International furor over the leak of some 250,000 diplomatic cables from 274 embassies around the world shows the danger of creating "uber" government databases of information. Whether the content of those databases consists of diplomatic cables or the email exchanges of ordinary Americans, the danger of the public release of private information is real and should concern us all.
The WikiLeaks incident also raises questions about excessive government secrecy. Of course, such secrecy generally is designed to hide what our government does and knows from the American people. Examples from the latest WikiLeaks trove include U.S. bomb strikes in Yemen, U.S. knowledge that the overthrow of the elected leader of Honduras was illegal, and U.S. collection of biometric information on foreign officials and U.N. diplomats. I doubt the content of these memos came as surprise to anyone except the U.S. public.
Still, it is embarrassing for anyone - diplomat or otherwise - to have information intended to be kept private suddenly made public. But just as U.S. diplomats need a realm of privacy in which to operate effectively, the average American needs a realm of privacy in which to live and operate without government surveillance.
So, whether you are one of the people outraged by WikiLeaks' release of all these documents, or one of the people outraged by what these leaked documents contain, you should be doubly concerned that the U.S. government is collecting information on ordinary Americans - and is not providing any real assurance that this information won't be made public or used against you!
Ever since 9/11, the U.S. government has been bent on collecting information on people engaged in a range of protected political activities, such as anti-war protests, environmental actions, libertarian politics, or even the humanitarian work of Amnesty International. They are putting this information into databases housed in local and state police departments and the federal government where, the folks at Homeland Security promise, it will all be really, really safe.
Safe, that is, unless someone like a low-level soldier stationed in Iraq allegedly brings in a rewritable disc with music by Lady Gaga, then leaves with it carrying tens of thousands of documents.
If it's this simple to do with sensitive diplomatic documents that the government very much wants kept secret, what assurances are there that the data compiled by our government on the rest of us is secure? These domestic surveillance databases - called "fusion centers" - operate with virtually no independent oversight and are probably just as vulnerable to abuse (and perhaps more) than the systems that furnished material to WikiLeaks.
There is another critical difference between databases collecting information on the government and databases collecting information on U.S. citizens. A lot of the information in the giant databases of information leaked on the U.S. government, arguably, shouldn't have been secret in the first place, while a lot of the information on ordinary Americans should never have been collected in the first place.
Since 9/11, we've turned democracy on its head, empowering the government to watch the people but limiting the power of the people to watch their government.
No doubt, there is a narrow category of information that the government should be able to keep secret - including for legitimate national security reasons. But much more information has been classified by the U.S. government than should be.
The American public should not have to depend on leaks and whistleblowers to know what the government is up to. To reduce incentives for leaks, the government should provide safe avenues for government employees to report abuse, fraud and waste to the appropriate authorities and to Congress.
Also, the government should not classify information for political reasons - to protect the government from embarrassment, to manipulate public opinion or to conceal evidence of criminal activity. When too much information is classified, it becomes more and more difficult to separate the information that should be made public from the information that is legitimately classified.
Finally, the government and pundits needs to tread carefully because of the First Amendment issues at stake. Prosecution of WikiLeaks would be no different than prosecuting the Guardian and the New York Times, who also published the documents. And if newspapers can be held criminally liable for publishing leaked information about government practices, the American people might never have found out about the abuses of Abu Ghraib, the NSA spying on innocent Americans, or the secret CIA prisons. Such secrecy is the beginning of the end of our democracy.
The real lesson of WikiLeaks is that all of us - diplomats and ordinary people alike - need a realm of privacy in which to function. And that is why vast and secret government databases undermine our democracy, our diplomacy, and our humanity.
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