by Dr Harold Elletson
In a front page story on April 18th, Britain’s Daily Telegraph revealed that three Government departments had inadvertently published “sensitive” information on the Internet. A technical error meant that blacked-out parts of various reports by at least three Government departments could be read by copying and pasting their contents into another document. Details published included an analysis of how the Royal Navy would cope with a catastrophic incident. As the Ministry of Defence started a review of dozens of documents, amidst concern over the accidental disclosure of military secrets, it was clear that Whitehall officials were responsible for the blunder, raising questions over both their competence and the training they had received.
The incident followed a series of mistakes in the recent past, which allowed secret or sensitive documents to be variously left in taxis or on the London underground, discovered in bin bags on rubbish dumps or simply stolen electronically by organised criminals. It also came in the wake of growing concerns over state-sponsored cyber hacking and the prospect of cyber wars, the Wikileaks saga and the ‘twitter revolutions’ in North Africa.
These various events have all called into question not only the role and capability of the State in preserving and using confidential information but also existing concepts of information security and current methods of training.
The popular, worldwide demand for access to information can only continue to grow in the future. The Internet revolution has unleashed not only a global thirst for knowledge but also an unparalleled array of new means of communication, all of which make it increasingly difficult for any regime to rule without the consent of its people. In this context, the significance of the Arab revolutions cannot be underestimated. Knowledge truly is power.
We should have seen it all coming. In 1991, it was the fax machine, which enabled Boris Yeltsin to outwit the plotters in the Soviet Government and organise resistance to the State of Emergency. It was the flow of information and access to news which brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets in a mass protest, culminating in the end of the Soviet Union. The old Soviet regime was doomed as soon as it lost the ability to control information.
Twenty years later, we now live in a completely different world. It is a world in which assumptions about access to information have changed radically. So too have the methods by which we exchange information and the speed and extent of our communications.
All of this begs some rather fundamental questions. If we live in a world in which people are increasingly unwilling to be “kept in the dark” and, at the same time, states are unable, despite all the panoply of sophisticated surveillance equipment at their disposal, both to control access to information and to maintain the consent of their citizens, we have surely reached a stage when it is important for us to consider how to use information effectively rather than merely how to protect it.
Governments will be increasingly unable to resist the demand for information of a knowledge-hungry public. They will be less and less able to hide evidence of their corruption or dirty dealing. They will face an uncomfortable equation too: the legitimacy of ‘their’ increasing surveillance of ‘us’ versus our demand to know what they are doing in our name.
The demand for openness will continue to grow. Karl Popper’s great twentieth century work, ‘The Open Society and its Enemies,’ will be the ideological textbook of the early twenty-first century but in a more extreme and expanded form. Openness will be the new orthodoxy.
The consequences of this in the political and security spheres are potentially of enormous significance. Governments will face continuing challenges to their control of information. Resisting these challenges will undermine their legitimacy.
The British general, Sir Rupert Smith, has observed that the wars of the future will be “wars among the people.” Other analysts have suggested that future conflicts will be less violent affairs in which information systems will be the key battleground and victory will be achieved by “perception dominance.” Information management and the winning of hearts and minds will be more important than ever.
Is it not clear, therefore, that what is urgently needed is a new examination of the role and importance of information in modern society and its security systems? Is it not time for governments to take proper heed of the increasing demand for knowledge and its implications? Instead of copying King Canute and commanding the ocean to retreat, shouldn’t we embrace the demand for openness? Instead of trying to protect information that we are increasingly unable to keep confidential, shouldn’t we learn how to manage information more effectively?
We need to accept openness and understand that it is here to stay. The combination of technology and ‘people power’ will guarantee it. If states want to maintain their legitimacy, they will have to learn to operate within a radically changed and much more open environment. Accepting openness may be uncomfortable but it will be essential, in the future, to both legitimacy and credibility.
It may not quite be time yet for civil servants in Whitehall and elsewhere to learn to stop worrying and love the leak but it is certainly time for a serious re-examination of how we gather, protect, distribute and manage information. An essential element in any such re-examination will be how to educate and train people to defend our interests in an ever more open world.