Wikileaks doesn’t matter in the manner that many of our leaders in government and the corporate world seem to believe. Since the release of several hundred thousand classified documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan there have been a number of efforts to shut the site down or punish those involved:
Activities have come to light recently about “Team Themis” proposing a set of activities to discredit Wikileaks and its supporters to executives at Bank of America. It is believed that Julian Assange has a cache of secret documents and e-mails from a major US bank, generally believed to be Bank of America, that he may release in the event of his arrest or extradition. Team Themis was led by HBGary Federal, an information security firm and also included Palantir Technologies and Berico Technologies. This incident has been covered well by other bloggers, and I will not re-hash the incidents here. If you want more information you can read this excellent summary from CI Law blogger Anne Lee Gibson. Kirby Pleassas of Plessas Expert Networks wrote a thorough and thoughtful analysis of the specific legal and ethical issues related to the Team Themis proposal. Kirby’s post is what got me off the couch to finally write this post.
All of this activity suggests that our corporate and government leaders believe that silencing Wikileaks will bring about an end to the problems and challenges that the organization generates. Quite the contrary, Wikileaks is only relevant of an example of broader trends. The first trend is increasing transparency with which we must all become accustomed. The second is the continuing disintermediation of traditional media as a source of authoritative information and means to disseminate information widely.
You can't stop the signal.
Radical Transparency: We’re All Naked Now
One would need to be truly oblivious to not have noticed that since the advent of the Internet we are all sharing more about ourselves, whether or not we deliberately choose to do so. We’re all likely aware of how much more we’re sharing with a wider circle on platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Sometimes we share more than we know or would consciously choose, and there are consequences both positive and negative that come from this sharing.
Companies and government agencies are more transparent today as well:
- Individual employees are sharing information about their work experience via social networks. In some rare instances this information will be very sensitive. Sometimes this information, placed in the appropriate analytical context, can be far more revealing than anyone would expect. For example, a high-level employee with a lot of Foursquare check-ins at a Starbucks in the distant headquarters city of an industry rival might suggest a possible merger or acquisition.
- Search engines are making ever-improving search functionality available that reveals information hidden on servers inadvertently connected to the public Internet. We use the “site:” operator on Google to find all kinds of Excel, Powerpoint and PDF documents companies often don’t know they’ve effectively made public.
- Companies and government agencies continue to increase their reliance on partners, supplies, consultants and contractors. Each one of these interactions moves some corporate information to a more vulnerable environment. Traditionally CI professionals have known to watch the activities of partners and suppliers to predict corporate actions. For example, you might use information from an employee of a strategic parts supplier to estimate the unit production potential of a competitor.
- It is becoming easier for people without Ph.Ds to perform in-depth analysis of large data sets using readily available tools. Analysis of these data sets reveals activities that might otherwise be considered extremely sensitive. Groups like the Sunlight Foundation are applying this sort of analysis to government data to reveal specific details about government activities.
Everybody Has A Printing Press, Too
It’s self-evident that blogs, Twitter, social networks and the web give each of us a platform to publish information we might not have had otherwise. If you’re not yet convinced of this you can take a look back at my summary of Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody. Better yet, read this fantastic book right now.
There have been a number of corporate and government efforts to shut down Wikileaks and prevent individuals from accessing the information revealed on the site. This has resulted in something of a cat and mouse game of the content being mirrored to multiple sites available from different countries and unique domain name addresses. In this case the mouse has beaten the cat. Wikileaks illustrates just how difficult it can be for government and corporate entities to silence a determined group of technically-savvy users on the global network.
Government and corporate leaders have relied on the ethics and self-interest of traditional journalists to keep some information from seeing an audience. Even the muckiest muckraker might be bribed or threatened with a loss of access presented to the journalist, her editor or publisher.
- Non-journalists may not be aware of nor feel confined by traditional journalistic standards or ethics. These standards are nebulous enough in professional journalism as it is.
- Individuals and groups may prioritize resolution of grievances over on-going access. They’re not here to be journalists– they just want the damn potholes fixed.
- Parties may disseminate information anonymously. While it may be harder than most people think to remain truly anonymous on the Internet it can be done with a little care and application of minimal technical skill.
- Some groups have outright malicious and destructive intent.
- Criminal organization could begin to use the publishing of sensitive or classified information for their own ends.
Implications and What To Do
We cannot silence Wikileaks, that much is certain. There are too many mirrors and multiple technical workarounds to keep the information available. Even if we could silence Wikileaks it would not matter in the long run. Already alternative organizations are standing up to continue the mission of increasing transparency. These organizations and sites are only the tip of the spear of the broader trends towards transparency.
So what are we to do? These trends require some fundamental changes in how several corporate functions operate. Here are some specifics I’ve considered. If you have additional examples please feel free to share in the comments.
Human Resources should recognize the need to give employees reasons not to leak. HR along with corporate counsel should strengthen policies to protect and support internal whistleblowers. The bureaucratic imperative has too often been to silence and punish the person who brings problems to senior management’s attention. These are the people who are trying to make positive change inside of the organization– the “good guys” in any sober analysis. If whistleblowers are protected, listened to and their grievances addressed they will be less likely to leak information externally. The first step is to provide the technical means for anonymous reporting of issues and wrong-doings. Managers should be taught how to appropriately handle this kind of information from their direct reports.
Information Security needs to develop a true hierarchy of information protection and increasingly protective means to store and distribute sensitive information. Governments and corporations have erred too far towards trying to protect absolutely everything for the sake of simplicity. The problem with this approach is that operationally critical yet non-sensitive information is treated as top secret. Even low-level employees have to be allowed into the inner sanctum just to do their jobs. Once they’re in there they have access to all kinds of information. Extremely sensitive information needs to have distribution very controlled and be protected through strong measures.
Public Relations may need to move closer to senior management to offer advice on the consequences of the disclosure of certain corporate strategies, policies or plans. PR can be the voice of public perception and skepticism. Organizations will do well to understand that they are judged not by their intentions but by public perception. Many senior officials clearly forget their fallibility in the public eyes. Dennis Kozlowski, anyone?
Greater Transparency and the Competitive Intelligence Professional
Competitive Intelligence professionals are once again faced with a set of trends that will give everyone broader access to the corporate secrets the uncovering of which was once our bread and butter. There was a time when getting your competitor’s annual report made you some kind of CI ninja. This sort of information is now less than a commodity. The secrets and details that once might have only been able to be estimated from considerable primary research and analysis are likely to become more freely available. Once again we will need to move in the direction of excellent analysis and interpretation on the galaxy of information available about our competitors, our industries and the business environment.
Ethics will remain a key concern of the profession, and we must have a conversation about the ethics of using leaked information. We’ve seen examples such as the case of Coke employees trying to sell sensitive documents to Pepsi, where the ethics are very clear. We would all like to believe that in those circumstances we would make the same ethical choice. What are the ethical considerations when a competitor’s information is leaked publicly on a social network or a site such as Wikileaks?
Finally, competitive intelligence can play an educational role in the firm. We should describe our methods and practices to information security to let them know how we can use information that is published and leaked from our competitors to develop our insights. This will help them develop methods and policies to protect the firm’s information. They will not be able to prevent all leaks, so it will be important to minimize the least damaging ones. Some CI groups are already doing something similar to this. As these trends towards transparency progress this may become an important value add of the CI function.