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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Friday, December 24, 2010

WikiLeaks and the End of Privacy

There wasn't much left to be protected anyway in a 24/7 online media world.

Every tweet, blogpost, and facebook comment is continually data mined by groups looking to sense cultural trends, voter intentions and commercial possibilities. And those are just the more benign snoops.

Intelligence gathering proceeds rapidly and even as the most powerful algorithm search engines are working to detect suspicious cyber-chatter in order to forestall the next round of terrorism.

Which leads me to wonder what possible benefits could be found in Julian Assange's exercise in narcissistic voyeurism, known as WikiLeaks. Not much so far, apparently.

While I'm all in favor of accountability, the sheer nakedness and egotism of the WikiLeaks culture is astonishing. Media organizations clearly found the prospect of a peek behind the diplomatic curtain to be irresistible. But resist it, they should have, in order to save us from more pointless and politically minimal revelations.

What WikiLeaks has accomplished is hard to discern. It has made American policy analysis appear more sensible and smart than many could have imagined. If WikiLeaks thought that these cables would undermine US foreign policy, it has had quite the opposite effect. Over time, the content of these cables may be more useful for historians, but for journalists today, not so much.

Unfortunately, WikiLeaks has been able to embolden others who feel that any authority may now be fair game. It wouldn't surprise me if the anarchist bombers in Rome found some form of indirect encouragement in the WikiLeaks cables. I'm sure that someone in that nutty group surmised: If releasing a few thousands documents might destabilize government policy, think what a couple of parcel bombs could do.

In the end, the ability of journalism to do a fair job of finding out what decisions get made, who makes them and the consequences of those choices has been set back considerably. Governments like secrecy. Journalists oppose it. But secrets, exposed or contained, still need a measure of accountability. Is a secret worth exposing? And if not, why not? WikiLeaks hasn't answered that and neither have the First Amendment fundamentalists.

And if the US Government (which is more accountable than most) is now considered to be
a legitimate target for cyber-warriors, what about the rest of us?  None of us should feel confident that WikiLeaks has the interests of ordinary citizens in mind.

That should cause us all a few more sleepless nights.

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