Thursday, 2 December 2010

Wikileaks is Personal

I'm a (cowardly?) fence sitter when it comes to the latest Wikileaks data dump. I neither think it is the most treasonous evil thing to happen, but neither do I think it is the greatest evolution of information freedom ever.

I do think that Wikileaks is a natural reaction to the excesses (perceived or otherwise) of western governments since 9/11. But like all reactions to excesses in one direction, it often is excessive in another. Extreme circumstances tend to produce extreme counter-reactions. It is a sign that a natural "balance" is out of whack.

The argument used to justify the leaks is that "Governments are too secretive". This perspective views governments as faceless entities that are a supernatural power to themselves. But this ignores that governments are made up of people, many people that are employees, whose service is a daily job, a paycheck. It is one thing to hold our publicly elected officials accountable, but it starts to slide into a grey area when we expose the employees of the government.

One aspect of human activity that we all take for granted is some degree of privacy in our communications with our peers, our managers and our subordinates. Our psychology is deeply rooted in the concept of confidence, trust, privacy and forgetfulness. Even though electronic communications are often archived for an indefinite period, we still assume that they will not be brought back out and used against us at a later date. We certainly do not assume that the whole world will be able to review what we say.

Wikileaks is stomping all over these intrinsic assumptions we have in our communications. Many view these as rights, and protest loudly when private communications are brought into the light of day, sometimes many years after the communications happen. This is an aspect of the modern digital age that society has not yet fully come to terms with. For those that celebrate when someone else's communications are shared with the entire world, they had better be prepared to celebrate when it is their turn.

This is not a problem with Wikileaks, or rather it is not a problem Wikileaks has created, the same issue exists with the major search engines such as Google, Yahoo, Bing etc. The common saying is, "Google never forgets", and that has profound implications in human society. Effects which we are now exploring with the data dumps Wikileaks is releasing. For more on the ramifications of this, Chris explored this more in depth here.

If this trend continues, I am concerned about a possible chilling effect this will have in the civil service. There are already possible issues with recruitment in Canada, the low pay, high stress and stifling effect of certain government policies are already scaring off qualified candidates. With the sunshine list disclosing your salary, efforts to review your online activity on government computers, and now a push to disclose all electronic communications, employment in the service of our government is looking less and less attractive.

If this personal price becomes too high, we will chase away the best and the brightest, and then who will be willing to serve?


ADHR said...

This seems a bit tenuous to me. So far, Wikileaks hasn't exposed anything personal (AFAIK, anyway). It's all about government officials doing government business. And that is something we should know about -- the presumption has to be in favour of disclosure, unless there is pressing reason otherwise.

To be fair, there are dumps -- or were, at least -- back in the Wikileaks archives which were not directed at government activity. (The exposure of Scientology documents, for example.) But, again, I don't recall them being anything that could reasonably be considered personal -- documents where a presumption of privacy could reasonably be held to exist.

Besides, I tend to think the chilling effect on the bureaucracy/civil service has more to do with the same factors that are thinning the ranks of, say, educators: poor pay, long work hours, lousy work conditions, little prestige. If those didn't hold, I'm not sure disclosing emails or other communications would matter.

Catelli said...

It isn't the personal data, it is the personal expectations of privacy while doing government work. While doing your job, people assume that their communications will have a limit in how far they are disseminated. We all might accept that more people than intended will read an e-mail (or cable), but we have natural expectations that define the type of group, usually peers and others involved in the discussion at hand.

Very few people can truly live under the microscope where their every move is judged from without.

Ken Breadner said...

Catelli, I meant to get back to this last night and didn't, nice post.
I think the game is changing. We're living in a culture that increasingly values information sharing. The younger you are, the more likely "privacy" is either a null word or the punchline to some kind of cheap joke. Who wants privacy? I mean, isn't the goal to become famous on YouTube?
It's not that young people don't understand the dangers of sharing information online, it's that they don't care. And they are demanding that their elders stop caring, and stop conducting business (government and otherwise) under a cloak of privacy. Naive? Of course...but only until the paradigm shifts. And it's shifting.

Catelli said...

All I can say is, I'm glad I'm rapidly turning into an old fart. The generation after me/us can deal with this.

I wonder what is happening to the shy and introverted, is it even harder for them to participate in society now? Or does it get beat out of them at a much younger age?

Ken Breadner said...

It's always been easier for the shy and introverted to participate in long as that society is virtual. The virtual societies have evolved to the point that they --at times--threaten to overtake 'real' society...and the meek shall inherit the earth.

ADHR said...

While you're right about the expectation of privacy while doing one's work, it's important to note that Wikileaks is exposing material that isn't related to some sort of private work. It exposes information with significant public consequences. In that kind of circumstance, I think the expectation of privacy is easily defeated.

Ken's right about the shy and introverted participating in the virtual world. Much less threatening than meatspace.

Catelli said...

The expectation of privacy may be easily defeated from a conceptual point of view, but I'm fairly certain that if you canvassed all of the diplomats working in the world, that you'd fine they had/have an expectation of personal and institutional privacy (institutional being within their work group). Everyone has these expectations, so I doubt that there are many that are able or willing to have the possibility of any of their communications becoming public.

Put yourself in that situation. All e-mails are recorded (which institutions do) and those e-mails are released. How prepared are you? Assume now that the institution warns you that this could happen, how does that affect how you do your job? Do you rely less on e-mail and look for alternate means of communication?

Speaking for myself, there's no way in hell I'd work in a situation like that.

ADHR said...

Well, I do work in a situation like that. It's not well-advertised, but all employees of universities have their emails monitored, and those emails can be released without the consent of the users, only the consent of the university.

I think you've moved the goalposts, though. You're not talking about whether it's right or reasonable for us to know what diplomats are doing, unless there's some pressing reason not to. (Which was my point previously.) Instead, you're talking about whether other means of communication would be used instead -- in other words, whether discomfort with potentially being watched would lead to attempting to evade the watchers.

Discomfort really isn't the issue here. I'm sure police find the SIU, as toothless as it is, uncomfortable; I'm sure politicians find the disclosures they have to make equally uncomfortable. But is there discomfort really of central concern? Or is the central concern that we, who are supposedly the sovereign, given we live in a democratic state, need to know what our government and its agents are up to. And that requires being able to know what they're up to, which requires that any expectation of privacy while doing government business is very easily defeasible.

Keep in mind, we're not just talking about a number of emails here. These are diplomatic cables created in order to serve specific policy objectives of governments. Any diplomat uncomfortable with letting us see those reminds me strongly of a cop uncomfortable with having an arrest captured on video.