Today's date:
Winter 2011

Welcome to the Geo-Information Age

Welcome to the geo-information age. Along with cyberprobes and computer worms like Stuxnet, which at least temporarily disabled Iran’s centrifuges without a missile being fired or a bomb dropped, Wikileaks is redefining national security as we’ve known it.

As with personal privacy, the new challenge is to keep secrets in and probes or viruses out (or, in the case of national security, to deploy them as defensive weapons). As with privacy, the issue is which limits to erase and where to draw boundaries.

The most recent Wikileaks cache is not your father’s Pentagon Papers. Like a neutron bomb of the Internet era, it has indiscriminately destroyed good diplomacy and duplicity alike across a broad spectrum of political cultures.

The sting of this latest act of extreme glasnost has been felt from thin-skinned autocracies such as China and Russia to the tabloid democracy of America already inured to the regular appearance of “private” sex tapes as a steppingstone to celebrity status. Kim Kardashian, meet Julian Assange. The diplomatic revelations also hit at the moment controversy swirls around Facebook for, as some charge, peddling private information under the mantle of social networking.

And there are the Wikileak effects, good and bad, on Pakistan’s shaky civilian government, on cynical Arab monarchs who say one thing to the street and another in the palace parlor, on Iranian theocrats anxiously swatting away Green Movement tweets and on liberalizing Turkish Islamists just warily dipping their toes in the roiling waters of media freedom.

How to sort it all out? It would seem most sensible to derive standards deductively from cases at hand instead of applying old rules to novel conditions.

The most delicious Wikileak document exposed a member of the Chinese Politburo plotting to shut down Google searches in China in order, allegedly, to stem unflattering rumors about the business dealings of his princeling progeny from reaching the public. Exposing the Politburo actions seems a good use of transparency—just as knowing the real value of sub-prime mortgages or the true amount of Greek debt ought to be in the public domain.

Also, no liberal-minded person wants China rifling through Google’s proprietary files trying to find dissidents and their networks. And surely no American wants an enemy breaching the launch codes of our nuclear forces or the coordinates of troop movements. Likewise, the Chinese certainly don’t want an enemy accessing their satellite controls and so gaining advantage in any potential battle space.

Clearly cyberprobes will remain a battle between hackers and encrypters. But when it comes to military balances, as during the later stages of the Cold War, stability is probably best enhanced through sharing information instead of hiding it.

Then there was the leak that revealed the justified worries of Pakistan’s leaders that, if the Pakistani press caught word that the United States had secured control of loose nuclear material, it would create a backlash over surrendered sovereignty. If the objective of US national security is to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of anti-American forces in Pakistan, that would certainly seem information better kept under wraps. There is no more of an argument for Assange to splash this information across the Web than for someone like Scooter Libby to unveil Valerie Plame’s secret CIA status, only to undercut her undercover work on nuclear non-proliferation.

Saudi King Abdullah recommended in a Wikileaked cable that the US “cut off the head of the snake” through a military assault on Iran that, in US Defense Secretary Bob Gate’s leaked words, would have meant the Saudi Sunnis watching US forces fight the Shiite Iranians “to the last American.” But what could be better than pre-emptively defanging the snake by a unleashing the Stuxnet worm on Iran’s coiled centrifuges? Luckily, this audacious plan for cyber sabotage was not shared in diplomatic cables from Riyadh.

However one comes down on the individual cases, what is clear is that this new geo-information order will not only pit closed societies against open ones, but also open societies with secrets against extreme glasnostics like Assange or cyberspies seeking to scale firewalls.

The likely outcome is that while closed societies may be forced to be more open, open societies will also become more closed. No doubt savvy marketers seeking to leverage private information for commercial purposes will reinforce this latter tendency. Open societies on the frontier of freedom thus face the most daunting challenges.

At such moments of perplexing transformation, we inevitably look to political philosophers and sages for guidance. The Wikileaks phenomenon brings two thinkers to mind.

Michel Foucault, surely an intellectual godfather of the Wikileak worldview, argued that language defines the limits of power. Thus, as in therapy, what is named knocks down walls of control.

By naming the Soviet system a “gulag archipelago,” Aleksander Solzhenitsyn ultimately helped bring it down. But, for this great champion of individual conscience against the totalitarian state, responsibility and freedom went together. “Self-limitation is the wisest aim of free men,” he admonished his post-Soviet compatriots. Dismissed by liberals as a crank for his quaint regard of traditional authority, he was crushingly disappointed with what soulless modernity brought to his beloved Russia after communism. “Gorbachev’s glasnost ruined everything,” he lamented late in life.

Though few in liberal societies would agree with this radical verdict, we might well ponder whether we are as prepared to responsibly handle the consequences of total freedom of information as we were to fight totalitarian oppression.

Nathan Gardels, editor