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HELP: The WIKI* leaks (or how the Small Brother is Watching You)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Like everyone I follow with interest the latest social and mainstream media hype around the publication of classified diplomatic documents in the WIKILEAKS** the whistleblower site of Julian Assange. Although in this blog I do not usually discuss political topics I think that the social media element and the technology dimensions of this affair are interesting enough to discuss here, hoping to add something in this ongoing debate: at this moment more than a week after the publication of the documents more than 50 posts about the subject are posted every minute in Twitter alone.

To begin with, I do not think that any technology insider or any government for that matter was taken really by surprise with these leaks and the world wide publicity that followed, not only online but mainly through the mainstream media. Leaks of classified documents have happened before. Getting hold on top secret documents is after all the oldest and most popular activity of moles and spies. As far as I know it is also not the first time an insider misappropriated or made publicly available such documents either because of idealism or for money. The Wikileaks is also well known from previous high profile cases of “whistleblowing”.

The magnitude and effect of the leaks should not surprise anyone either today; we live in an era where the combination of two factors has changed the power balance in the markets (and increasingly in the political arena) as to the generation and control of information.
The first is fact of the customer (and citizen) empowerment. One thing I keep repeating - together with other like-minded colleagues - to my students and business people whenever I get the chance is that the time of the closed business model is fading away while the absolute corporate control on commercial communication and the time of secrecy is over. The customer (or the citizen / Small Brother for that matter) is today in control of the information and the medium; I refer to the Social Media domain of course. Businesses (and governments) should better understand this and introduce openness in their strategy; talk honestly about product quality and problems as about corporate governance, financial or political blunders instead of trying to cover them up.
The customer / citizen will eventually find out and the corporation / government will have to deal with the consequences.
The second factor, closely related with the first, is the democratization of technology, one of the social effects of the Web 2.0 era. This means that while in the old days a leak would be of small scale and could be contained quickly and effectively if the main source of the leak was located and silenced, today a leak through a blog or a wiki can take global proportions in hours and containment is by all means impossible. It is the same thing like a dissatisfied customer in the past who would express his feelings to 10-12 others (according to the pre-Internet Marketing conventional wisdom) but now can express it to millions.  And while an old fashion spy or mole could maybe use a miniature camera like those we know from the James Bond films to photograph a few pieces of sensitive material and smuggle it with danger of his life, their modern equivalent can download several terabytes of secret information is a few seconds and send it everywhere with the click of a mouse.
What is now the takeaway from the Wikileaks case? Is the empowered citizen a bad thing?
Drawing a parallel with the empowered customer I would argue that this is not bad at all. Informed customers are (or should be) very welcome by smart companies who place quality, service and relationship building through engagement and collaboration at the top of their strategic priorities (unlike those who see mainly the shareholder value as their strategic mantra). Informed citizens could be more involved in the political process and make better voting decisions.
Could governments accept the empowered citizen and introduce more openness in their international affaires? Much harder for them since diplomacy and international politics are areas of top secrecy since the times of the Babylonian kings. Considering that what happened to the US with Wikileaks can happen with any other country I suppose that the reaction of most governments will be further sharpening of security of sensitive information with more screening and new technologies. Yet I do not think that there is any 100% effective way to protect information so maybe the best to do in order to achieve this is to do a step back in time: From word processing and email to return to the typewriter and the diplomatic mail without electronic copies!  It my sound funny but I am serious; it is maybe the most effective means of protection against leaks of such proportion.
As to my personal opinion about the leaks I have a double feeling here. I am a supporter of openness and citizen empowerment but in this case the timing was bad. In times of environmental, human, financial and economic crises like the ones we go through we need more international cooperation than ever before to address these challenges. In that respect I would not be very happy to see another major diplomatic crisis erupting making the international relations and international cooperation even more difficult. One thing we learned from these leaks as citizens is an inside look in the real world of diplomacy that helps us better understanding  why international relations are sometimes so difficult.

As to Julian Assange and anyone else possibly involved in the leak, opinions about them are divided, depending on who is talking. Are they villains or heroes? For one thing the Internet establishment in the US did everything possible to silence the Wikileaks that now is living a nomadic life in different European Internet addresses. I find it difficult to pass a judgment without knowing the whole story and mainly the motives of those involved. I see this incident though as another milestone in the process towards a more open society and maybe as a chance for more open and sincere international diplomacy. Like businesses the governments could seize this incident as an opportunity for improvement of their “services”, their communication to their citizens and improvement of the world in the end. I hope the US administration will deal with this problem in an open and constructive manner, something that many people who believe in Barak Obama expect to see.

* Wiki is a Web 2.0 enabling technology, known mostly from Wikipedia. Wiki is a technology allowing the interactive creation and editing of content.
** In strict technical terms Wikileaks is not a Wiki* but a blog.
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