WikiLeaks: Power, Disclosure and Autonomy

“We are rapidly entering the age of no privacy, where everyone is open to surveillance at all times; where there are no secrets from government.”

Tell a FriendWilliam O. Douglas

It is impossible to avoid confronting the dilemma posed by the WikiLeaks and Julian Assange saga.  As a finalist for Time magazine’s person of the year, Assange certainly has received more than his share of headlines.  Guilt or innocence aside, the WikiLeaks controversy poses significant questions for our culture, national security and the very concept of “secret”.  Communications intended as confidential lose their purpose for being if posted on the Internet for all to see.  Should we revise our concepts of privacy to expect potential disclosure of any communication exposed to the invisible eyes of the Internet.

As an employment lawyer engaged in the occasional litigation over workplace indiscretions, I have a much lower expectation of privacy for email traffic than I used to.  If I write it and send it, I know my email is accessible by many eyes and available for many years to be recovered, discovered and uncovered.  As a result of the power and reach of forensic computer discovery, I write every email correspondence with a recognition that those words and the interpretation someone might give them (actual or unintended) could see the light of day at some point (any point) in the future.  I have almost come to believe that there is no such thing as a  “secret”.

Should there be limits to the power of the Internet to reveal everything?  What does it mean to our culture, to national security and to human understanding to allow no boundaries for prying eyes?  For Julian Assange and those that see him as the man of the year, the answer is a  resounding “expose it all”.  They argue that in only that way can freedom exist and deception in high places be exposed.  However, I genuinely doubt that they have no expectation of privacy for their own communications intended as confidential.

Clearly, their’s is a sentiment that has force.  Power requires secrecy.  Hierarchy depends on fewer people with more access to information and more people kept in a “need to know” status.  Knowledge is power.  If everyone had all knowledge, all would be equally powerful.  It is obvious why governments are in such disarray attempting to staunch the flow of “classified information”.  Public disclosure of classified secret diplomatic wires intended for “your eyes only” has lead to embarrassment, diplomatic back peddling and the unleashing of armies of lawyers charged to find a way to stop the relentless flood of private communications.  Assange and his followers would argue disclosure is a good tool to keep the powerful in check and prevent abuses.  Those in power only see colossal damage resulting from unfettered disclosure.

Every institution or relationship is subject to the same dynamic in a less newsworthy manner.  No CEO could feel comfortable if every conversation, every meeting and every communication were available for review and critique by the entire organization.   Every personal relationship based on trust has theoretical limits on telling everything you know.  From something as simple as “Yes, dear that dress looks wonderful on you” to facts more potentially destructive regarding past indiscretions, sustainable relationships require self-imposed limits on “brutal honesty”.   Sometimes you really don’t want to know what I think.  More often, I should not tell you.

The limits on absolute disclosure took another interesting turn this week in a headline less titillating than the WikiLeaks controversies.  A below the radar project was announced by Google and a group of scholars.  As reported by the New York Times, Google is making available free downloads and online searches for a growing body of literature.  To date, 5.2 million books containing over 500 billion words in works published between 1500 and 2008 in seven languages have been digitized and are searchable by word or phrase.  Intended as a scholarly tool, this amazing project will allow the public as well as researchers to explore the use of phrases in comparative languages across the span of human endeavor.

In what might be viewed by most as a mere footnote in the incredible capability of the power of the Internet, an unexpected source of opposition has weighed in on this project.  Although seemingly neutral in its impact, humanist scholars are “hot and bothered” by the fact that the project is not engineered or managed by them.  Why, you ask, would that matter?  Great question.  What is it that humanist scholars fear will be disclosed by this massive research tool? What do they want to keep secret?  Wonderful imponderables.  Maybe time will tell. Perhaps disclosing what culture has captured through its written record over time will educate us all about the nature of human thought as it is, rather than as some would have it to be.

The fact remains that secrets are power and operate in opposition to autonomy, or self-determination.   The more we know, the less others hold power over us and the greater our ability to decide matters in our own self-interest.

Which is right:  “Tell it all” or “Let me decide how much should be disclosed”?  As with most polarities, neither extreme can claim the exclusive high ground.  Perhaps, the answer lies in an ongoing dialogue about which polarity has the greatest value based on circumstances and consequences of disclosure in a case by case analysis.  This polarity of confidences to be disclosed is one that defies a “one size fits all” solution.  (See, Managing Polarities blog post.)

What we all know universally is that each of us wants to control the timing and the audiences to whom the secrets we hold are disclosed.  Don’t let them hook your brain up to the Internet.

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4 Responses to WikiLeaks: Power, Disclosure and Autonomy

  1. It is my experience that a leader with a clear and compelling vision draws energy toward the fulfillment of that vision and away from the petty palace intrigue of secrets and power. Absent the opportunity to be a part of something great that fulfills and compels the human spirit, there is a place in every society for garbage pickers, who in their own methodical and very organized way, create something of value from what is seemingly tossed out in heaps (see the documentary “Wasteland”). Personal accountability for our role in every aspect of this supposed dilemma of massive information availability is the only way out of the victim mentality that embraces “knowledge is power.” I support the notion of what some have called “the last frontier”- our inner world – thus, “self-knowledge is power.” For most, it is too frightening to go dumpster diving into their own ego only to come up with the trash that makes up who they are so the drive for power as an external activity is predictable. One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.

    • lcmlarry says:

      Only my friend Linda can so quickly and appropriately take most every discussion to the place of personal accountability. Thank you, friend!

  2. Eugene Regen says:

    Larry
    I particularly enjoyed this post, as it expressed what should be and is a very real and genuine concern as we rely increasingly on the “electronic media” for our communications. Your examples and implications of WikiLeaks thinking were well taken.
    We have already mentioned one of the “borders” of the Healing Trust retreats,to “listen with soft eyes.” There is another, “complete confidentiality”, and one has to wonder the meaning of this border in light of a WikiLeaks mentality.
    The implied reliability of and in “Top Level Clearance” had an interesting consequence. It took so long to get that level of clearance that I never did get to attend the Chemical and Biological Warfare College. Theirs (maybe) the poorer.
    Gene

  3. lcmlarry says:

    Gene, knowing your immense intellectual capabilities, the War College missed out on a great contributor to the development of advanced thought. Indeed, “theirs the poorer”.

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