Technology

Secrets of the 'anti-secrecy' sites laid bare

Magnifying glass on page on Wikileaks Image copyright AFP
Image caption Wikileaks rose to fame over documents related to the Afghan war

"There's an expression in the hacker community," explains Michael Haynes, administrator of the website Public Intelligence, "'information wants to be free'."

It's a telling remark underscoring both the way Public Intelligence approaches information and the philosophical ties between many of the leaks, whistleblower or, as Haynes prefers, anti-secrecy sites and the world of computer hacking.

Mr Haynes' stated aim is simply to channel data to the public to allow them to judge it for themselves.

"There's no such thing as inert information except for information in a kind of raw form," he says, arguing that no source is truly neutral.

"I feel that the focus should be on the information itself rather than focusing primarily on who is giving that information."

'Deep scrutiny'

It's a very different approach than that taken by mainstream journalism. Most news outlets seek to add value to the information they provide by authenticating it, interpreting it for their audience or simply by presenting it in an entertaining way.

In contrast Mr Haynes is not interested in editorialising, filtering, authenticating or contextualising information.

Image copyright Other
Image caption Wikileaks rose to prominence after the release of a video showing a helicopter attack in Baghdad

There is no "value add" other than making otherwise secret or inaccessible information known, or occasionally adding a rider such as "the authenticity of this document should be deeply scrutinised".

John Young of another anti-secrecy site, Cryptome, is of like mind.

"There's so much disinformation put out as the truth it takes a while to get past that notion that you should believe people who are 'authoritative'."

He likens Cryptome to a library. Other people create and obtain the information, he and his fellow administrators simply make it available.

But what about information whose release has the potential to cause harm? Haynes is deeply reticent but eventually concedes that "there are circumstances where we would choose not to publish material".

Battlefield consequences

Rather he believes such decisions should always be tilted "towards the people's right to determine… rather than a government or corporation's right to determine" the value and benefits of information.

That does beg the question of how the public can make an informed judgement about what should or should not remain secret when the very act of making the information available to them has surely made that decision for them.

Of all of the anti-secrecy sites it's Wikileaks that has had most cause to wrestle with these issues.

Having published secret material on topics such as corruption in Africa and Scientology it entered mainstream consciousness in April with the leak of a military video of a US helicopter attack on civilians in Baghdad that seemed to contradict the Pentagon account.

There then followed a high-profile leak of the so-called Afghan War Diaries - thousands of secret documents detailing allied operations in Afghanistan.

The hoard was released in partnership with the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel.

"I think Wikileaks is closer to being journalism," says Mr Young.

However straddling the divide between conventional journalism and anti-secrecy activism has proved problematic.

In July when Wikileaks released thousands of classified American military documents relating to Iraq and Afghanistan the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates tore into Mr Assange warning that "the battlefield consequences of the release of these documents are potentially severe and dangerous," not least for those Afghans identified in the documents as having aided NATO.

A later assessment of the leak, published in a letter to Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that a review had "not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by the disclosure".

However, he reiterated that the disclosure of the names of cooperating Afghans, who could become targets for the Taliban, could cause "significant harm or damage to national security interests of the United States."

Expensive business

"'Lives at risk' is a canard put out by secret keepers," is Young's retort. "It's typically not true." He would have published regardless, he says.

In July Mr Assange called Mr Gates initial intervention "a disgrace" and claimed he was trying to deflect attention from Wikileaks' revelations about civilian casualties in those conflicts.

Image copyright Other
Image caption Anti-secrecy site Cyrptome likens itself to a library

But Mr Assange found himself on the back foot amid a welter of criticism, much of it from senior journalists who took him to task for not having done more to protect the innocent from the consequences of the leaks.

He pointed to efforts made to filter out potentially harmful material but complained that Wikileaks had been hampered by "limited resources" and a lack of help from the newspapers it had worked with before the documents were published.

The affair highlighted Wikileaks' dilemma, torn between its hacker "information wants to be free" roots and the desire not to do harm.

It's a problem that Ann Leslie, the grande dame of British foreign correspondents and current Daily Mail writer, says journalists often face.

"We can glory in how we've exposed everything but we don't suffer, we get on the plane and go home," she says.

"Our contacts very often, and several of the people I have tried to persuade not to give their name, have ended up in jail."

Much of the media has well established mechanisms in place to limit the harm done by stories.

With Wikileaks those mechanisms appear to be a work in progress. But however sniffy some of the traditional media may have been publicly about Wikileaks there's a growing relationship between them.

"Investigative journalism is very expensive," says Dame Ann looking back to Fleet Street's golden age.

"A major investigation would take three or four journalists six months working solely on that, which used to be the case. Nobody is going to spend that money now."

Lost trust

The anti-secrecy sites have in some respects filled that gap.

Moreover it can distance journalists and their editors from the consequences of printing damaging leaked material allowing them to maintain important relationships with governments, businesses and institutions.

"Journalists do very much like not to be there holding the smoking gun. They'll say "'look it's out there'", says Dame Ann, "meaning it's out there on the internet, and it does save them a lot of trouble."

The emergence of the hacker community and the anti-secrecy sites reflect a serious loss of trust in government, big business and major institutions; a belief that the people are routinely lied to and a feeling that something needs to be done to shift power back towards the citizenry.

Public Information's Mr Haynes argues that sites like his are redressing the balance in favour of democracy.

"I think in order for people to maintain some sort of authority over their governments and over things that have power over them then they need have access to higher levels of information than they're generally given access to," he says

However hard the establishment tries to restore trust it only takes the occasional Baghdad helicopter video to undo their efforts. They may reckon it simpler to close the leaks sites down.

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