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The reality that repressive regimes, in concert with contracted companies, could take the unpublished unredacted cables and begin to search for bloggers, human rights activists and informants has been a central focus of the media.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.