Sunday, 23 January 2011

Personal privacy versus public secrecy

The Assange and Wikileaks controversy is rumbling on, as it undoubtedly will for months to come. Assange is making all sorts of allegations, as indeed allegations (both serious and ludicrous) have been made against him.

One of the greatest defences that the fans of Wikileaks give for the en-mass release of the information is that public secrecy is bad, whilst personal privacy is good. Yet that simple statement ignores the vast overlap there is between the two.

Let me make one thing clear: most of the diplomatic cables released so far have been tittle-tattle of the highest order, with little that has been truly surprising. The real surprise would have been if the surrounding Arab states were in favour of Iran's nuclear program. So Prince Edward said something indiscreet at a party - so what? Nothing of any lasting significance has been revealed.

The boundary between public and private are opaque at best. If I were to go into the street outside my house and scream my deepest secrets, it would be hard for me to claim that they were private. What happens if I was having an affair with my local MP? The affair would be a private matter to me, yet it may well be in the public interest for it to be revealed.

Another example: if I write to my constituency MP with a problem, then I have all rights to expect that correspondence to remain secret; she would have to ask my permission before making it public. Yet the same argument being used by WikiLeak's supporters could be used against correspondence between MPs and constituents: after all, there could be something juicy in there.

There are two main reasons for a government to keep secrets: because they believe that the release of the information could harm the national interest, and because they believe that the release of information could harm their interest. I fully support the former, whilst the latter is hard to justify.

Yet WikiLeaks are releasing both.

There is another significant problem: the Guardian are one of five international newspapers that have visibility of the cables early, and they seem to be releasing mostly information that embarrass the Tories and the Liberal Democrats rather than Labour. The first thing they released about Brown was his support for Gary McKinnon (a cause that is popular with many, wrongly in my opinion). Compare this with the long list of things they have released about the Tories, including the American's concerns about Cameron's and Osborne's inexperience. Yet they have been remarkably quiet about what the diplomats were saying about Brown.

This bias can easily be seen in the searchable database of the information they have released so far. There is a great deal of information about the Royals, the Conservatives and even the Lib Dems, yet much less about Labour. This is particularly surprising as Labour were in power during the vast majority of the period that the cables refer to.

Compare this with the Telegraph (a supposedly right-wing newspaper) - when they released details of the MPs expenses, they released juicy details of Labour on the first day, and the Conservatives on the second. After that the revelations were seemingly made at random.

Likewise, the puerile campaigns by hacker group Anonymous to target companies like Mastercard - who have withdrawn support for WikiLeaks - are utterly self-defeating. Many people who may have some sympathy with WikiLeaks will be disgusted by what they are doing. As Guido Fawkes said: why do Anonymous and the others concentrate on upsetting truly authoritarian governments?

'Personal privacy' and 'public secrecy' are great buzzwords. Unfortunately life is more complex than these simple phrases allow for.

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