Washington best prepare for an age of WikiLeaks

America must find new ways to plug the kind of holes that led to the WikiLeaks release of US secrets -- or else it must learn to live in a more open Internet age and better manage the fallout.

The trend in the Internet age is toward ever less privacy. Should the US government be an exception?

Or, in the face of the release of US secrets by WikiLeaks, should government simply adapt to much more openness?

In thinking this through, it might help to start with how individuals feel about the trend toward eroding privacy, which has been greatly accelerated by the Internet.

At first glance, it may look as if they’re not concerned, especially younger people who volunteer all kinds of information about themselves on social-networking sites like Facebook. Of people ages 18 to 29 (Generation Y), three-quarters have a profile on a social-networking site, compared with half of people ages 30 to 44 (Generation X) and 30 percent of 45-to-64-year-olds (baby boomers), according to a 2010 study by Pew.

In a separate opt-in survey this year, Pew also found that those in the youngest generation would continue to expose “a great deal” of information about themselves even as they matured.

The benefits of digital self-revelation are multiple: a low-cost route to shared causes, interests, and community building that is impervious to time and geography. And let’s not forget the commercial applications: ease of shopping, traveling, and great deals on purchases.

But here is what’s so interesting: People may have a higher threshold for what they share, but they still like to control who sees that information and what is done with it. That’s the whole point about allowing or denying a “friend” on Facebook: You get to decide.

Interestingly, Pew finds that the youngest generation is most likely to engage privacy controls on networking sites. Meanwhile, polls consistently find a large majority of all adults oppose advertisers tracking their online comings and goings. And trust in the government to live up to its privacy commitments has steadily dropped.The point here is the perceived or real danger from misuse of information. Teens feel the wrath of cyberbullies. Adults fear an onslaught of unwanted commercial targeting, identity theft, or, for example, personal medical data getting out.

So what does this have to do with government? Well, the government is the collective “us,” meant to represent the people.

To that end, Americans generally don’t want a government of secrets. Transparency is key; that’s why the public doesn’t like pork barrel spending hidden in earmarks, why it wants to know who is behind campaign contributions, and on a very basic level, whether wars are worth fighting.

Enlightened governments realize that a transparent democracy is a healthy democracy, because it is the people, not the politicians, who are the ultimate arbiters.

Like individuals, the government, too, wants to be able to control what it shares. On the most altruistic level, it does this to protect national security, to keep Americans safe. For instance, it withheld information on Oregon bombing suspect Mohamed Osman Mohamud because it wanted to first catch him in the act.

But government doesn’t always act so benignly and that’s where the US news media come in. They act as a check on government secrecy, often uncovering things Americans need to know about decisions being made by their own elected leaders (for example, the US duplicity during the Vietnam War, as revealed by the Pentagon Papers).

What’s distinctive about the WikiLeaks case, however, is that while these leaks of diplomatic cables appeared in an American news outlet (and four European mainstream media organizations), they have been disseminated by a group run by a foreigner who is obviously hostile to American interests.

In his statement as to why he chose to pass along the released cables provided by WikiLeaks, New York Times editor Bill Keller pointed out that WikiLeaks would have published them anyway. It was the Times’s job to deal with them responsibly, excluding “information that would endanger confidential informants or compromise national security.”

The Times even shared its choices with the US government, to make sure it hadn’t overlooked something endangering lives or security. It honored some of the government’s requests, but not all.

Exposure of some of the information was useful, such as knowledge that the leaders of many of Iran’s neighbors actually agree with Israel that they don’t want a nuclear Iran. But the broad laying out of diplomatic cable traffic could indeed cause trouble for the US, because it undermines the trust within government and between governments where people talk freely. WikiLeaks doesn’t care about that trust.

If the United States wants to control such a broad exposure, it must find a way to better manage its privacy controls so that it doesn’t inadvertently “friend” WikiLeaks.

If the government can’t do that, and it may not be able to, it will find that, like individuals, it will have to prepare for the downsides, as well as upsides, of greater sharing in the Internet age.

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