may be slightly far-fetched but does indicate that cyber-conflict is not the preserve of governments or the occasional lone-wolf hacker and powerful counterinsurgencies have the potential to cause huge effect not only in cyber-space but on our daily lives.
The stuff that is being released by Wikileaks is undoubtedly of interest and in some cases has strategic significance, but is not necessarily all that shocking. What may be more of a shock is where the consequences of the Wikileaks phenomenon takes us.