I’ve been thinking a lot about WikiLeaks over the last year, especially given the relevant consequences that have ensued with respect to the 2016 presidential election. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the trade-offs that underlie any type of platform that centers around publishing secret or classified information, news leaks, and the like. I’m torn over the general concept in terms of whether these kinds of platforms provide a net good for society and so I decided to write a blog post about it to outline my concerns through a brief analysis.
Make no mistake that I appreciate the fact that there are people in the world that work hard and are often taking huge risks to their own safety in order to deliver any number of secrets to the general public, whether governmental, political, or corporate. And this is by no means exclusive to Wikileaks, but also applies to similar organizations and even individual whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden. In many cases, the information that is leaked to the public is vitally important to inform us about some magnate’s personal corruption, various forms of systemic corruption, or even outright violations of our constitutional rights (such as the NSA violating our right to privacy as outlined in the fourth amendment).
While the public tends to highly value the increased transparency that these kinds of leaks offer, they also open us up to a number of vulnerabilities. One prominent example that illustrates some of these vulnerabilities is the influence on the 2016 presidential election, resulting from the Clinton email leaks and the leaks pertaining to the DNC. One might ask how exactly could those leaks have been a bad thing for the public? After all it just increased transparency and gave the public information that most of us felt we had a right to know. Unfortunately, it’s much more complicated than that. Beyond the fact that it can be difficult to know where to draw the line in terms of what should or should not be public knowledge.
To illustrate this point, imagine that you are a foreign or domestic entity that is highly capable of hacking. Now imagine that you stand to gain an immense amount of land, money, or power if a particular political candidate in a foreign or domestic election is elected, because you know about their current reach of power and their behavioral tendencies, their public or private ties to other magnates, and you know the kinds of policies that they are likely to enact based on their public pronouncements in the media and their advertised campaign platform. Now if you have the ability to hack into private information from every pertinent candidate and/or political party involved in that election, then you likely have the ability to not only know secrets about the candidate that can benefit you from their winning (including their perspective of you as a foreign or domestic entity, and/or damning things about them that you can use as leverage to bribe them later on after being elected), but you also likely know about damning things that could cripple the opposing candidate’s chances at being elected.
This point illustrates the following conundrum: while WikiLeaks can deliver important information to the public, it can also be used as a platform for malicious entities to influence our elections, to jeopardize our national or international security, or to cause any number of problems based on “selective” sharing. That is to say, they may have plenty of information that would be damning to both opposing political parties, but they may only choose to deliver half the story because of an underlying agenda to influence the election outcome. This creates an obvious problem, not least because the public doesn’t consider the amount of hacked or leaked information that they didn’t get. Instead they think they’ve just become better informed concerning a political candidate or some policy issue, when in fact their judgment has now been compromised because they’ve just received a hyper-biased leak and one that was given to them intentionally to mislead them, even though the contents of the leak may in fact be true. But when people aren’t able to put the new information in the proper context or perspective, then new information can actually make them less informed. That is to say, the new information can become an epistemological liability, because it unknowingly distorts the facts, leading people to behave in ways that they otherwise would not have if they only had a few more pertinent details.
So now we have to ask ourselves, what can we do about this? Should we just scrap WikiLeaks? I don’t think that’s necessary, nor do I think it’s feasible to do even if we wanted to since it would likely just be replaced by any number of other entities that would accomplish the same ends (or it would become delocalized and go back to a bunch of disconnected sources). Should we assume all leaked information has been leaked to serve some malicious agenda?
Well, a good dose of healthy skepticism could be a part of the solution. We don’t want to be irrationally skeptical of any and all leaks, but it would make sense to have more scrutiny when it’s apparent that the leak could serve a malicious purpose. This means that we need to be deeply concerned about this unless or until we reach a point in time where hacking is so common that the number of leaks reaches a threshold where it’s no longer pragmatically possible to selectively share them to accomplish these kinds of half-truth driven political agendas. Until that point is reached, if it’s ever reached, given the arms race between encryption and hacking, we will have to question every seemingly important leak and work hard to make the public at large understand these concerns and to take them seriously. It’s too easy for the majority to be distracted by the proverbial carrot dangling in front of them, such that they fail to realize that it may be some form of politically motivated bait. In the mean time, we need to open up the conversation surrounding this issue, and look into possible solutions to help mitigate our concerns. Perhaps we’ll start seeing organizations that can better vet the sources of these leaks, or that can better analyze their immediate effects on the global economy, elections, etc., before deciding whether or not they should release the information to the public. This won’t be an easy task.
This brings me to my last point which is to say that I don’t think people have a fundamental right to know every piece of information that’s out there. If someone found a way to make a nuclear bomb using household ingredients, should that be public information? Don’t people understand that many pieces of information are kept private or classified because that’s the only way some organizations can function? Including organizations that strive to maintain or increase national and international security? Do people want all information to be public even if it comes at the expense of creating humanitarian crises, or the further consolidation of power by select plutocrats? There’s often debate over the trade-offs between giving up our personal privacy to increase our safety. Now the time has come to ask whether our giving up some forms of privacy or secrecy on larger scales (whether we like it or not) is actually detracting from our safety or putting our democracy in jeopardy.