Privacy in the time of WikiLeaks

Privacy in the time of WikiLeaks

Perhaps because it is interesting to the media, and because of the high profile of many of the actors involved, the world is staring agog at the WikiLeaks story. Over the past four years, the organization has shared an assortment of classified videos and other forms of information over the Internet. It has taken the high moral ground, suggesting that sharing such information is in public interest and its actions are intended to force errant governments to improve their act.

The legal and moral validity of such a position is somewhat ambiguous. There are a number of questions that need to be debated when such claims are made. The first is whether any organization can appoint itself an arbiter of other people’s secrecy, particularly when it is not itself accountable to anyone. Second, while the leaks have been active in their disclosures about the activities of Western democratic governments, most notably the US, there have been few exposures about other, less democratic countries. This can lead to the conclusion that WikiLeaks can attack transparent, democratic societies more easily than opaque, authoritarian ones. It can also at times complicate the already challenging task that large democracies have in maintaining their internal and external relations.

Besides, the WikiLeaks episode blurs one important distinction. What was publicised was, in many cases, really personal discussions among civil or military officers. In its release of cables, WikiLeaks does not seem to have made the distinction between official reports of the government (which some citizens may claim they have a right to see), and personal views of individual officers shared in the course of their duties (where they undoubtedly retain the right to their privacy). Needless to say, most spheres of human activity require an element of negotiation and transaction. There may well be situations where the effective conclusion of such activities requires privacy. Given that many of the countries where WikiLeaks has found wide support are also ones where personal privacy is strictly protected, it seems contradictory that its supporters, who benefit from this protection, do not wish to offer the same to government functionaries.

On the other hand, the US government and some of its representatives have also not helped their own case by reacting to the leaks in somewhat extreme terms. Among these, the claim that the lives of many were placed at risk has not been widely accepted, given that this argument has been used in less credible situations, including in 1971 when the so-called Pentagon Papers were released through a similar leak. At the time, these arguments had been rejected by several US courts. Instead of this rhetoric, the government would do better to make a strong case for fighting technology with technology to prevent further leaks. Equally, and if permitted by law, it could file lawsuits against all parties to these leaks and pursue these strongly. Government credibility will be best demonstrated if WikiLeaks is treated fairly according to the law, neither more so because it has fashionable Internet supporters, nor less so because it seems to have taken on a government.

This is not to suggest that illegal or unethical acts should not be brought to public notice, through either whistleblowers or the Internet. But the credibility of such efforts would be enhanced if they were carried out in a systematic and legally defensible manner. The US or European courts (not the media or social groups on the Internet) should be the ones to decide whether WikiLeaks crossed a line in the digital sand.

If, after this incident, governments feel that the Internet’s spirit of “anything goes" is unacceptable, they would be well within their rights to strengthen current laws—an act that will usually require some form of public debate —and if successful, make further leaks an offence.

Govind Sankaranarayanan is chief financial officer and chief operating officer, corporate affairs, Tata Capital. He writes on issues of governance.

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