“Sunshine is a great disinfectant,” transparency advocates love to quip. It’s a solid metaphor. However, in my opinion, when the folks at WikiLeaks force transparency, we’re talking about a lot more than sunshine. We’re talking about being bound in the desert sun against one’s will.
Last week’s WikiLeaks disclosures of a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables sent ripples through nearly every corner of government, media, business and elsewhere. Just wait until the next batch of disclosures occur. We know that corporate leaks are coming. Businesses had better be ready.
Implications of future WikiLeaks disclosures (as well as the eventual copycats it will spawn) are far reaching. It’s probably far too soon to have a firm handle on all of the effects. Thus, what follows are initial thoughts on implications based on some of the best perspectives I’ve read so far (many of which are captured through links throughout.)
Like informational IEDs, these damaging revelations can be detonated at will.
In my view, that’s what makes WikiLeaks especially dangerous. It’s not a static repository server where people dump secret documents. Assange and his team have the sole power to hit “publish” or to ignore what they receive. Only they know when that button will be pushed. There are many moral hazards here:
- WikiLeaks can move markets. What is to stop WikiLeaks team members – or friends-of-friends – from shorting stocks a day or two before a major leak?
- WikiLeaks is not accountable. Assange is shadowy; the people who work for him have yet to cast even a shadow. If their informational IEDs do cause undue harm, what happens? They shrug? One writer in The Economist calls the recent release a “poor editorial decision” and recommends “an ethical review board.” Was the decision editorial? By what measures would a review board hold this group accountable? Who watches the Watchmen?
- Who died and made Assange boss? In this interview with Time magazine, Assange asserts: “…It is not our goal to achieve a more transparent society; it’s our goal to achieve a more just society.” Should one person or organization have the power to damage governments or corporations based on a singular view of what is and is not just?
- WikiLeaks is not omnipotent. It believes the latest cable disclosures did not harm soldiers. Some disagree and believe the leaks have done major damage, such as The Washington Post’s columnist Charles Krauthammer. Example:
Take just one revelation among hundreds: The Yemeni president and deputy prime minister are quoted as saying that they’re letting the United States bomb al-Qaeda in their country, while claiming that the bombing is the government’s doing. Well, that cover is pretty well blown. And given the unpopularity of the Sanaa government’s tenuous cooperation with us in the war against al-Qaeda, this will undoubtedly limit our freedom of action against its Yemeni branch, identified by the CIA as the most urgent terrorist threat to U.S. security.
- By design, WikiLeaks enjoys very crafty legal protection. Assange’s servers are housed in very specific areas of the world, according to The Economist, in order to create “a legal structure that allows him to answer only to his own conscience.” What other person or organization enjoys that level of power?
- What if the information WikiLeaks doesn’t post gets used inappropriately? Let’s not forget that the people at WikiLeaks have raw documents that they (sometimes) redact or choose not to publish. What if WikiLeaks gets hacked? What if someone at WikiLeaks sells or uses that data inappropriately, perhaps for nefarious purposes? How do these hazards remain in check?
- What are the origins of what Julian Assange has become? These two paragraphs from David Brooks’ op-ed in The New York Times paint a fairly interesting picture:
Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, had moved 37 times by the time he reached his 14th birthday. His mother didn’t enroll him in the local schools because, as Raffi Khatchadourian wrote in a New Yorker profile, she feared “that formal education would inculcate an unhealthy respect for authority.”
She needn’t have worried. As a young computer hacker, he formed a group called International Subversives. As an adult, he wrote “Conspiracy as Governance,” a pseudo-intellectual online diatribe. He talks of vast “patronage networks” that constrain the human spirit.
Far from respecting authority, Assange seems to be an old-fashioned anarchist who believes that all ruling institutions are corrupt and public pronouncements are lies.
- What drives Assange and WikiLeaks? We know that Assange likes “crushing bastards” and in that pursuit has jeopardized Afghan military informants’ lives. This raises an interesting question – if WikiLeaks receives highly incriminating information on an activist group, a junk science benefactor or a labor union, will it apply the same dogged vigilence against those — ahem — “bastards?”
- Naiveté? In an interview with Time magazine, Assange does not seem to leave any grey area in his view that “…organizations can either be efficient, open and honest, or they can be closed, conspiratorial and inefficient.” Really? There’s only A or B, Julian?
Repercussions of unprofessionalism. Some coverage of WikiLeaks does not exactly inspire confidence that this organization can responsibly handle its own load.
- Sloppiness. In this article in The Wall Street Journal, we learn that the WikiLeaks people can be sloppy: in just two hours of searching the Times of London found specific information on Afghan informants despite Assange’s assertion that documents were withheld to keep people from harm.
- Stretched? Faced with additional criticism from human rights groups on the situation, Assange asked for their help in redacting documents. Thus, we’ve also learned that WikiLeaks may not have ample resources.
Public vs. private sector. As WikiLeaks moves its crosshairs from governments to corporations, we need to be mindful of the differences between secret/confidential information between the two sectors.
- Less cover for corporations. Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, points out that corporations mostly “can’t claim that they need to keep information private for national security reasons.” Pinkham also wisely counsels today’s corporation to be mindful of forced transparency by “explaining clearly to employees and other stakeholders why they are doing anything that could be considered controversial.”
- Proprietary information at risk? Competitive industries in free markets, by their nature, must keep some of the jewels hidden. Although many have suggested that these disclosures is not what Assange is after, this could very well be collateral damage of such leaks.
Disproportionate attention to bad apples. Here’s my original contribution to the list above. I’ve worked with many, many organizations on sensitive issues. Often, an organization’s leadership and values are properly placed, but crises ensue when a few “bad actors” go off the script. As corporate information gets exposed on WikiLeaks, there may (or may not) be any way to know if these disclosures represent an aborted project, a “skunkworks project” that would never get approval, or if a situation is a result of non-compliance. WikiLeaks may knowingly or unknowingly disclose these types of “good company/bad apple” types of situations. In those cases, will the media or the public keep that perspective in mind when disclosures occur? Probably not. Is that just?
Where do we go from here? Are there key lessons and advice to dispense at this time? Yes. There have been posts that highlight that what WikiLeaks presents is a world where everything is discoverable. Some are providing reminders for the need to end to corporate wrongdoing, and re-instill some values with the employee populace. There have been articles on how companies can prepare for a WikiLeaks-like disclosure.
Of course, these ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. Watch this space. I know I will be.
Want to contribute your ideas? I’d love to hear from you.
Editor note: Given that WikiLeaks has been bouncing around different servers and may not survive, the link above is the Wikipedia summary. I did not pointedly omit the link.
Dec. 8 update: Following are several links with important updates or new perspectives on the topic, presented here chronologically:
- L. Gordon Crovitz’ piece in the WSJ (subscription) reports that “Assange is misunderstood in the media and among digirati as an advocate of transparency.” Later, Crovitz asserts “His central plan is that leaks will restrict the flow of information among officials—‘conspirators’ in his view—making government less effective.”
- Richard Cohen’s op-ed in The Washington Post contains this interesting nugget: “Total transparency produces total opaqueness. If everything’s open, no one says anything.”
- Andy Greenberg’s blog post on Forbes introduces us to the new public face of WikiLeaks, Kristinn Hrafnsson, of which little more is known.
- Crisis management pro Jonathan Bernstein provides a very good list of the reasons leaks typically occur in the first place on this HuffPo blog post. He also echoes the sentiments of many others when he says “I am also dismayed that it was possible for so many documents to be compromised.”
- Finally, Andy Greenberg continues his terrific coverage of this subject by offering this account of “Operation: Payback,” which is the growing vigilante fan club of Assange and the catalyst behind the denial-of-service hacker attacks against Visa and Mastercard.
Dec. 18 Update: I’ve extended the implications in a newer blog post, which can be found here.