09 December 2010


Settling in for winter
Luke 12:2-3 (New International Version) There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.

John 3:19-20 (NIV) This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.

Ephesians 5:8-12 (NIV) For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light  (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.

I've been following the WikiLeaks controversy with great interest and mixed feelings. I've worked for more than one organization where candid assessments needed to be given privately--and I remember my intense embarrassment when one of those candid assessments (from me, about someone seeking to be appointed to an international assignment) was made available to that person without my permission. I still think my assessment was correct, but would I have communicated so frankly, in written form, had I known that my words would be leaked?

Maybe not, but the truth is, I survived the embarrassment and so did the organization and the candidate.

As head of the organization, it was my job to set up safeguards for sensitive communication. Looking back, I think our safeguards were quite primitive, but the person who passed my assessment beyond our perimeter was entitled to have it. The distribution of the assessment was a lapse in judgment, an excess of zealous transparency, by someone who essentially shared the organization's values, and mine.

Lots of politicians, government officials, and commentators are condemning WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. But as security writer Bruce Schneier says (thanks, Lynn Gazis-Sax), the WikiLeaks flood
...has little to do with WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks is just a website. The real story is that "least trusted person" who decided to violate his security clearance and make these cables public. In the 1970s he would have mailed them to a newspaper. Today he uses WikiLeaks. Tomorrow he will have his choice of a dozen similar websites. If WikiLeaks didn't exist, he could have put them up on BitTorrent.
Schneier does mention a huge difference between the 1970's and now: digital files are far more portable. But the human factor, the "least trusted person," the righteous or misguided whistleblower, remains constant.

So: on the one hand, causes of stumbling are bound to arise. If three million people have access to a body of sensitive information, sooner or later some of that information leaks, just as water leaks, rivers flood, and neglected dikes collapse. But here's my theory: when a nation departs from the path of righteousness and becomes a nervous, defensive empire with serious control issues, the pressure on the weak spots becomes that much greater. On the grand scale, it doesn't matter that much whether the individuals involved are moral or immoral, righteous or deluded. Nor does it matter whether the leaked information is all equally embarrassing; some may indeed (as in the present case) show that some of our diplomats are actually quite perceptive and work energetically on behalf of our claimed values. There's simply no such thing as perfect control of information; and the cost of attempting to get perfect control would be ruinous. Meanwhile, the escalating details of global imperial rule ensure that greater and greater floods of information pile up behind those wobbly dikes.

And what about those many varieties of cyber-whistleblowers who stand ready to exploit the leaks and frustrate the imperial guardians? Almost ten years ago, Jon Katz wrote Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet out of Idaho. One scene from the introduction sticks in my mind: the author is on a television show and is confronted by a charge that he advocates ignoring the dangers of the Internet for young people. His sharp defense of the Internet's relative safety compared to many other hazards leads to a scandalous breakdown of tech crew discipline: the camera operators and control room personnel cheer and clap. Later, those staffers point out that on-air personalities and managers come and go, but the TV station is totally dependent on the techs. "Welcome to the geek kingdom."

Zoom even further back, and the huffing and puffing of government officials and commentators seems almost unreal. Those diplomats and politicians whose wisdom and foolishness and conniving calculations are revealed in the leaks--they are mammalian bipeds just like the rest of us. There is nothing sacred about their elaborate behavioral patterns, nor about the psychological constructs known as "nations." The nation-state system is simply one way of organizing ourselves around complex shared desires and obligations. In the perceived service of a safer and wealthier USA, our officials bob and weave, telling the truth one moment and twisting it the next; and they're no worse than those of other countries--probably better than many. So, dear imperial censors: relax! Do your best to construct an intelligent system of information sharing and security--and hope that the rest of us succeed in electing a less embarrassing government. And as long as we're imperfect--and, in particular, as long as we persist in following the wrong lords, leaks will continue to happen. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.

Pam Ferguson: "I know I need to engage my elected officials in a different way."

Steven Davison creates an online resource for information and conversations on Quakers and capitalism.

Exceptionalisms, continued: Is "the American Jewish belief in the endurance of anti-Semitism ... at the core of the problem"?

Two obituaries for Bella Akhmadulina: New York Times. The Independent.

Russians on the Internet, creating a "parallel world."

Dimo's Blues: Grammy nominations.

Timely advice: "Six Questions to Ask Charities Before Donating."

For Chicagoans everywhere: Hull House and its theatrical dimension.

Guy Forsyth. "Your call is very important ... this call may take a while. Please have your credit card ready so we can access your file."

No comments: