Cablegate: When openness and privacy collide

Julian Assange's decision to release 251,000 US State Department may have struck a blow for transparency, but it caused serious damage to personal privacy -- and put lives at risk.

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Julian Assange took the virtual stage at consumer trade show IFA Berlin early this morning, speaking via video from an undisclosed location in England. His stated topic: “The Future of Digital Publicity, Transparency, and What It Means for the World.”

His real topic: The 251,287 US State Department cables that now sit unredacted for the world to download or search from WikiLeaks’ servers.

There is no transcript or Webcast of Assange’s speech. And though I was in Berlin last week (lovely city) to attend IFA, I had to leave before Assange’s appearance. So I can only react to this based on published reports. With that in mind, let me summarize Assange’s speech:

Cablegate: Not my fault. Blame the Guardian and Daniel Domscheit-Berg for this unholy mess.

The problem? It is Assange's fault, at least as much as it is Guardian reporter David Leigh (who leaked the password to the original encrypted file containing the cables) and Domscheit-Berg (who pointed out where the encrypted files could be found). How these documents became public could be called a comedy of errors, if the potential blowback weren’t so tragic.

I like the concept of WikiLeaks. I like having a rogue organization that anyone can use for blowing the whistle on the bad guys – especially one that that can’t be strong armed into silence. But it still needs to respect the privacy of individuals.

I think people have a right to their secrets, provided they aren’t hiding something that’s socially destructive (like, say, a penchant for serial killing). Ditto for governments; the wheels of diplomacy would never turn if everything were on the public record; but we still deserve to know when our governments are lying to us or committing heinous acts. So balance and discretion are required. Unfortunately, those two words appear to be missing from Julian Assange’s vocabulary.

I know there are people out there (like Assange and certain members of Anonymous) who believe complete transparency is the only way to go. But that tramples all over your right to choose what you share with certain portions of the world, and what you keep private.

Think of your relationships with your significant others or your family. Now think how your relationships would be if every single thing that crossed your mind during each day was known to your partner (siblings, parents, children). Maybe the relationships would be stronger; maybe 100 percent transparency is a good thing. Maybe if you strapped wings and a propeller to a swine it would win the Red Bull Air Race. But I very much doubt it.

No dear, that dress does not make you look fat – why would anyone think that?

You’re just as handsome (funny, charming) as they day I met you; and that bald spot? Sexy as hell.

Of course I never did any of those things when I was your age, and you shouldn’t either.

And so on. Complete transparency is highly overrated, in my humble opinion. Your mileage may vary.

So the leaks that former Libyan strongman Muammar Ghadafy had a voluptuous Ukranian nurse or that the president of Argentina is apparently off her rocker were interesting in a gossipy way, but they weren’t really newsworthy. Yet WikiLeaks felt no qualms about publishing that information.

Also not newsworthy but much more dangerous: revealing the names of political dissidents, confidential informants, and other anti-government sources who thought they were protected – and now are not.

We will likely never know if bad things happen to these people. The secret police in most countries don’t generally issue press releases, and it’s hard to tweet from a prison cell -- or a grave. So much for 100 percent transparency.

Their blood would be on Assange’s hands. But don’t expect him to admit that.

ITworld TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan’s probably won’t be going to high tea at Julian Assange’s house any time soon. Visit his eHumor site eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech.

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