The latest round of WikiLeaks excitement is still going on. The press is producing news story after news story from the leaked cables, and now Assange himself is a story, having been arrested in England and refused bail.
While I have heard it argued that there is no privacy issue here, I think there is. It is indeed true that none of the people exposed by the leaks are private people going about their private affairs, but rather public figures busy doing their jobs. However, there are several parallels in the way the latest WikiLeaks episode has been reported and the way that privacy is discussed nowadays.
Firstly, the technological basis of WikiLeaks and today’s concerns about privacy is shared. The diplomatic cables were leakable because they were stored online – not on the World Wide Web, but on a parallel network run by the US. The reasons for storing this data online are obvious: it is cheap; the data is searchable and analyzable; and the data can be accessed from anywhere in the world. A further reason for the US administration’s decision to upload certain cables to this network is to do with 9/11, when the US discovered that its various intelligence branches failed to share knowledge. The current WikiLeaks affair, therefore, was made possible at least partly because of a desire to share information, and blatantly exposes the danger of gathering digital information in a single (virtual) place. This, I would suggest, is the same danger we expose ourselves to when we store personal information, such as our emails, address books, and to-do lists, online.
There is a paradox here that we do not yet really know how to deal with: the digitalization of our lives provides us with new efficiencies, but also makes possible the leaking of our lives. This would appear to be just as true for private individuals as for governments.
Secondly, some of the responses of diplomats and governments to the latest leaks seem to be quite similar to those of people who have experienced some terrible technology-caused embarrassment. I say this without having conducted a systematic study of reactions (because this is a blog, and not an academic article), but my impression is that the phenomenological experience of diplomats whose missives have been exposed is not entirely dissimilar to that of having sent an email to the wrong address, or having been tagged in an inappropriate photograph. Information escapes its proper context and reappears in another one, often with embarrassing consequences. So even if the cables do not include personal information unrelated to the official capacities of their authors, the emotions caused by having their content exposed would appear to be akin to other instances of digital leakage, even if in many other ways they are quite different.
Thirdly, and perhaps slightly tenuously, my attention was grabbed by a description I read of WikiLeaks as lacking in shame and embarrassment, emotions that, the author claimed, “are in short supply these days.” Who else is accused these days of lacking shame and embarrassment if not the digital youth, who, according to popular discourse, is shamelessly exposing every aspect of their intimate lives online? Of course, study after study has shown young people to have a very sophisticated sense of privacy, but the popular conception is that they shamelessly share too much, and that they do not find it embarrassing to publicize their latest bowel movements, for instance. I wonder, then, if it is not too far-fetched to suggest that the above quotation constructs a discursive association between WikiLeaks and Facebook, in that both are symptomatic of a society that lacks shame in its exposure of information that it would be better to keep under wraps.
In general, I think that the questions that the US government is asking itself now are not all that different from those that we face in our everyday lives. Should we digitize the information at our disposal? Who should be able to access it? How easy is it to remove it from one context and publish it in another? In a way, we are all still struggling to find our feet in the digital world.