At the moment, the bad guys seem mostly interested in knocking off the rich ranchers and cattle barons who can afford to hire armies to protect them. Tweaking the tail of the lion by dumping diplomatic cables on to the internet or publishing the cell phone numbers of politicians and bureaucrats is serious mischief-making but doesn’t threaten our privacy or well being directly.
What about 10 years from now? Can the concept of “openness” and “transparency” be taken too far? Suppose an Assange-like messiah arises who declares that personal assets, bank accounts, credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, tax returns and other very personal information have no business being hidden from view; that privacy itself is an authoritarian construct; and that everybody should know everything about everyone else. Only then can we all be truly “equal.”
A far-fetched scenario to be sure, but a logical, if not reasonable, extrapolation from the current state of affairs. How could you prosecute the violator? Revealing some of that information is against the law, but we would run into basically the same problem we have with prosecuting Mr. Assange. It all depends on how the law is interpreted, and given the fact that applicable statutes were written in a pre-internet age, there are probably holes through which a clever attorney can maneuver his client to freedom.
We all know how the internet has revolutionized communication. But flowing underneath the surface of history over the last 15 years or so has been an even more startling and worrisome trend: these new means of communicating have created an impetus to openness that might be unhealthy. Transparency as an ideal is a good thing. But can too much of a good thing lead to untoward consequences?
The WikiLeaks dump will probably damage the global conversation. Nations will be less likely to share with the United States. Agencies will be tempted to return to the pre-9/11 silos. World leaders will get their back up when they read what is said about them. Cooperation against Iran may be harder to maintain because Arab leaders feel exposed and boxed in. This fragile international conversation is under threat. It’s under threat from WikiLeaks. It’s under threat from a Gresham’s Law effect, in which the level of public exposure is determined by the biggest leaker and the biggest traitor.
Assange has his defenders who remind one of the way that some British Conservatives used to talk about Hitler back in the 1930s: To paraphrase, “Well, he’s a little extreme, isn’t he? But his heart is in the right place when it comes to the Soviets.”
Averring that what Assange has accomplished is mostly good, or that his efforts and methods may be extreme but he has the right idea about transparency, just doesn’t wash. He has given us a glimpse into a possible future where transparency is an end in and of itself by which any violation of our personal space can be, and probably will be, justified under the rubric of everyone’s “right to know.”
The government agencies and corporations who hold our most personal and private information will have to become fanatics about protecting it in order to counter the fanatics who are seeking it. This was not done in the WikiLeaks matter, as the irresponsibility of those who made it ridiculously easy for someone to waltz in and download 250,000 cables shows. The pre-internet mindset of those in charge must change and change now before information that might start a war, or teach a terrorist how to circumvent security, or instruct some monstrously arrogant man-child how to build a nuclear bomb makes us sorry the internet was ever invented.