Unjust organizations around the world face a new threat: anonymity. A new web site called Wikileaks makes whistleblowers untraceable, so that they can leak documents without fear of being caught. The site follows the format of Wikipedia, allowing anyone to create a new document page, and providing space for public discussions and analyses of documents. The founders of the project are anonymous, and the locations of the web site’s servers are unknown, with speculations ranging from abandoned U.S. nuclear weapons bases to bunkers in sub-Saharan Africa.
Although peer-to-peer file sharing and anonymous personal web sites have given people a way to leak sensitive information in the past, whistleblowers have run high risks of being discovered, because information travel routes can often be easily traced. Wikileaks overcomes this problem by using advanced cryptographic techniques and an internet protocol called the Onion Router.
Frédéric Mégret, a Law professor at McGill and the Canada research chair in the Law of Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, explains that punishment has been a major concern of potential whistleblowers.
“Some people give information only to the extent that [their identity] remains confidential because they would otherwise put themselves at strong risk.”
For whistleblowers, the risk of being discovered can be extreme. Mordechai Vanunu, a nuclear technician, has spent 18 years prison in Israel, much of it in solitary confinement, due to what he revealed about the existence of an Israeli nuclear weapons program in 1986. Dr. Mégret says that the ease and anonymity of Wikileaks could greatly increase the number of people willing to leak information.
“Anonymity, assuming it works, plus easy technological access could encourage a lot of people, from all levels…to do things they wouldn’t do otherwise,” he says.
In its short lifetime of a year and a half, Wikileaks has received an astonishing 1.2 million documents. The documents range from the classified schematic design of the atomic bomb “Fat Man” detonated over Nagasaki in 1945, to records of misconduct in the FBI and multinational financial companies, to a secret 110-page document showing investigations of massive corruption and billion dollar money-laundering schemes in the Kenyan government.
Understandably, Wikileaks is not universally loved. Angry and embarrassed groups have brought many lawsuits and injunctions against it. In February of 2008, Wikileaks released internal documents from the Julius Baer bank in Zurich. The documents showed trade secrets from the bank, including methods used to help clients evade taxes by siphoning funds to trusts in the Cayman Islands. The Swiss bank filed a lawsuit against the American domain registrar of wikileaks.org, arguing a violation of privacy by a disgruntled ex-employee, and as a result the wikileaks.org domain was shut down.
After two weeks of uproar from civil liberties organizations, the injunction was overturned, because blocking the site violated the U.S. first Amendment on Freedom of Speech. An Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) senior staff attorney emphasized this in a press conference.
“Attempting to interfere with the operation of an entire web site because you have a dispute over some of its content is never the right approach. Disabling access to an internet domain in an effort to prevent the world from accessing a handful of widely-discussed documents is not only unconstitutional – it simply won’t work,” he said.
The onslaught of well publicized legal attacks like this one has only fueled the web site’s popularity, and resulted in more leaked documents. In December, the site released a 238-page military manual detailing the inner workings of Guantanamo Bay. The document, not classified but for internal use, had been legitimately requested by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) many times since 2003, but had remained undisclosed.
In early March of this year, Wikileaks released documents detailing alleged propaganda and harassment activities of the Church of Scientology between 1986-1992. A few days later it released an 88-page report from 2003, which detailed the FBI’s surveillance tools for phone calls made via networks like the internet.
Dr. Mégret notes that due to the pivotal role of whistleblowers in passing on information about the Holocaust and the machete buildup prior to the Rwandan genocide, more international laws have sought to protect dissidents. Yet policies, he says, are still largely geared toward protection of the state.
“There is no systematic thinking about the role that individuals might have in helping enforce international law by denouncing situations kept secret by governments,” he explained.
Although the massive response to Wikileaks shows that it’s a needed resource – and that current whistleblower protection laws are insufficient in many countries – the openness of the site makes it susceptible to misuse. Although the site aims to serve as a forum and repository of documents that reveal illegal behaviour, users can publish documents that reveal anything from the private lives of celebrities to the passports of politicians.
Mégret notes that while documents such as the health records of celebrities might be of interest to the public, posting them on a web site would be a violation of privacy laws in many countries.
“The distinction between ‘significant public interest’ involving wrongdoing,” he says, “rather than something that is simply interesting, is important.”
The open nature of the site also makes it difficult to authenticate documents. Critics of the project have argued that the site may serve as a breeding ground for fabricated documents and perpetuation of false information. However, the developers of Wikileaks reply that their site offers a forum for “a worldwide community of informed users and editors who can scrutinize and discuss leaked documents.”
If such doubts prove to be unfounded, the long-term effect that Wikileaks might have on the way governments and corporations behave could be significant. The site has the potential to bring more accountability and transparency to organizations whose doors have traditionally been closed. Although the birth of the Wikileaks project has been dramatic, its maturation will likely be even more exciting.