Free speech or frank speech? A Wikileaks counterpoint

Paul Raven @ 30-11-2010

Via Tobias Buckell, here’s a piece by Anne Applebaum at Slate that deflates some of the more optimistic rhetoric around Wikileaks, Cablegate and all that:

This is certainly embarrassing for those who made the remarks. I am less sure whether their revelation gets us anywhere: On the contrary, it seems that in the name of “free speech” another blow has been struck against frank speech. Yet more ammunition has been given to those who favor greater circumspection, greater political correctness, and greater hypocrisy.

Don’t expect better government from these revelations, expect deeper secrets. Will the U.S. ambassador to Country X give Washington a frank assessment of the president of X if he knows it could appear in tomorrow’s newspaper? Not very likely. Will a foreign leader tell any U.S. diplomat what he really thinks about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if he knows it might show up on WikiLeaks? I doubt it. Diplomatic cables will presumably now go the way of snail mail: Oral communication will replace writing, as even off-the-record chats now have to take place outdoors, in the presence of heavy traffic, just in case anyone is listening.

Hmmm. I see where that’s going – a forced return to state diplomacy of the old school – but I’m not sure it’s necessarily a bad direction. Secrets are inevitable; it’s the nigh-industrial scale of confidential information exchange that will suffer from diplomatic paranoia, rather than confidentiality itself, and I remain to be convinced that a world with less backroom dealing wouldn’t be a better one for everyone other than the backroom dealers.

However, Applebaum’s point about Wikileaks’ choices of targets is harder to pick holes in:

… the world’s real secrets—the secrets of regimes where there is no free speech and tight control on all information—have yet to be revealed. This stuff is awkward and embarrassing, but it doesn’t fundamentally change very much. How about a leak of Chinese diplomatic documents? Or Russian military cables? How about some stuff we don’t actually know, like Iranian discussion of Iranian nuclear weapons, or North Korean plans for invasion of South Korea Korea? If WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange is serious about his pursuit of “Internet openness”—and if his goal isn’t, in fact, embarrassing the United States—that’s where he’ll look next. Somehow, I won’t be surprised if he doesn’t.

I get the feeling that Assange and company would happily leak stuff from totalitarian regimes*, but it’s probably harder to come by; the great advantage of being a dissenter in a democracy – however flawed a democracy it may be – is that you’re less likely to pay the ultimate cost for your dissent. Indeed, you could probably argue that leaking Western secrets may encourage dissenters in totalitarian regimes to leak in sympathy… but I’m not sure that would hold a lot of water.

Perhaps it’s just that totalitarian nation-states are better at keeping their secrets… or simply shrewd enough to not let hundreds of thousands of people have access to a “secret” electronic network of diplomatic communications. Whether pointing out the dangers and consequences of global-scale hubris also counts as “embarrassing the United States” is left as an exercise for the reader. 😉

[ * At times like this I have to remind myself that Assange is as much a political animal as those he’s trying to unsettle. As a dissident of sorts myself, I want to believe what he says at face value… and that’s probably the best reason for me not to do so. Trust in nothing, beware of strangers bearing gifts, etc etc. ]

The CSI Effect

Paul Raven @ 28-04-2010

Via BoingBoing, The Economist investigates the “CSI Effect” – the phenomenon whereby facts, falsehoods and mythinformation about criminal forensics procedures in entertainment media is hampering (and sometimes aiding) the detection and prosecution of real criminals.

… a new phrase has entered the criminological lexicon: the “CSI effect” after shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”. In 2008 Monica Robbers, an American criminologist, defined it as “the phenomenon in which jurors hold unrealistic expectations of forensic evidence and investigation techniques, and have an increased interest in the discipline of forensic science.”


The most obvious symptom of the CSI effect is that jurors think they have a thorough understanding of science they have seen presented on television, when they do not. Mr Durnal cites one case of jurors in a murder trial who, having noticed that a bloody coat introduced as evidence had not been tested for DNA, brought this fact to the judge’s attention. Since the defendant had admitted being present at the murder scene, such tests would have thrown no light on the identity of the true culprit. The judge observed that, thanks to television, jurors knew what DNA tests could do, but not when it was appropriate to use them.

This sort of informational feedback loop happens in all sorts of places. I’m immediately reminded of the most common denigration of open-source software, namely that because anyone can download the code, anyone can work out how to compromise it. Of course, very few people do so… and proprietary software certainly isn’t immne from hacking, despite its closed nature. But is that because there’s less profit to be made from hacking Linux systems, as Microsoft advocates often suggest? Given the number of servers that run on *nix, I can’t believe it’s as clear-cut as all that.

But back to the forensics issue: the ‘open code’ of forensic science is helping some of the smarter criminals cover their tracks:

Criminals watch television too, and there is evidence they are also changing their behaviour. Most of the techniques used in crime shows are, after all, at least grounded in truth. Bleach, which destroys DNA, is now more likely to be used by murderers to cover their tracks. The wearing of gloves is more common, as is the taping shut—rather than the DNA-laden licking—of envelopes. Investigators comb crime scenes ever more finely for new kinds of evidence, which is creating problems with the tracking and storage of evidence, so that even as the criminals leave fewer traces of themselves behind, a backlog of cold-case evidence is building up.

Is there anything to be gained from trying to stem the flow of forensics knowledge out into the wider world? And if there is, how would one go about enforcing it?