“…the more that is found out about what authorities do and know, the less they appear to deserve to be all-powerful authorities… high status is protected through special and exclusive access to information… heads of states who lose their control over information sometimes lose their heads as well” Meyrowitz, 1985, No Sense of Place –The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior, p. 166
Wikileaks’ recent leaks of diplomats’ and states’ off record negotiations and conversations have prompted a number of politicians to stand up for their right to privacy and confidentiality. They all seem a bit offended and surprised by this attack on their integrity. Hillary Clinton’s first response to the leaks was for example delivered with indignation and shock: “every country, including the US, must be able to have honest, private dialogue with other countries … When someone breaches that trust, we are the worse off for it.”
I don’t understand how they can be so offended and not to mention surprised by these leaks? The leaks are the latest outburst of the gradual transformation of the roles played by citizens and authorities (between those who hold and have access to information and those who don’t) in a society where the infrastructure is built on digital information technologies. New information technologies have in this century steadily been ”breaking down walls” between the private and the public – and between authorities and citizens (Joshua Meyrowitz, 1985). They’ve provided citizens with new modes of accessing information and become knowledgeable about the processes of states and authorities. This is not rocket science.
Presently one politician after the other appears in Danish news commenting on the Wikileaks’ leaks. They seem just as offended as Hillary. “It’s all gossip and noise…” they say, “diplomacy is a serious business”. They demand privacy and confidentiality of information. But they tend to forget that it’s a two way road. The sophisticated development of technologies does not only open up for new modes for the public to access information, new automated methods of collecting data have also provided authorities with the means to e.g. collect private data about citizens – information that could actually also be classified as “noise and gossip” – but is still collected “just in case”. DNA sampling, internet traffic data logging, biometric data etc. etc.
So, sieving through the digital information networks are not only leaks of diplomats’ private doings, we are all subjected to review. And it’s actually just a symptom of a society where the cracks and holes in the walls that hold information are widening – on both sides.
In this kind of society we demand “transparency”. It’s been a slow but steady process. Freedom of information legislations where citizens are guaranteed rights to access of information held by states are not a new invention, but they are becoming more of a demand in recent years. In general, transparency is presently the answer in most policy areas. And it’s what advocates will demand: A demand for openness and accountability. The European Court of Human Rights has for example in many cases recognized the powerful potential of our technologies by stressing the need for an increased transparency in the law of the aims and procedures put in place when collecting private data about citizens.
So don’t get offended, get used to it. If I have to be subjected to constant surveillance even in my most private moments, so do the authorities that govern my everyday life. Information cannot be contained in the network society. Authorities will lose power when leaks about their seemingly private negotiations and agreements sieve through the network. I’m afraid, though, that we will get too used to the transparency of the doings and actions of states that we will start seeing leaks as “noise”, that we will stop caring for example when we hear about how a singular state has been surveilling UN staff – because it’s enough that we know. Transparency is not the answer. It’s only a part of the answer.