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Posted at 12:02 PM ET, 11/30/2010

What's next for WikiLeaks -- and for information

By Ezra Klein

Looks like Wall Street has reason to worry:

In a rare, two-hour interview conducted in London on November 11, Assange said that he’s still sitting on a trove of secret documents, about half of which relate to the private sector. And WikiLeaks’ next target will be a major American bank. “It will give a true and representative insight into how banks behave at the executive level in a way that will stimulate investigations and reforms, I presume,” he said, adding: “For this, there’s only one similar example. It’s like the Enron emails.”

Later in the interview, Assange says the documents "could take down a bank or two." I'm a lot less sympathetic to banks than I am to diplomats, but I'm not sure this guy's incentives -- which by now include impact and publicity -- are really trustworthy.

Assange isn't whistleblowing or leaking. Both of those are targeted acts focused on an identified wrongdoing or event. He's simply taking the private and making it public, with relatively little in the way of discrimination. If he's really effective, the likely outcome won't be that people know more, but that they know less, as major institutions -- both public and private -- will stop sharing their information so widely internally and stop writing so much of it down. That means decision-makers will know less, bureaucrats and managers will know less, reporters will know less, historians will know less, and so on. Assange may think his target is the U.S. government, or Goldman Sachs. But at the end of the day, there will still be governments and there will still be banks. What Assange is really doing is turning them against electronic text, file storage and large internal networks.

By Ezra Klein  | November 30, 2010; 12:02 PM ET
 
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Comments

i also question this guy's motives. Obviously its for publicity because he's "announced" this about banks but won't publish it until the 1st of the year. Could he illegally sell stock short of the bank in question and then make a nice tidy profit off of it?

Also i don't know what could be worse in those documents that people don't already know about Wall Street and/or big banks. I mean GS was betting against its own clients and investments and they still had a banner year. Short of GS or some other big bank actually committing multiple crimes that are absolute I don't think this will do much more than what Ezra says (ie make information harder to get at)

Posted by: visionbrkr | November 30, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

like everyone else, i have been reading about the wikileaks documents that have been released, and wondering about the whole concept of wikileaks.
mr assange decides arbitrarily what he will expose?
he will decide what documents and information can put people at jeopardy, can affect credibility between nations...trust, goodwill?

the greater loss over the past few years, is that the right of privacy seems gone forever.
a thing of the past.
anyone can attempt to destroy another person, a group of persons, an institution, a government, at will.....through bribes, hacking, leaks....whatever they need to use.

what purpose has a lot of the wikileaks information?
it is all being released for the good of.....what????
most of it just seems to be private information that has been arbitrarily made public.
it seems malicious, in a way.

are the wikileaks going to scare governments and corporations and individuals into acting accountably for fear of exposure?
no, i dont imagine so.
everything now is exposed and can be violated. i dont think there is any real privacy left.

mr assange may win the battle, but we will lose the war.
we are all open books. our secrets and our bodies, our thoughts and actions belong to everyone, and they can make of us, whatever they will.
we smile back at ourselves on the bank webcams, our fillings and fingerprints show up on scanners, our secrets can be taken away from us....even the birds and polar bears are tagged and numbered and watched.
only the leaves on the trees seem to remain unnumbered and live out their lives peacefully.

Posted by: jkaren | November 30, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

Its a bit odd to say that Wikileaks data dumps aren't targeted acts. Though the latest data dump and the upcoming banking data dump aren't targeted at specific events or actions, they are targeted at groups that have systemic problems (i.e. for diplomats that act as spies/lying to the american public regarding afpak, etc. and banks that have a culture of unethical/illegal behavior). Wikileaks isn't targeting benign or positive actors such as trying to make public trade secrets.

It is also a bit unrealistic to say that informational will move away from electronic text (which it will in some circumstances) when it is the lifeblood of communication in any large business. I haven't worked in government and can't say, but it is ridiculous to say that large banks will move away from electronic communication.

Posted by: catalystoffire | November 30, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Wall Street is not the only one that has reason to worry. For the second time in two days, I agree with something you've written.

Not sure how something like this could happen!

Posted by: 54465446 | November 30, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure I agree with you that we'll see more secrecy - they may attempt that, but I think the genie is out of the bottle.

We can question Assange's motives (fair enough) but I'm hoping the larger effect (in the bank case) is that executives, knowing that their actions can't be buried forever, will think twice about nefarious conduct.

That's supposing, of course, that there will be some kind of consequences when their behavior is exposed.

Posted by: lcrider1 | November 30, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,
Mixed reviews on this because a lot of internal communications isn't done simply because it is easiest but because the communication is done, recorded, hidden and archived against further need to show that an issue was discussed. They just aren't made public because two internal decision-makers are discussing embarassing information that they don't want released unless they have to defend themselves, typically in court.
This sort of gets back to the tobacco litigation in the late 90s when they were running everything through their legal departments to get legal protection.

Posted by: ctown_woody | November 30, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

You know Ezra, newspapers used to be dedicated to the pulic's right to know things. Why don't you let the public decide whether it's useful rather than siding with those who would like to keep their actions secret.

Posted by: jdevo | November 30, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

jkaren - you argument is equally applicable to news organizations. do you think that they should not be able to disclose private info of public concern?

i haven't heard a single good argument that wikileaks is publishing matters that are not of public concern. the argument goes that they are merely disclosing what is known publicly. further, if the nytimes on its own published individual stories of the same effect from unnamed sources, that would be considered good reporting. the only difference is that nytimes reporters/editors are not allowed to hind behind unnamed sources and their discretion in what should and should not be public.

Posted by: catalystoffire | November 30, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

We question Assange's/WikiLeaks' motives precisely because he/it has given no rationale or analysis. It's just a dump -- seemingly random publication of nonpublic materials that have been passed to him/it. And that (for those who would try to apply the discussion to news organizations) is the difference between Assange's project and a free and responsible press. The media outlets to whom the 'leaks' were given have at least attempted rationale and analysis, though it is second-hand and fairly unconvincing, at best. They didn't seek out these documents and had no underlying motive: they were given a bunch of stuff.

The bigger question is the motives of those who are providing Wikileaks with the material. On that subject, TPM has highlighted some intriguing thoughts (conspiratorial?) from Zbigniew Brzezinski.

http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/2010/11/beyond_manning.php#more?ref=fpblg

Posted by: JJenkins2 | November 30, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Klein:

1) Muckraking journalism is fine, so long as it doesn't have a target.

2) Leaks must be filtered by Responsible Journalists: the risk that the media might be ideologically biased (see NYT's anti-Iran propaganda on WikiLeaks' latest dump) is trumped by the risk that the public might exhibit a prurient attraction to that which should rightfully remain private--that is, the public is very bad at determining what is of public interest.

3) And yet private organizations are very good at determining what it is best kept private.

4a.) A negative externality of Assange posting private documents is that your boss will mandate everyone revert to typewriters, mimeographs, and carbon paper.

4b.) Or maybe EK means that information flows within organizations will be slowed as people consider whether they want what they're sending to go public. OK, but if part of that slowing involves, say, a decrease in insider trading tips getting passed around? I won't exactly be crying over the loss of workplace efficiency at Goldman Sachs.

Posted by: JohnCMulligan | November 30, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

"It's just a dump -- seemingly random publication of nonpublic materials that have been passed to him/it."

Agreed. We're starting to hear from historians who routinely deal with archives of diplomatic communications as part of their primary research, and who point to the problems of treating them as divine writ, shorn of context and lured by their classification.

"Why don't you let the public decide whether it's useful rather than siding with those who would like to keep their actions secret."

The public might decide that it's interested in seeing 24/7 video footage from your bathroom. We can only find out once we've turned on the cameras.

("Interesting to the public" != "in the public interest".)

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | November 30, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

I think you err in assuming that organizations can actually adjust to effectively dial up their level of secrecy. I doubt they have that much control. Just as I can't will an increase in my blood hemoglobin so that I can run further.

Posted by: zosima | November 30, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

"If he's really effective, the likely outcome won't be that people know more, but that they know less, as major institutions -- both public and private -- will stop sharing their information so widely internally and stop writing so much of it down. That means decision-makers will know less, bureaucrats and managers will know less, reporters will know less, historians will know less, and so on."--Ezra

Not quite. People already knew nothing. It's only due to Wikileaks that anything is known at all. And now that we know, what will we do with the information? If we choose not to do anything, THEN we all lose.

Posted by: mitch4949 | November 30, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

"i haven't heard a single good argument that wikileaks is publishing matters that are not of public concern."

it seems that some of what is made available in the wikileaks documents is irrelevant and not a matter of public concern.
what concerns me is the complete loss of privacy nowadays, and the power that untrustworthy, ruthless or not-well intentioned people can have, in unfolding and revealing private information about others, for what they subjectively decide, is the greater good.
that greater good could be a sense of power, malevolence....almost anything.
and revealing information can sometimes be a good thing, but can also have terrible consequences.
it is just different. different rules. or no rules.
the loss of privacy in a society, as we are now experiencing, is something to really consider.
the sum of its loss, may, in a larger context, be greater than its parts.

Posted by: jkaren | November 30, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Julian Assange is an historian who has mistaken himself for an activist. His leaks do have immense value -- but it's academic value, not political value, and he doesn't realize that yet.

Posted by: WHSTCL | November 30, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

I think Ezra's right that the outcome of all this will be that governments and organizations will be more careful with their secret docs and what things get recorded, but the outcome that *should* happen is that there are just fewer things kept under wraps. Out of the thousands of documents Wikileaks is dumping, what percent contain info that really, truly needs to be kept from the public? I don't like Assange much, but the big surprise is that so much banal stuff is kept secret.

Posted by: MosBen | November 30, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Your assessment is probably correct. The truth Assange seeks, however, won't likely be reached by disclosing what's private regardless of what definition of privacy one adopts. When trust in our institutions returns we will have the truth we need. Damn the spinmeisters and money-worshipers who are infecting everything.

Posted by: burtonentp | November 30, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Your assessment is probably correct. The truth Assange seeks, however, won't likely be reached by disclosing what's private regardless of what definition of privacy one adopts. When trust in our institutions returns we will have the truth we need. Damn the spinmeisters and money-worshipers who are infecting everything.

Posted by: burtonentp | November 30, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

What was truly reprehensible was the Judy Miller/Dick Cheney leaking of pro war material. We were lied into a war by so called responsible journalists. Anyone that dared to speak up, like Joe Wilson, were brutally handled, in his case, by the outing of his wife as a CIA agent.

I think Wiki Leaks may deserve the Nobel Peace Prize for opening a little window into the banality of American imperialism.

Posted by: JimHannan | November 30, 2010 4:49 PM | Report abuse

Wikileaks twittered a link to this interesting blog post on Assange's motivation.

http://is.gd/i0udB - long, but interesting.


The short version is (in his terms) that one aim in releasing leaks is to get conspiritorial governments to be worried about internal communication. This reduces their ability to conspire and act unjustly.


Open and just governments/organisations have less to lose from leaks, so they will be more successful.

From Assange's essay: "In a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems."

So when Ezra observes that this will stop governemts using communication so readily, Assange will be quite happy.

Posted by: colin_overton | November 30, 2010 5:19 PM | Report abuse

I'd love to see someone hack Assange's email account and post it on the internet.

I have to wonder how long it's going to take for people to figure out how to exploit wikileaks in disinformation campaigns, for example by selectively leaking or fabricating embarrassing information about political, national, or business rivals. Perhaps this is already going on.

Posted by: jeffwacker | November 30, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

"If he's really effective, the likely outcome won't be that people know more, but that they know less, as major institutions -- both public and private -- will stop sharing their information so widely internally and stop writing so much of it down."

Uh, I'm also not really sure what I think of Assange, and I think information from private companies is different than information created by public institutions -- but do you not detect the irony in this? In other words, if we do not keep secret stuff secret, these institutions will keep us from seeing their secret stuff.

We should self-censor, or else they'll censor.

Net difference: Zero.

Posted by: dpurp | November 30, 2010 10:13 PM | Report abuse

Dick Bove, a leading financials analyst, has identified the company involved as Bank of America, on CNBC. The speculation now is the Assange himself is being set up with info by people who are shorting the financials. He makes the perfect dupe, with his statement that helped drive down the price of financial stocks, due to his reluctance to name a specific company.

My guess is that Assange is being used like Joan of Arc, by people who have a pecuniary gain in mind, and like her, he will burn at the stake by himself when this is over.

Posted by: 54465446 | November 30, 2010 10:14 PM | Report abuse

Have any of you read Assange's essays on using simple graph theory to describe conspiracies?

http://cryptome.org/0002/ja-conspiracies.pdf

There's no math in it, in case you're scared, but he describes essentially the same programming technique that Google and Netflix use to guess what you're interested in. He just applies it to politics.

Posted by: stonedone | December 1, 2010 9:01 AM | Report abuse

[H]is underlying insight is simple and, I think, compelling: while an organization structured by direct and open lines of communication will be much more vulnerable to outside penetration, the more opaque it becomes to itself (as a defense against the outside gaze), the less able it will be to “think” as a system, to communicate with itself. The more conspiratorial it becomes, in a certain sense, the less effective it will be as a conspiracy. The more closed the network is to outside intrusion, the less able it is to engage with that which is outside itself (true hacker theorizing).

http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/2010/12/the-strategy-of-wikileaks/

Posted by: wpost16 | December 1, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

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