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December 28, 2010

The Power of Information: A Critique of Privacy, Wikileaks and Recent Events

The recent explosion of Wikileaks and Cablegate has yet again brought the unique power of information to the forefront of the world’s attention. What makes this different from the usual ‘knowledge is power’ debate, is that it highlights the sensitive balance between those wishing to reveal information to the world, and those who, for whatever reason, want to prevent that from happening. Historically it was the role of investigative journalists to look into the activities of companies and governments, however due to the high costs of long-term investigative stories, political affiliations, the chance of government gag orders, and the threat of lawsuits, these have been in decline. It is not only massive government-focused leaks that have been gagged in the past, smaller journalists and even individuals have been prevented from legally reporting or capturing an event.

A real-world, non-digital example of this ongoing battle is one regularly fought by photographers around the world. Photos and videos have the ability to capture and convey information unlike any other medium, and in most cases can be understood by anyone irrespective of language or education. A single image, unlike written articles which must be read and understood, can tell the viewer what they need to know in a single glance. This is why the Collateral Murder (video) leak of a U.S. Apache helicopter killing innocent Iraqis was so effective at spreading across the world. A purely written account of that incident could have gone unnoticed.

It’s for this reason that law-abiding photographers and videographers are harassed on a regular basis by authorities – it’s the fear that they will capture something they don’t want shared with the rest of the world. I posted about one incident a few months back about two photojournalists being thrown out of the Miami metro for legally taking photos and video footage. The police have gotten involved for even more mundane situations. In most developed countries any photographer, registered or not, has the right to take and distribute photographs that are taken on public property (taking into account local laws), and it helps to know those rights and stand up for them.

Clearly Wikileaks’ leaked videos and cables are not public property, and whether you are pro-disclosure or not, the underlying issue remains the same. Wikileaks is releasing information that the U.S. government does not want world to see. Now, instead of photographers’ rights, people are talking about journalists’ rights which are fairly well protected around the world. The U.S. seems to think that Wikileaks’ Editor-in-Chief, Julian Assange, has broken Espionage laws by publishing this information, however these claims would place the rest of the media and journalistic field into hot water as well, as they rely on the same rights when publishing controversial content. Many people are calling it shameful that the mainstream media has done such a poor job of outing the lies and coverups of governments around the world. This is possibly because mainstream media almost always has a stake in politics these days. We’ve also seen the likes of Amazon, MasterCard and Bank of America shut out Wikileaks based on what they say is a conflict with their terms of service – yet they continue to provide service for far shadier groups. The result? Groups such as Anonymous have sprung up in the defence of Wikileaks, in the name of freedom of information and transparency, going as far as carrying out vigilante-style DDoS attacks on those opposing Wikileaks and Assange.

So why all the fuss all of a sudden? Privacy is a fragile thing, and over the past five years there has been an increasing amount of advocates, myself included, warning of the microscopic but relentless erosion of privacy due to the evolution of technology, the monetization of personal data, information-based online services, and governments seeking to further monitor and control the population (under the pretext of ‘Terrorism’). Everyone talks of the UK becoming a Big Brother-style surveillance society thanks to the seemingly rabbit-like reproduction of CCTV cameras, and privacy-busting legislation such as RIPA. The U.S. has also been pushing the envelope with things like the Patriot Act, more domestic and international wiretapping, confiscating computers and copying information at the borders, and now the much maligned bodyscanners.

It was most unclear what individuals could do to protect themselves from the encroachment on their civil liberties and, in reality, many people simply didn’t care yet. It seems as though the ice has begun to crack, and we’re starting to see the tip of the iceberg (no pun intended), of the upcoming backlash from the people. First a (belated) outcry about the use of bodyscanners, and now waves of supporters defending Wikileaks and what it stands for. Note that I italicized those words, as there are some who may question Wikileaks’ methods in distributing this material, yet understand that a significant battle is being waged around the freedom of information, and of the individual. What we’re seeing is actually a synergetic amalgamation of people with two distinct mindsets, pro-privacy and pro-information, and this is what makes the current movement so powerful.

The unfortunate target in this case is the U.S. government, who is having its own privacy shattered, and dirty laundry aired for all to see (in the name of freedom of information). Although there has been an outcry – particularly from politicans (who are essentially under attack), pro-government outlets (that have a stake in the current government), and some Americans who are concerned that this information may endanger the country and its troops – there has been far more support for Wikileaks’ cause. Some of that support comes not from people who care about the information being released, but from those who object to the techniques being employed in an attempt to shut it down: an international man-hunt, calls for assassination, pressure on American and international companies, and even foreign governments.

In my opinion, a couple of things could now happen. Either the U.S. governments somehow succeeds at making Julian Assange the scapegoat and convicts him of espionage (or otherwise eliminates him), changing the face of journalism and freedom of speech/information – or – Wikileaks will prevail, and we’ll enter a new era where governments (and companies) are aware that ‘the people’ will hold them accountable for their actions, and responsible whistleblowing will become more accepted. Note that in the first scenario the balance of power moves, even further, onto the side of the government and large corporations. In the second, that balance is evened out somewhat. In no scenario do we end up in a society where the people have the power. None of this restores our individual privacy, but it does send out the message that principled individuals and the population are willing to keep an eye on the governments of the world, and have the right to hold them accountable for unlawful or immoral actions.

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