Trickles and floods
Jamshed Avari | 23 December 2010
Trickles and floods
Even with barely one percent of Wikileaks’ trove of US diplomatic cables released, world leaders everywhere are scrambling to protect their images and discredit the documents’ sources, while others are lashing out at those who would censor the organization. Immediate attention has conveniently focused on Julian Assange, the controversial silver-haired leader of the outfit who unfortunately enough has unrelated legal troubles that allowed him to be briefly arrested in December. To the delight of conspiracy theorists and anyone with anti-American sentiments, nothing has yet slowed Wikileaks from releasing its trove of documents in small daily batches, and much there is no guessing just how much more diplomatic consternation will be caused!
It’s a good time to take a look at the role that technology and the media have played so far in this situation, and how the fallout will affect us all. First of all, the leaks were leaked electronically, but by all accounts, it was common social engineering and human oversight that allowed a disc labeled ‘Lady Gaga’ to exit a US military facility without being inspected. In a move that is perhaps short-sighted but still long overdue, the administration has lashed out against all removable storage devices, which will now be banned from sensitive locations. Still, portable gadgets, wireless capabilities, ubiquitous Internet access are the realities of today’s world, and any of them could be used to sneak information out. Without constant human vigilance, anything might still happen.
Whether or not the US is justified and legally able to prosecute Assange, his organization and informal supporters, businesses such as Amazon, PayPal, and the Bank of America are either succumbing to pressure or scurrying away from a delicate situation, by terminating business agreements with Wikileaks. It won’t be easy for any of those companies or the US government itself to maintain its good image if pressure tactics like these are used to silence genuine dissent. Similar to the way in which anti-piracy laws that favor only content owners and greatly impede fair use are enacted, Wikileaks could find itself at the mercy of courts that are concerned only with silencing it. Arguably, technological efforts to attack organizations that are impeding Wikileaks can be punished under the law just as any form of vigilante justice, but that doesn’t explain why Assange himself is being painted as a terrorist in an environment where personal freedoms are being restricted in the name of national security.
And what of the man who allegedly started it all? Shocking recent media reports have Pvt Bradley Manning is being imprisoned in inhumane conditions, suffering various forms of psychological torture and cruel isolation even though he poses no current threat and is in no way violent. Few are aware of his condition now, but if this is perceived as an easy target being lashed out against, he’ll be a social media martyr in no time.
Technology continues to shape society in ways both subtle and severe. With no telling what skeletons might still tumble out of whose closets, our collective reactions to this ongoing situation will shape our laws, governments, corporates, diplomats, media, activists, and tech development in the months to come.