Wikileaks: Who watches the watchmen?


With great power comes great responsibility.

Yes, this is a line from a superhero movie, but it is just as relevant as when Uncle Ben said it on screen in 2002 (technically, it dates back to the first Spider-man comic in 1962, but I digress). It is perhaps more important this year when it feels like the world is falling apart that those who have some form of power must exercise it judiciously.

I write this as someone who has a long record of supporting information disclosure in general, and Wikileaks in particular. While the site has had its up and downs, I would rather live in a world that has Wikileaks in it than one that does not. But it is not just Wikileaks, the history of this decade is being shaped by leaked data, from the Snowden revelations to the Panama Papers, this has become one of the most important tools to shine a light on vital information that the public needs to know.

But to believe that all information is worthy of being leaked is preposterous, particularly because sensitive data falling into the wrong hands could be the difference between life and death to people in vulnerable positions. Moreover, data dumps that affect innocent bystanders should be either kept from the public eye, or redacted to delete such data.

This is hard work, but I repeat, with great power comes great responsibility.

In the last few days there have been a series of decisions from Wikileaks that have greatly disappointed me. Firstly, Wikileaks has been front-page news thanks to the disclosure of thousands of emails from the Democratic National Committee showing bias against Bernie Sanders. The leak was carefully timed to coincide with the opening of the Democratic Party convention in Philadelphia. I happen to disagree strongly with the timing of the leak, but not with the content. I agree that the public has a right to know some of the shenanigans that happen behind the scenes of a political party, but as a Latin American I cannot in any way condone a political decision that will help Donald Trump gain the presidency of the United States, too much is at stake.

Secondly, Wikileaks also leaked thousands of emails from the Turkish AKP, Erdoğan’s Justice & Development Party. At the same time, other parties leaked data files containing personal details from female voters in 79 out of 81 Turkish provinces, and these files were linked to by Wikileaks’ social media accounts. Professor Zeynep Tufekci wrote a damning piece highlighting that this disclosure of information could place millions of innocent people in Turkey in danger, and furthermore, she claimed that the AKP emails did not contain any important information to begin with. After several attacks on Prof Tufekci in various social media channels by Wikileaks and its followers, Michael Best came out saying that it was he who had leaked the files, and that they had been removed.

Finally, I have been extremely disappointed by the public support of the official Wikileaks Twitter account to the notorious alt right advocate Milo Yiannopolous, particularly because Milo was well aware that his days on Twitter were numbered and was obviously trolling for a ban, as this amazing profile by Laurie Penny clearly depicts. One thing is to stand for freedom of speech and freedom of information, and another one is to defend a person who at best advocates racist and misogynist positions for personal financial gain.

To me there is a common thread in all three examples, and it is something that has bothered me since 2010. Back then, I wrote:

“Wikileaks is currently exercising editorial control over what is released. Who makes the decisions? What is the governance structure of this important website? Is there a community that acts with only freedom of expression as its sole guiding light? How can we be assured that there is adequate consideration of the consequences of its actions?”

I am astounded that after all these years we do not have clear answers to these vital questions. There is little indication that Wikileaks has any sort of oversight over its actions. When you hold the power to bring down governments; when you hold data that could have people harassed, incarcerated or killed; when you release information that could change the course of an election; you should be held accountable for the decisions that you make. We are asked to trust a group of people who could make mistakes, could have a political agenda, could have ulterior personal motives, or simply could be honestly mistaken in their analysis of an important subject, all in the name of transparency and the public’s need to know. All this with little transparency about the decision-making process itself.

It is extremely unlikely that anything will change, but I would advocate for a set of principles in any organisation that is in a position of leaking information. It looks like the problem with the Turkish leak was the ignorance on the part of well-meaning Western hackers who were acting on the principle of “dump now, ask questions later”. Make sure that you involve local people in the disclosure. At at the very least, have native speaker go through the data. I would also advocate for a small independent oversight group made up of trustworthy people. This group does not need to vet all of the information, but should examine the wider implications of a leak.

But most importantly, only release once you are certain that no innocent third parties may suffer from the leak. After all, with great power comes great responsibility.

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