historical stuff by Gareth Millward
25 July 2010 – The Internet…
Sensitive documents have always been leaked. Sometimes these come from “whistle blowers”, unhappy at the way institutions or government departments have acted. Sometimes these can be deliberately managed by institutions to try to control the media narrative or support their cause. Social media and mass use of the internet, however, have meant that the volume of such leaks has exploded exponentially.
In 2013, Edward Snowden was also involved in the publication of a tranche of National Security Agency (NSA) documents, detailing how the United States spied on its own and foreign citizens in way that, to put it mildly, appeared to stretch the law and the US Constitution to breaking point.3 Both Wikileaks and Assange caused a world-wide public debate on the limits of privacy, government confidentiality and the limits of state power vis-a-vis its people.
One of the most powerful political interviews of recent memory was conducted by British comedian John Oliver for his HBO programme Last Week Tonight. In it, Oliver managed to convey just how serious the NSA’s programmes were while simultaneously showing that a) high-volume leaks have security consequences and b) not everyone actually cares. The deflated look on Snowden’s face when Oliver shows him vox pops in Times Square spoke a thousand words.
Where people have discussed the issue, the simplification of the matter in much of the public discourse on the leaks has been highly problematic. Perhaps the medium of satire allowed Oliver to explore the argument in a more rounded way. Yet if Twitter and Facebook are anything to go by, it seems very difficult to see either Assange or Snowden as anything other than heroes or villains. One cannot deny that the activities these leaks exposed were in the public interest (rather than simply “shit the public is interested in“). But it is also undeniable that people have been sacrificed for this noble cause. Chelsea Manning is currently in jail for treason while Assange remains free (albeit in self-imposed confinement in the Ecuadorian Embassy). Snowden is being protected by the Russian state, but the mishandling of his material compromised the positions and intelligence of spies across the globe.4
There is a question about how confidential anything can be in the digital world. In the past, the existence of insecure data did not necessarily result in wider public circulation. It is not enough that something is said or written – it needs to be reproduced and disseminated in order to be read. Enough media outlets need to report on the contents. Enough people need to care about it for it to become news. There is also a massive difference between the individual’s right to privacy and the rights and needs of government departments to restrict access to certain information.
Personal privacy is a minefield for another time. However, governments have always had issues with controlling potentially compromising “facts”. For example, the Black Report into health inequalities was deliberately published with little fanfare and with limited copies. The new Thatcher government did not want the details becoming wider knowledge as the idea of social medicine and the impact of wealth inequality in health outcomes ran counter to their political ideology.5 Regardless of the rights or wrongs of that approach, campaigners were able to circulate the report by making their own copies and disseminating it amongst researchers and journalists. Later reports confirmed that Black was correct. The attempted suppression failed. Nowadays the report can be easily downloaded and found in digitised archives.6
Whether be accident or design, the other way of keeping uncomfortable information hidden is to bury under mounds of data. Moves towards “open government” in the United Kingdom have been very useful to researchers like me. I can very easily gain access to pretty much any government report from the past ten years, as well as regular statistical digests from departments of state. At the same time, this information requires expertise and – most importantly of all – time and resources to read, parse and analyse with any degree of accuracy and confidence. The Spartacus Report is just one example of how citizen activists can use such material.7 But full critique and opposition to government policy nowadays almost requires such a meticulous approach that the average lone citizen cannot manage.
It seems that mass leaks of documents will become a fact of life in the twenty-first century. While the press and citizen activists are able to read, digest and communicate this information accurately and effectively, it will help to scrutinise government activity. However, at the same time as such information becomes available, the staffs of journalistic institutions are shrinking. We are entering a paradoxical age in which we have more access to information than ever – but perhaps a decreasing capacity to understand it. Time will tell how we as a society deal with these issues.