Wikileaks’ exploits may fuel web whistleblower trend

27 Jul 2010

You could argue that a new era in online journalism has been forged with the biggest leak in US history, the recent Afghan War Diary on Wikileaks that has upset both the US and Pakistan governments. It could spark a new era for wannabe whistleblowers.

This wasn’t my first thought this morning as I ambled into my office. My initial reflections were purely on the sheer power at Wikileaks’ disposal and how a mere website finds itself at the nexus of one of the most emotive conflicts in the world, one that began with the tragic events of 11 September 2001.

As an avid reader of US newspapers, it’s not hard to see that the Afghanistan war has dragged on much longer than envisaged, leaving physical and emotional scars across many nations. The healing will take decades in the US and in war-torn Afghanistan in particular.

The latest controversy centres on the leak of 90,000 classified military records spanning six years from a source with top-level security clearance, detailing combat reports, killings of civilians and in particular NATO concerns that Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency is helping the Taliban in Afghanistan. The latter is an allegation that most US citizens will find hard to swallow because the US is providing Pakistan with up to US$1bn in aid per annum as part of its war on terrorism.

The enormous cache of documents posted under the title Afghan War Diary was also given to various organisations, including the New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel.

Wikileaks’ founder, Australian activist Julian Assange, although becoming an instant celebrity, is anxious the documents are taken seriously and said the site has even withheld posting about 15,000 documents in order to avoid jeopardising military or anti-terrorism operations.

The leaks mark a new phase in the power of the internet as a tool to inform and spark debate. But the question now is, will it also spark a new trend in wannabe whistleblowing? I’ll tell you why I think this.

How to submit a leak

My routine as I check my mail each and every day is to go to iGoogle where along with my Gmail, weather updates, maps and what not there’s a ‘How to’ of the day from Wikihow, a member of the Wiki fraternity. Today’s How to was entitled ‘How to submit a leak to Wikileaks.’

This sent my mind racing faster than the Pentagon has scrambled to deal with the Wikileaks expose and imagine a new trend of whistleblowing emerging from this.

This is not a bad thing; in fact the more open and transparent the world we live in, the better.

But it is also a double-edged sword. In my experience of dealing with sources there are two key motivations for leaking sensitive material: the first is motivated by the need for fair play, to highlight an obvious problem and to correct an injustice; the second can be motivated by power, whether to unbalance an adversary, gain financially or the heady emotions of causing a ruckus.

More often than not, whistleblowing is motivated by the former, a need to correct an obvious injustice.

The key, I believe, is that if more people are encouraged or feel motivated to bring important issues to light – and of course of doing so via the internet being quite easy – telling truth from lie is paramount.

Fact checking is a must and this is why I believe journalism will always have a future, sorting through a flood of revelatory material from a myriad of new sources will no doubt provide the stories, but they must always be accurate. Lives, livelihoods and much more – and I’m not talking about the reporters – will be the cost.

Protecting sources

Another key point is the protection of sources. As we weave our way online, tweeting here, posting videos on Qik or YouTube, messaging on Facebook, sending email and text messages, we leave digital bread crumbs. The web often gives people the feeling of anonymity but that is a veil – even with powerful encryption there is little people can do to truly cover their tracks. A journalist or publisher may undertake to protect a source’s identity, but unscrupulous authorities have the powers and the tools to find out anyway.

Just look at Ireland’s controversial data retention bill – the Communications (Retention of Data) Bill 2009, which transposes into law the controversial EU Data Retention Directive passed in the European Parliament in 2006, that enables a member of An Garda Síochána not below the rank of chief superintendent to instruct an internet service provider to hand over data as part of a criminal investigation.

Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said the purpose of requesting such information could be to prevent serious crimes, safeguard the security of the State and save human lives. It will also allow an officer of the Permanent Defence Forces not below the rank of colonel to request data, such as email, IP addresses, text messages, etc, in the interest of national security. Revenue tax officers not below the rank of principal officer may also request such data while investigating and prosecuting specified revenue offences.

But nothing humanity creates is immune from abuse. The Wikileaks saga sets in motion the platform from which whistleblowers can contribute to a more just and humane world. But it opens a Pandora’s Box in terms of telling fact from fiction and protecting the sources of the revelations that the powerful would rather have kept a lid on.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years