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.

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