Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, has an op-ed in the New York Times on how software and technology companies from France, South Africa and other countries supplied Colonel Muammar Gaddafi “spying gear.”
In addition to the rosy narrative celebrating how Facebook and Twitter have enabled freedom movements around the world, we need to confront a more sinister tale: how greedy companies, fostered by Western governments for domestic surveillance needs, have helped suppress them.
He goes on to detail how Western surveillance technology has been used against human rights activists in Bahrain, in Egypt, etc. As Morozov makes clear, Western companies are customizing solutions for dictators to “block offensive Web sites” and the “world’s most vociferous defender of ‘Internet freedom,’ has little to say about such complicity.”
The reality that repressive regimes, in concert with contracted companies, could take the unpublished unredacted cables and begin to search for bloggers, human rights activists and informants has been a central focus of the media. It has been one key factor that has led the media, government officials and human rights and press freedom organizations to sharpen their criticism of the operations of WikiLeaks. However, the response from media, government officials and human rights and press freedom organizations, while valid in some cases, has been a bit hysterical. And now that Cablegate has swung open forever — and WikiLeaks has released all the cables in searchable form – it is important to not lose sight of the fact that technology can so easily be used against vulnerable citizens of the world and the US government often ignores this.
While all cables were published by WikiLeaks for the first time, they had been available for a number of days in a file out on the Internet. Passwords for decryption were linked up to the file in the past few days. WikiLeaks’ high profile and the way the release of cables has had such an impact on governments should lead one to presume that some regimes wasted no time. If these intelligence agencies were able to look at US State Embassy cables from their country, they could have been going through the cables to search for names of bloggers, dissidents, human rights activists and informants.
This is why Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has gone ahead and “temporarily suspended” their WikiLeaks mirror site, which they launched on December 21, 2010. In their explanation, RSF writes, “New cables have reportedly not been redacted and show the names of informants in various countries including Israel, Jordan, Iran and Afghanistan.” RSF fears dismissal, physical attacks and other reprisals could be some of the repercussions these people face as a result of their names being found in the cables. It is a valid fear.
RSF admits it doesn’t have the “technical, human or financial resources to check each cable.” The organization is taking the precautionary measure it thinks it needs to take right now. The organization maintains “WikiLeaks has done something very worthwhile by making vital information available to the US and international public, especially about serious violations of human rights and civil liberties committed under the Bush administration in the name of the ‘war on terror.’” That is important to note, as one reports how this strong organization is “abandoning” WikiLeaks.
The reality is WikiLeaks would have been hurting people whom others think are most vulnerable if they had not released the information, a reality the State Department and others may wish to ignore.
If the information was only on the Internet in an encrypted file that one had to pair up with a decryption password and have the technological literacy to open, the majority of the world would probably not be able to get in and look at whose names were exposed (especially human rights and press freedom groups). This publication of cables in searchable form gives all activists, bloggers, dissidents, human rights advocates, informants and anyone else who may not have the financial or political power to protect themselves from this leak the ability to get on the Internet and search for their name. Since WikiLeaks has been in contact with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the State Department, they can now contact the two organization or the US embassy in their country and seek some kind of asylum or protection.
Information activists and WikiLeaks supporters are crowdsourcing the cables. Not only are they posting free scoops for media reporters that lack the temerity or political/social interest to track down these stories to Twitter but they are also working to notify any high-profile people they might come across, whom they know from activist struggles in various nations around the world.
It is supremely upsetting that Cablegate devolved into this mess. There is a lot of “he said, she said” going on. Salon blogger has done a post sorting out some of the facts/myths on what happened between The Guardian and WikiLeaks to lead to the point where decryption passwords to an Internet file with the entire unpublished unredacted cable cache were disclosed. Nigel Parry gives his take on what happened as a result of Guardian investigative editor David Leigh publishing the top secret Cablegate password in his book. Der Spiegel, while heavily critical of WikiLeaks’ decision to go ahead and publish the cables, has published a dramatic interpretation of what happened between the two from the beginning to now (and provides good attention to the role OpenLeaks founder Daniel Domscheit-Berg played in the fiasco). And, Crikey of Australia provides a good take on how “bruised egos” led to the release of uncensored cables.
The State Department and Pentagon, along with disgruntled former media partners, will no doubt promote the line that WikiLeaks has no concern about the lives that are now at risk. That is plain false. A search of the released cables finds WikiLeaks did do redactions. When one does a search of cables just released in the past twenty-four hours, thousands do not come up with the words “source protect” and the name next to the words. Yet, this is what The Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Pais and New York Times claim in their editorial on WikiLeaks today.
For the record, this what WikiLeaks has to say about taking steps to protect people who are at risk:
WikiLeaks advanced its regular publication schedule, to get as much of the material as possible into the hands of journalists and human rights lawyers who need it. WikiLeaks and its partners were scheduled to have published most of the Cablegate material by November 29, 2011 – one year since the first publication. Over the past week, we have published over 130,000 cables, mostly unclassified. The cables have lead to hundreds of important news stories around the world. All were unclassified with the exception of the Australian, Swedish collections, and a few others, which were scheduled by our partners.
WikiLeaks has also been in contact with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty at a senior level. We contacted the US embassy in London and then the State Department in Washington on 25 August to see if their informant notification program, instituted last year, was complete, and if not, to take such steps as would be helpful. Only after repeated attempts through high level channels and 36 hours after our first contact, did the State Department, although it had been made aware of the issue, respond. Cliff Johnson (a legal advisor at the Department of State) spoke to Julian Assange for 75 minutes, but the State Department decided not to meet in person to receive further information, which could not, at that stage, be safely transmitted over the telephone.
The organization could have easily gone right ahead and released the rest of the cache in searchable form without taking any of the steps mentioned above. But, they didn’t.
On Wednesday, Jerome Taylor of The Independent interviewed me for an introspective article on what has happened to WikiLeaks. Here is an excerpt:
Whatever the rights and wrongs, there are many who believe that it is the ongoing fallouts that really threaten to undermine WikiLeaks’ future.
“Whether there is reason or not to doubt WikiLeaks’ ability to publish new leaks, or whether it really does have a credibility problem or not, I do think future whistleblowers may think twice about going to it,” says Gosztola, a staunch defender of whistleblowing websites. “I don’t rule out the fact that WikiLeaks can revitalise and renew its credibility, but it will take a lot of effort.”
Former colleague Greg Mitchell of The Nation and Steven Aftergood of the FAS Project on Government Secrecy are also quoted in the article.