The Backwardness of WikiLeaks

The most surprising feature of the Cablegate is how throughly old-fashioned it is. Like a WWI cavalry battle, it’s loud, it’s interesting, and it makes for a good story, but it’s also a painfully traditional conflict between fundamentally obsolete forces.

When all is said and done, we are talking about the unauthorized distribution of less than 1 GB of uncompressed, unencrypted text files, which in contemporary technological terms approaches a rounding error. It’s a couple of medium-quality downloads of a TV show or a tiny part of a dirt-cheap USB drive, and the diversity of options to distribute and transfer it through the internet is staggering. WikiLeaks, as a site and as an organization, might or might not be disrupteable, but both governments and the press (not to mention whistle-blowers themselves) seem quite unaware of the fact that this is as useful as closing barn doors to keep bacteria from getting out.

I suspect their underlying mental model is that of TV stations or printing presses, which can be taken over or destroyed when needed. Very few in politics or media seem the understand that unlike tv sets and tv transmitters, all networked computers are essentially the same. Private citizens might not be able to quickly replace a shelled TV station, or Google’s search infrastructure for that matter, but a cheap smartphone is perfectly capable of storing and distributing gigabytes of sensitive information.

The only thing that WikiLeaks provided, their unique value, lies on their well-earned ability to gather the attention of politicians and the press. The documents might have just as easily been given to, say, 4chan, who more likely than not would have proven to be even more resilient to government pressure than WikiLeaks. Or, for probably far less than the cost of hosting WikiLeaks traditionally, a botnet could have been rented to literally spam people with fragments of the documents. WikiLeaks, which has a well-defined name, a website, and a face, is understandable enough for media to grudgingly pay attention to, and in turn this makes it noticeable enough for politicians to care about them. But this only proves how completely behind the curve they are. It might still be true that many voters (as well as many members of more restricted and influential groups) still only know what’s “on the papers,” but this situation has an unavoidable expiration date. Increasingly, things are only covered by news organizations after millions of people already know about them.

We live in information-rich societies led and covered by people trained for — and still believing themselves in — a situation of information scarcity. Therein lies the real threat… for them and for us.

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