Friday, March 09, 2007

Untraceable document leaking service

I am sceptical about this "uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis". The site, called Wikileaks, has yet to go live but its launch, rather delightfully, was leaked. Its organisers state:
Our primary interests are oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the west who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their own governments and corporations.
First, the claim of untraceability sounds dodgy. I really hope nobody in real danger suffers because of some half-cocked bunch of Mr Verlocs, Comrade Ossipons and Karl Yundts living in safety. Second, the feasibility of defending an untraceable, uncensorable site from spam and nonsense without removing its ease of use for genuine leakers is at least unproven. The reason why Wikipedia works is because the incentive for vandalism is, in the end, pretty low and the likelihood of other users using the widely available information that Wikipedia deals in to correct any vandalism is high. This will not necessarily be the case with Wikileaks. Third, the claim of having over a million documents ready to publish before the project has gone online sounds worryingly high. If they are just going to dump huge amounts of low grade material on the site then security risks may result from people ill-advisedly trying to bring attention to genuinely important information they have dribbled into this vast lake. The reader would also have a problem with an undigested mountain of material on the site, of course. Good processing and analysis of submissions might get around this pitfall. All the foregoing problems, in fact, could be avoided or minimised by excellent implementation and the people doing this site seem to be taking themselves seriously so the project might not fall on its face immediately. However, my last two reasons for scepticism are more fundamental:

  • The Wikileaks idea seems to rest on an adolescent idea that all information in all circumstances is best set free. It also seems to rest on simplistic political and economic views of the world, which do not admit of complexity, moral difficulty and greyness. Just by way of illustration, is there going to be a way of taking back information - depublishing it - that it turns out seriously harms an innocent individual? How are they going to decide on this?
  • The possible uses of such a site, if it were feasible, for manipulation by people with mendacious purposes seem legion.

I say all this as someone who generally finds himself supporting whistle blowers and truth tellers. I believe in confronting the secretive reflexes of the state and many commercial interests. When a whistle blower tries to publish information now, he or she often has to interact with a commercialistic and corrupt journalistic world in which the interests of the leaker are sometimes secondary to the political and other agendas of the publisher. However, I would say this and it is not fashionable to accept the limited import of this type of observation amongst the Comrade Ossipons of the internet, the leaker is usually dealing with a professional with some ethical standards, some journalistic competence and some moral connection to the person they are handling, to others affected by the information that they are trying to leak and, dare I say it, to the truth. There are numerous nasty examples of it going horribly wrong in this pre-Henry Ford model of sensitive information release but I have a feeling that an attempt to automate it could be a lot more gruesome.

Please don't mistake this grumbling for a journalist getting worried about citizen-journalists stealing his job. Journalists will love this site. If it works at all, they will thrive on its alienated, anonymous public tip-offs, without the current complicating private ethical entanglements with their sources. I just feel that some people may be badly hurt by the whole thing. There is rather an insignificant secondary concern that the discrediting of such a naive project might harm the broader and extremely exciting movement for freer information embodied in things like Wikipedia. I hope not and if it were to work without doing harm I would eat my hat and applaud it loudly.

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