It is true that governments should run on the basis of openness and transparency, but confidentiality is still a fundamental tool that every government needs to use in order to operate. We all need some sort of secrecy in our lives, individuals need to have a private life that they would not like the world to know, companies need to use trade secrets and nondisclosure agreements in order to compete, and governments also need to use secrecy to deal diplomatically with the rest of the world, they need secrecy to protect minors and to make sure that our security systems are not compromised by terrorists.
That is not to say that secrecy should be the default for all government transactions, the government should be open and transparent and it should use confidentiality as an exception to achieve a certain specific goal. When the government starts to use secrecy excessively and without justification then there is a clear problem that needs to be addressed.
I do not consider the Wikileaks US embassy cables leak to be a whistleblowing case. Whistleblowing is the action by which a person decides to breach his duty of confidence in order to report a serious specific wrongdoing. The US embassy cables were not leaked to report a specific wrongdoing but were leaked in hope of creating chaos and jeopardizing the system by which confidentiality is used.
Wikileaks claims to be a fighter for making the government more transparent by providing the public with a system for allowing them to anonymously upload confidential documents to their web servers so that they are shared with the rest of the world, but now with the US cables leak incident, is Wikileaks helping make the system more transparent? There are tens of thousands more documents which are not out yet, so we cannot predict what we will learn about the dealings of the US government, but the majority of these documents are of low confidentiality levels and none of them is a document classified as “Top Secret”, so really we should not expect most of these documents to have any groundbreaking revelations.
The natural consequence of this leak would be that foreign governments will be way more careful when they communicate with the US government, the US government will also surely increase its security measures to avoid having another leak by introducing new technical measures for tracking unusual data access and by reducing the pool of people who have access to this information. The amount of information recorded by writing would also be reduced to avoid the risk of it ever leaking. So how can any of that lead to having a more transparent system?
The only way in which the US cables leak is contributing in making the system more transparent is by keeping the discussion of the whole topic of government transparency alive at the moment – we need to talk about the problem in order for us to figure out a solution for this problem.
I do not necessarily agree with people who consider Assange to be a terrorist or who think that he should be prosecuted, but I do not necessarily think that he is a hero. Confidentiality has a role to play in government and society and it will be impossible for countries to be able to have honest negotiations if confidentiality cannot be guaranteed.
This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.