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Going After Wikileaks Won’t Solve the Problem

Wikileaks founder and operator, Julian Assange, has released 250 of around 250,000 U.S. Embassy “cables,” a series of classified and non-classified communications from world-wide U.S. embassies on a myriad of topics. According to Assange:

“The cables show the extent of US spying on its allies and the UN; turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse in “client states”; backroom deals with supposedly neutral countries; lobbying for US corporations; and the measures US diplomats take to advance those who have access to them.”

As BigGovernment.com reports, so far the files released haven’t lived up to the hype. Assange has a history of playing up the headline he believes will be most damaging to the United States, but in reality, much of what we’ve seen so far amounts to a somewhat embarrassing confirmation of the kind of gossip many would have expected.

The real scandal is the number of people with access to these supposedly secure communication channels. BigGovernment.com reports that there are 3 Million people with access to these documents. That’s one in every 100 citizens in our nation. Is there anyone in government without access to these documents? The Washington Post’s David Ignatius suggests we solve the problem by classifying less and creating a “government version of Wikipedia … A much bigger, broader expansion of the CIA Factbook.” Leaving aside the obvious fact that the CIA’s World Factbook doesn’t have anything to do with our foreign policy decisions, this is still a ridiculous suggestion. Changing what we classify doesn’t stop people from leaking classified information, it just alters the amount of material available. He may have a point about the over-classified nature of much of this communication, but that’s a separate issue.

Others have suggested going after Assange and the Wikileaks website. Sure, we could try to take down the wikileaks website; the government might even succeed, but I doubt it. This would be more complicated than most people realize, like finding all the feathers from a pillow ripped open during a windstorm. The Dept. of Homeland Security recently seized a myraid of .com second-level domains. (That DHS is seizing domains to “protect us” from the terrorism of Gucci knockoffs is insane in its own right, but that’s a separate issue). The website owners responded quickly, and moved their sites to domains outside of U.S. control; most reappeared within hours. Taking the domain won’t do anything, and neither would shutting down the wikileaks servers. Wikileaks isn’t actually a wiki anymore, so it doesn’t require a complex software architecture. Instead, it is now written in static HTML and CSS. Why is this pertinent? The entire cablegate site (as currently published) can be compressed into a file that’s about 5 MB in size. About 2.7 MB of that is the cables that have been released. Given that the rest of the site will remain essentially static, and assuming the cables are all about the same size, that means that the entire site will be approximately 2.6 GB of data. Given that wikileaks is already making the archives available via torrent, a distributed publishing method, and given that all one has to do to recreate the site is upload the data to a server, just about anyone could republish the material if the site went down. Even if the government could seize Wikileaks servers, I would expect the site to reappear at a multitude of new servers within a day, and potentially much faster if backup servers have already been created.

If the U.S. government wants to patch its chronically seeping information channels, they need to enforce actual consequences for those who share information without authorization, and they need to vastly reduce the number of people with access to secret documents. There is absolutely no reason why one in 100 Americans should need access to government “secrets.” It’s hard enough for two people to keep a secret. With 3,000,000 participants, we might as well go with Ignatius’ Wikipedia idea, the information is just going to leak out anyway. To solve this problem, the government must go to the source, not focus their attack on the distribution channels. If nothing were leaked, Wikileaks and similar sites would have no content to publish.