While most of the recent coverage of WikiLeaks has focused on Assange’s trial, an important bit of news is the alleged conflict between Bank of America and the organization.
WikiLeaks apparently has some documents that would be damaging to Bank of America. This is hardly surprising, given the sort of financial misdeeds that seem to have been business as usual for many of the big financial companies. Apparently the security company of HBGary Federal saw this as an opportunity and developed a rather nefarious plan that involved attempting to discredit WikiLeaks by submitting false information to the site, to expose those who have contributed to WikiLeaks and by launching attacks on journalists who have expressed sympathy for WikiLeaks. In addition to the security company, it also appears that the well connected law firm of Hunton & William and even the United States Justice Department were also involved to some degree.
In response to this, Anonymous (a self-proclaimed defender of WikiLeaks) launched a counterattack on HBGary Federal and its head, Aaron Barr. Ironically, Anonymous was able to hack the security company and revealed not only the plans in question but also such things as the fact that Barr’s wife intends to divorce him. They even revealed the name of his WoW character, a level 80 Night Elf Druid. That is certainly an interesting nerdtastic touch.
On the face of it, it seems that HBGary Federal and Barr reaped what they had sown. After all, by engaging in such activities and planning to engage what certainly seem to be unethical and even illegal activities, they certainly seem to deserve to be exposed and even subject to punishment. Since the authorities appear to not be inclined to take action in regards to these activities, it could be argued that this was a state of nature situation which justified Anonymous in taking action in its own defense and the defense of others. This could thus be seen as a falling nicely within John Locke’s theory regarding self defense and punishment in the state of nature.
It could, of course, be objected that Anonymous is in the wrong. After all, Anonymous launched some minor attacks against companies such as PayPal for ceasing to do business with WikiLeaks. Also, WikiLeaks itself has engaged in activities that some consider unethical and illegal. On these assumptions, it could be thus argued that HBGary Federal was acting in an ethically acceptable manner by trying to stop wrongdoers and to protect Bank of America and others from the danger posed by WikiLeaks and its allies. As such, HBGary Federal could be seen as acting as a vigilante. Of course, vigilantism might strike many as morally questionable so perhaps it is better to cast the company as acting within a cyber state of nature. In this state, the company has to act in ways that seem to go beyond the law because its chosen opponents (Anonymous, WikiLeaks, supporters, and journalist) are beyond the reach of the law.
The main and most obvious flaw in this objection is that while Anonymous and WikiLeaks have endeavored to remain outside of the reach of certain authorities, the authorities do have the means to impose their laws upon them. Even if they are regarded as criminals, they would thus still seem to be within the state of society and thus can legitimately expect to not be subject to unlawful action and vigilante style attacks. While it might be argued that Anonymous and WikiLeaks act as vigilantes and thus can be justly subject to vigilante attacks, this would be on par with arguing that criminals can be treated in criminal ways because they are criminals. It would also appear to be a case of a “two wrongs make a right” fallacy.
If Anonymous and WikiLeaks were, in fact, beyond the reach of the law and were engaged in wrongful acts, then a case could be made for vigilantism. After all, if the wronged parties had no recourse to the law, then they would seem to have the right (as per Locke) to seek to stop the wrongdoers and gain reparation for the damage done. However, this does not seem to be the case at all.
A second flaw is that the journalists that were supposed to be targeted were obviously not in a state of nature or beyond the law. If the journalists had acted in illegal ways, then they could be dealt with within the legal system. Naturally, it could be objected that since the journalists cannot be stopped via legal means, they must be stopped via what seem to be illegal (and what seem to be clearly unethical means) means. This objection would, of course, have some merit if the journalists were in the wrong and were being protected by unjust laws. However, this does not seem to be the case and the objection has no real merit. As such, it seems that a company was acting outside of the law and was hoisted by its own petard.
It is tempting to look at history in terms of dichotomies: left versus right, capitalism versus, communism, rich versus poor, and Coke versus Pepsi. Since this is the holiday season, I will yield to temptation and look back at 2010 in terms of centralization versus decentralization.
Putting matters rather roughly, centralization is just what it sounds like: the concentration of power, wealth, authority, fame or other such resources in the hand of relatively few people. Decentralization is, of course, the opposite:it is the distribution of such resources.
On the face of it, 2010 seems to have been a decentralizing year. For example, a major grass roots movement, the Tea Party, arose to challenge the centralized power of the Democrats and the Republicans. As another example, WikilLeaks has distributed secrets far and wide and Anonymous has rushed to its defense by hacking. As a third example, Twitter, Facebook, the web in general, and good old fashioned email have helped spread information and power throughout the world. Naturally, other examples big and small could be presented; but this should suffice to provide a quick sketch of things. I will now look at each in a bit more depth.
When the Tea Party formed, it seemed to be a leveling and decentralizing force. After all, it got ordinary citizens involved in politics, it gave them a loud voice, and it challenged the bi-polar system that has dominated American politics for quite some time. It appeared that some of the power that had been carefully gathered up by two parties was being pulled away from them, thus making the field a bit more level.
However, while the Tea Party did have an impact on the political situation, it did seem to be rather quickly absorbed by the Republican party. After all, the Tea Party members ran as Republicans and ended up working within the existing power system. As such, they did not so much level the field as help some folks get on the Republican mountain (as was the case with Paul Rand) or move a bit closer to the peak (as in the case of Sarah Palin).
That said, the full impact of the Tea Party has yet to arrive. Perhaps 2012 will show that the Tea Party remains an independent factor in politics, rather than operating merely as part of the Republican machine.
WikiLeaks does seem to be an excellent example of decentralization. While people have taken secrets and revealed them to the public before (Watergate and the Pentagon Papers server as two excellent examples), previous leaking involved established news agencies releasing information. In the case of WikiLeaks, it seems that a single individual (Manning) leaked secrets to a small organization (WikiLeaks) that was able to distribute it around the world via the web.
This incident would seem to show that the playing field of secrecy has been leveled, at least to a degree. People do not need to rely entirely on the state or the establishment news to provide them with information and states are vulnerable to public disclosure of their secrets.
Of course, it is important to put the matter in perspective. The leak was mainly a matter of chance: there just happened to be someone who had access to information who happened to be willing to pass it on to WikiLeaks. As such, it was something of an accidental decentralization and it seems likely that there will not be an ongoing leaking of secrets once the original “vein” of documents is mined out. As such, the WikiLeaks incident does not seem likely to be the start of an information revolution.
Finally, the web, Twitter, Facebook and so on seem to be empowering individuals and thus a force of decentralization. The web allows individuals to share information (as well as porn and malware) in a very democratic way. Twitter was lionized in the media for its role in Iran and Facebook is supposed to empower us by allowing us to create virtual communities across borders.
While the idea that these things are forces of leveling and decentralization, they often merely create new centers. For example, consider Facebook. While it has millions of users, it is owned and controlled by one company. As such, it is actually highly centralized. While the web is supposed to be a virtual kingdom of anarchy, most folks access the web through ISPs owned by major companies and it depends on companies and governments for its infrastructure. And there is, of course, Google. While it would be a bit of an exaggeration to say that Google is the central memory of the web, it would not be much of an exaggeration.
While there is a multitude of small web sites and so on, the web is also a place of centralization. Much of the software comes from Microsoft, Google dominates searches, Facebook dominates social networking and so on. The hardware is controlled by companies and nations. The mountains of centralization are still there and still beyond the reach of most who dwell on the level planes far below these lofty peaks.
The town of Berkeley recently considered a motion to declare Private Manning a hero. Manning is, of course, accused of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. While some see him as an obvious villain and other see him as an obvious hero, this is a matter worthy of some consideration.
The first point of concern is to provide a rough idea of what it is to be a hero. While I do not purport to be giving a necessary and sufficient definition of what it is to be a hero, I think that there are two core requirements.
The first is that a person must put herself at significant risk. Since risk comes in degrees is would thus seem to follow that there are degrees of heroism. This is intuitively plausible. For example, if I merely risk a minor injury, then I am only being (at most) somewhat heroic. If, however, I run a considerable risk of being horribly killed, then my potential heroism would seem far more significant.
Obviously enough, putting oneself at risk is not sufficient for heroism. After all, if a person drinks several Four Loko and runs out into traffic, he is putting himself at risk. However, he is not being heroic. This leads to the second core requirement.
The second requirement is the moral element. An act of heroism is, intuitively, an act that aims at a moral good. We would not, for example, call someone who undertook considerable risk to commit a murder or rape a hero.
As with the risk, the goodness can come in varying degrees. So, for example, if someone risks an injury by climbing a tree to rescue a cat, then she is being a little bit heroic. As another example, Ginger Littleton acted to try to save the lives of her fellow school board members which would make her rather heroic.
Naturally, there are all sorts of other factors that must be taken into account when assessing specific acts for heroism. For example, there is the matter of whether the person acted knowingly. As another example, there is the question of intent. However, I do not want to become bogged down in this point (I’ll leave that up to commentators) and will now switch to the main issue or whether Manning is a hero or not.
Since it has yet to be proven that Manning leaked the information, the discussion of his heroism (or lack thereof) is hypothetical. For the sake of the discussion, it will be assumed that he did leak the information. However, this is not to be taken as a claim that he did, in fact, leak the information.
Manning’s alleged leak does meet the first condition. Such a leak brings with it considerable risk (such as the possibility of an extended amount of jail time) and presumably Manning was aware of these consequences. However, the critical requirement is the moral requirement.
While Assange seems to regard himself on a moral crusade, it is not entirely clear what motivated Manning nor what Manning hoped to achieve with the leak. There has been some speculation that he leaked the information because of his dislike of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. If so, it could perhaps be argued that his leak was a moral protest against what he regarded as an immoral policy.
However, the information about Manning seems to indicate that he was unhappy about his job for various other reasons. As such, his leak might have been a case of a disgruntled worked who aimed at getting back at his employer. This is hardly an act of heroism.
The above is, of course, speculation. At this point it is not certain what motivated Manning nor what he hoped to accomplish with the alleged leak. As such, there seems to be little evidence of heroism.
In cases in which the potential hero’s intent and aims are unknown, it does make sense to try to assess the action itself as well as the consequences. For example, if someone rescues a drowning person from a frozen lake, then we are inclined to call her a hero-even if she slips away without revealing anything about her motivations or aims.
The ethics of the leak is, of course, a matter of great contention. Some people hold it to be an act of wickedness, on par with 9/11. Others hold it to be a morally upstanding act that strikes a blow against the evil of America in specific and states in general. Those who assess the matter more with reason than emotions generally seem to hold the leak to have caused some problems in diplomacy but to be neither a great good nor a significant evil. As such, there does not seem to be clear case for Manning being a great hero (or an epic villain).
At this point, the most likely narrative is that Manning leaked the information because of his dissatisfaction with his situation. The leak itself does not seem to have done significant good nor very significant damage. As such, it would seem that Manning is not a hero.
One rather important moral concern about WikiLeak’s leak of information about the war in Afghanistan is whether this leak will result in people being killed. The main concern is that the Taliban has made it clear that it will be going through all the documents looking for the names of those who have helped Americans. They intend, of course, to kill those people.
The most obvious and probably the most plausible view regarding the ethics of the situation is that it would be morally wrong for WikiLeaks to leak documents containing such names. This can be argued for on the grounds that the actions of the folks at WikiLeaks would play a role in the death of other people and playing a role in the deaths of other seems to be clearly wrong. It can also be argued for on the grounds that the folks at WikiLeaks made it clear that they regard themselves as obligated to not cause such deaths. As such, a fatal leak of this sort would violate their own apparent moral standards.
Of course, there are cases in which leaking information that causes deaths is seen as not being bad. For example, the United States is rather busy trying to get information about terrorists, the Taliban and other enemies in order to kill them. Obviously, folks in the government and the military would be fine with such leaks.
Naturally, the folks in the Taliban regard the leaks that help them in the same way. This then pushes the moral debate back a bit, from the ethics of leaking to the moral status of those who use such leaks to their advantage.
As I see it, the United States has a clear moral edge over the Taliban. This is not so say that the United States is morally pure. Far from it. However, a comparison between the United States and the Taliban will show that the Taliban is considerably more evil. To use but one area of concern, one has but to consider how the Taliban treats women to get a clear picture of the evil committed by the Taliban. In contrast, the United States advocates the view that women are people and should be treated accordingly.
It must be noted that from the perspective of the Taliban, they are in the right (and on God’s side) and the United States is in the wrong. As such, the folks in the Taliban no doubt would regard any leaking of such names to be a good action. They, no doubt, would also regard the murder of those they regard as collaborators as just actions. In this they would be mistaken.
While WikiLeaks’ leak of the secret documents about Afghanistan created a news frenzy, the media has moved on to other things. However, the situation still raise some important issues.
Not surprisingly, the folks in government have invoked the well worn phrase “national security” and other folks have said that those behind the leak are guilty of murder.
The gist of the argument for this is that the secrets leaked will put people in danger and lead to deaths (if it has not done so already). For example, it has been claimed that the documents reveal how American forces operate and this will give America’s enemies there an advantage.
This sort of argumentation has considerable appeal. After all, there is obviously information that would give enemies an advantage and this could result in more Americans dying. Even more obvious, if the documents could be used to determine the identity of those who have cooperated with the United States, then those who leaked the information would bear some responsibility if anything was done to those people.
However, there is the obvious question of whether the leaked information actually contains information that 1) would put people in danger and 2) cannot be readily found elsewhere. The folks at Wikileaks claim that the material was carefully reviewed so as to avoid leaking anything that would result in deaths. Also, it seems likely that much of the secret information is already well known. For example, the people who have been fighting Americans for years probably have a very good idea about how American forces operate. I often suspect that most government secrets are intended to be kept from the citizens rather than the enemy.
Also, if one wants to play the murder blame game, than one should be prepared to play it to the end. If those who leak the truth about what is happening in a war are guilty of murder, it would seem that those who used untruths to start and justify a war would be at least as guilty of murder.
WikiLeaks recently published (formerly) secret information about the war in Afghanistan. As is to be expected, this leak has been attacked as being a threat to “national security.” Of course, that line is used so often that its edge has been blunted.
The leaked information seems to support the obvious-Pakistan has probably been providing support for the Taliban. As the experts have long pointed out, Pakistan’s main concern is with its traditional rival, India and it makes sense that they would cultivate groups that they believed could be used to counter India. In this regard, they were taking a page out of our play book-we have been willing to bolster comparable groups to use against our enemies. In fact, we did so in Afghanistan itself, back when the Soviets were the occupying force.
As happened to us, the Pakistanis found that the groups they supported were not eternally grateful. After all, Pakistan has found itself in danger from some of the people it had previously supported.
While the revelations of the alleged connection between Pakistan and the Taliban will create some political trouble (after all, we have been pouring vast sums of money into Pakistan and it seems likely that some of this has been funneled to the very Taliban that has been killing Americans), I suspect that the United States will continue to work with Pakistan. In fact, some experts have argued that we should be willing to work with the Taliban, provided that they agree to not attack us and agree to not work with groups that might attack the United States. Since we already seem to have been funding the Taliban, perhaps we already have the basis for a working relationship.