In one bold stroke, the secrets-divulging group WikiLeaks underscored just how easy technology has made it to both steal confidential information and disseminate it globally. Its release of more than 250,000 U.S. embassy cables online November 28 represents the largest set of confidential documents ever leaked to the public. These headline-grabbing secrets hint that modern information technology is shifting news leaks away from traditional media such as newspapers. But rather than kill off mainstream media, such a shift could lead to a novel symbiosis, transforming how the public gets information.
In the pre-Internet age, leaked information about the Watergate scandal or the Pentagon Papers went to places like The Washington Post or The New York Times. But now, "there's widespread disillusionment with the public and particularly younger people who see the mainstream media as too timid, conservative and protective of the establishment," explains journalism professor Mark Feldstein at George Washington University. "WikiLeaks provides whistleblowers a way to anonymously provide documents to the entire planet and not worry about them getting censored and filtered." Moreover, the woes that face the journalism industry have caused it to shed investigative efforts, which generally require much time and money to break a story.
Still, Feldstein suggests the relationship between traditional and new media "is a symbiosis that's in a certain sense good for both sides. WikiLeaks benefits from getting the imprimatur of credibility of elite journalist organizations, drawing public attention all over the world to their documents, and they get fact-checking done, as well as provide nuance and context. News organizations benefit by getting access to a treasure trove of secret documents with relatively little risk to themselves—had they been dealing directly with a whistleblower, they might be at more risk of prosecution or the government getting an injunction against publishing."
In addition, the release of secrets by WikiLeaks has led many news outlets to coordinate stories at once, as opposed to news breaking out at just one newspaper at a time. "This collaboration between media organizations across international borders is unprecedented," Feldstein says. "Everything else has gone global—corporations and crime, for instance—so what we're seeing now is global muckraking."
The leaking of secrets in the U.S. has a long history dating back "to the earliest days of the Republic, back to when George Washington was president," Feldstein explains. "Thomas Jefferson and his party leaked details of a secret treaty to the press to try and influence public policy." But today, "the scale on which WikiLeaks can release information, however, is unprecedented, given what modern technology can now allow," Feldstein says.
Officials then and now have denounced leaks as threatening national security, "and we're still evaluating whether that will be the case with WikiLeaks, but I'm sure if anyone was killed by information WikiLeaks disclosed, the government would give a lot of attention to that," Feldstein says. "Historically, media exposures of secrets haven't jeopardized national security as [much as] they have caused political embarrassment."
The editor in chief of WikiLeaks, former hacker Julian Assange, has indicated to Forbes that the group will go after the private world, too, with its next big target being a major U.S. bank. "It would be interesting to see copycats of WikiLeaks on a local level instead of a global one," Feldstein notes, "as well as going after far more authoritarian countries like China." Assange noted that a Chinese WikiLeaks-like group was starting up, but told Forbes he doubted the level of security they had was meaningful enough for them to do anything, presumably in case someone tried to stop them.
To address the possibility that someone might try to permanently stop WikiLeaks from divulging more secrets, Assange has publicly posted a giant encrypted 1.4 gigabyte "insurance" file, whose key to unlock it is said to be released in case of his death. "That's smart," says Catherine Lotrionte at Georgetown University, director of the Cybersecurity Project in partnership with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. "There are people out there who would do a lot more than bring criminal charges against WikiLeaks."