Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Making sense of Wikileaks and what it means for Government

Two very different men spent much of December in prison. What links these two is not just their incarceration (by Chinese and the UK courts) but because they have, in their own way, been accused of challenging the power of the state.

Liu Xiaobo is the spokesperson for political reforms in China, a campaigner for human rights including the freedom of speech and of the press. He recently won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for his long and non-violent struggle despite being held as a political prisoner in the People’s Republic.
Julian Assange is the figurehead for Wikileaks, a website that has recently released more than 250,000 diplomatic cables (internal emails) that have embarrassed and angered the US Government. He spent much of December pacing around a small stone room in Wandsworth prison.
Both men are heads of movements that some say subvert the very fabric that is needed to hold governments and society together. Others say these men stand as the standard-bearers of the one thing Governments can no longer hold onto... information.
Viruses such as colds (or something nastier) are usually spread by humans coming into contact or near contact with other humans. Typically the bigger the population, the more and faster the virus is spread.

Information can therefore be seen as having the same properties as a virus, a pretty virulent one! It used to just utilise humans as hosts, but with each successive technology from books onwards it can infect more people, more efficiently and more effectively. Once man could write down and copy information, it could be given to others, and now with the Internet and the social media technologies that sit upon it, information can be spread globally, instantly.
The speed and scale of information transference now creates big problems for those organisations who want to restrict it, typically Governments. Huge amounts of data can now be copied onto media the size of a fingernail or transferred at megabit speed. Secrets that would previously be accessed by a handful of individuals are no longer secret for very long if that system can allow the replication of the information virus (e.g. by having it collected to the Internet or by allowing any form of electronic copying from it). For example: The recently leaked cables of Wikileaks were apparently taken off a computer that allowed compact discs to be updated, which meant a single disgruntled American security operative could copy the information to his Lady Gaga CD!
So what do Governments do about this? Well, I think they have three options;

1. Continue to do what they have been doing so far (ongoing treatment). This means they do nothing drastic and carry on trying to lock down access and copying ability of computers that have access to secret information. However, given the viral nature of information, this will no-doubt mean there will be further breaches in the future. Just like trying to prevent the common cold, this situation becomes futile and acceptance of the situation results in regular infection. It’s also likely that reoccurrence of the situation will result in the eroding of trust in Western Governments and those they work with.

2. Be heavy-handed about data breaches (quarantine). Although Julian Assange’s stint in prison is not as a direct result of his Wikileaks activity (he’s accused of sexual offences in Sweden), only a few would doubt that there aren’t forces at work behind the scenes to try and get him to a court in the USA for ‘Cablegate’. However, it is possible for America and others to adopt a more zero-tolerance approach to those who compromise their information security boundaries. After all, it has had a stricter approach to terrorism (Guantanamo Bay anyone?) than it does for other crimes (the courts, right to legal counsel, etc.). However, adopting more Chinese-type approaches has huge potential human rights consequences and is definitely not the activity of a modern and progressive Government.

3. Understand and adapt (look for a cure). This is not the 1900’s, it’s the Information Age. Wikileaks may have caused an example to have been made of Mr Assange (especially if he does get carted-off to the USA to face trial), but also gives the ideal opportunity for self-reflection about the storage, treatment and classification of what exactly should be considered secret in a digital world.

The openness and transparency of the ‘modern always-connected’ organisation is a reality that companies and brands have had to accept in recent times. Is it not the time for our Governments to do the same?

Hopefully, before evryone goes Gaga!
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