WkiLeaks, Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and, generally, the hackers (boo!) have made the headlines lately. And they will keep on being an important news story for another few good weeks, as more and more of the 251,287 cables will be released, whilst a whole pack of Luddites will bark and dribble ink against communication technologies and the perceived threats associated with them.
I don’t discuss here whether the leaks are a security threat or not. They might, or might not be; it is not for me to judge. For the moment they represent at least a big embarrassment. Yet, people should not mistake the effect for the cause.
WikiLeaks is a whistleblowing website and its existence should be cherished. The attack on Assange and his creation moves the attention – at least for the moment – from the real cause of what has happened: the utter lack of responsibility and professionalism of those who have designed the system for manipulating sensitive diplomatic data in the first place.
Unfortunately, as it usually happens, ‘thee hackers’ will be again scorned, blamed and hated due to sheer lack of understanding and knowledge.
One example of technophobia is given by the editor and author Max Hastings (ahem, short for Sir Max Hugh Macdonald Hastings), who has just laid down a sad piece of ignorance in – not hard to guess – Daily Mail. Well, I don’t read that rag normally – the affinity for self-inflicted intellectual pain fortunately eludes me – but I couldn’t resist the title when seeing it on Google News.
In a nutshell, Mr Hastings’ tirade starts with the classic technology puts data at risk, so good ol’ paper is better type of discourse (a redundant subject, so I will not bother discussing it) and continues with red flags like scary omnipotent hackers (boo again!), “hacked company systems” (what the hell is that?), total loss of privacy and security, etc.
I don’t know much about Max Hastings, apart from what this article in Wikipedia says about him, and I assume that his career is built on significant achievements (well, significant at least for those who gave him certain titles). Yet, it looks like he also gained some blinkers along with those labels. In his biased and less than informed article he misses an important point.
Hacking is not about the dark side of computing. It is not about stealing card details and explicit honeymoon videos, or about building botnets. That is malicious computer use, which is indeed a crime, and the minds behind those acts are criminals. Hackers are a different breed. Hackers are subversive, intelligent, innovative and nevertheless gentle minds.
Hackers are like Alan Turing, the one who helped cracking the German ciphers used by the Enigma machine. And who previously, in 1937, has envisaged the Turing machine, a model still extensively used in the theory of computation. And of course, the same who, for the ‘sin’ of being homosexual, has been accused of gross indecency and chemically castrated immediately after the war. In this respect, Assange is a hacker, as he challenges and might just change journalism, diplomacy, and activism as we know them.
Lifehacker puts it better than I could ever try to: hackers “[challenge] people to do more with what they’re given. Hacking is a brand of disobedience that both expresses dissatisfaction with the status quo and does something to change it.” The ability to do more with the same inputs is called development, pure and simple. It differs from growth, which means merely “to increase in size or number” (here is more food for thought in less than ten paragraphs from Russell Ackoff, a great systems thinker).
So in this case, what the “no-hero” and “irresponsible mischief-maker” Julian Assange has done, was to push others to develop. To learn.
The US intelligence agencies will learn that the loyalty of a young army intelligence analyst cannot be nurtured through disrespect.
Some officers will learn to make the difference between a video camera and a rocket launcher, and spare the lives of innocent civilians.
Many diplomats (and not only them) will have to improve their communication skills, as they will need to put up with some hard work in re-establishing trust amongst their counterparts.
The civil society will learn again that the freedom of speech is not a given, but it requires the [self]sacrifice of a few individuals (whatever their motivations: fame, money, vanity, altruism, or activism). Curiously enough, even Sweden is eager to grab Assange, but as you might have guessed, not because they are burning with desire to give him the Nobel Prize for peace, obviously.
A horde of journalists should learn that people need to know the facts as they are, without being wrapped in editorial prejudice and regurgitated as truths.
Finally, many organisations around the world will learn that sensitive data should not simply be stored in a common pool from which employees can extract anything they want, in any quantity, without the possibility of being traced, and then put it on a memory stick. (What about blocking data-writing on external devices? What about granular user access control? The system architect responsible for this gross lack of professionalism should now be – at best – selling burgers in McDonald’s.)
And I hope that, for Mr Max Hastings and similar technophobic penmen, the “dreary old paper” will be indeed a safer choice. Preferably toilet paper, because it can be flushed quickly, after which it disintegrates. Well, Daily Mail is toilet paper too, but it has an electronic version and, oh dear, that technology is so bloody unsafe.