Web site aims to post government secrets
January 04, 2007
Forget parking garages. Tomorrow’s Deep Throats can go wiki.
A new Web site that aims to encourage large-scale leaking of confidential government documents by allowing anonymous disclosure could launch as early as next month.
Beneath a quotation from famed Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, www.Wikileaks.org says it seeks to increase government transparency around the world by using “an uncensorable version of Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis.”
Founded by a group that includes technologists and Chinese dissidents, Wikileaks would promote democracy and prevent corruption, and is aimed primarily at oppressive foreign regimes, according to organizers. But the site says it also wants “to be of service to those in the West who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their own government and corporations.”
The site is online but not yet operating. In an e-mail, Wikileaks spokeswoman Hanna De Jong said that about 22 people involved in the project are still testing the prototype and seeking funding from groups like the Soros Foundation’s Open Society Institute, which promotes democracy and human rights. De Jong said Wikileaks’ advisory board includes journalists, cryptographers, a former U.S. intelligence analyst and expatriates from Russian and Tibetan refugee communities.
The group says it has already received more than 1 million documents. De Jong said none of those come directly from Western governments, but documents sent from the United States to other states are included. The site uses various cryptographic technologies to allow anonymity while maintaining Wikpedia’s easy use, she said.
Spurred by the success of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, Web sites nicknamed “wikis” that allow collaborative authoring by letting anyone edit content are proliferating, even within government.
Ohio’s Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, recently launched an online directory of local agencies that will be publicly maintained, allowing citizens to add and delete information, for example. In October, the federal Office of the Director of National Intelligence unveiled Intellipedia, intended to improve intelligence sharing by letting authorized analysts collaboratively edit content on the government’s classified Intelink Web site.
But Wikileaks is radically different. The site makes broad claims regarding the value of unauthorized disclosures.
“Historically the most resilient form of open government is one where leaking and publication is easy,” it says. “Public leaking, being an act of ethical defection to the majority, is by nature a democratizing force. Hence a system [that] enables everyone to leak safely to a ready audience is the most cost effective means of promoting good government.”
But the initiative, sure to concern U.S. officials who want to restrict access to documents, may go too far even for government transparency advocates.
Wikileaks’ intention to allow anonymous publication of confidential records without oversight by an accountable editor could cause leaks that invade privacy or incite violence, Steven Aftergood, head of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, wrote Jan. 3 in his online newsletter, Secrecy News.
“I’m sort of waiting to see how it works in practice,” Aftergood said in an interview. “But in principle I think it’s much too indiscriminate and susceptible to abuse.”
“There’s a difference in unauthorized disclosure from an authoritarian state versus disclosure from a democracy,” he said. “In a democratic system, people have the opportunity to define their own disclosure standards. If you violate those standards or encourage others to do so then you are in effect undermining the democratic process.”
De Jong, however, said misleading leaks “are already well-placed in the mainstream media. [Wikileaks] is of no additional assistance.”
Politically significant leaks will be “collaboratively analyzed by hundreds of [Wikileaks] editors in a way mainstream media-leaked documents could never dream of,” she said.
She said the group is prepared for legal attacks.
“We design the software and promote its human rights agenda, but the servers are run by anonymous volunteers,” she wrote. “Because we have no commercial interest in the software, there is no need to restrict its distribution. In the very unlikely event that we were to face coercion to make the software censorship-friendly, there are many others who would continue the work in other jurisdictions.”