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How to stop mind-readers

When WikiLeaks was started in 2007 by a youngster Julian Assange, it was considered as yet another online manifestation of possibilities in cyberspace.

india Updated: Mar 22, 2011 22:59 IST

When WikiLeaks was started in 2007 by a youngster Julian Assange, it was considered as yet another online manifestation of possibilities in cyberspace. But when in July 2010 WikiLeaks posted on its website more than 91,000 secret United States military reports related to the war on Afghanistan mostly unredacted (uncensored), the world — and particularly government authorities in the US — sat up and took note. Then came more than 400,000 documents related to the war in Iraq with the names of informants redacted this time.

But it was only in late November 2010, when more than 250,000 confidential US diplomatic cables, mostly related to the last three years, were released through the website that the leaks started becoming a major global concern. In the first day itself, more than 220 such cables were published. These cables related to diplomatic communication to and from the various American diplomatic missions reporting to the US State Department. Washington immediately sounded out most nations of the possibility of those contents creating concerns. Rightly, most nations have tried to steer clear of making this an issue with the American government. Right at that time, India was alerted by the US government that there would be related cables, but the timing of its ‘going public’ was unknown. In the next few days, nothing of real significance came up. It was only in the last couple of weeks that the actual cables started coming up. And since then, it’s been trouble for the UPA government.

WikiLeaks mentions on its website that it believes that “it is not only the people of one country that keep their own government honest, but also the people of other countries who are watching that government through the media”. So the latest WikiLeaks have triggered a debate beyond the ‘cash for votes’ issue India is obsessing about. The bigger question that WikiLeaks has brought forth is regarding the extent of content regulation and a relook at cyberlaws across the world. The Espionage Act of the US was the closest legal entity that could have addressed and tackled the issue. But nothing foolproof has emerged regarding the jurisdiction of the Act being applicable outside the US when applied to non-Americans. The Shield Act introduced in December 2010 plugs the gap. In India, however, the provisions of the Information Technology Amendment Act 2008 clearly provide measures on how to deal with such content. Section 69A of the law defines the procedures for the blocking of such content under a well-laid down procedure so that it is not misused by the government of the day. Luckily, the government has not abused the law and the track record so far for dealing with online content in India has been good. Security systems around the technical infrastructure of the internet have come under closer scrutiny since WikiLeaks first surfaced and better measures and firewalls are being already involved.

Multiple authenticity levels are already being put up. In fact, WikiLeaks mentions combined high-end security technologies with journalism and ethical principles as its defining feature. But to deal with the problems emanating from WikiLeaks, organisations and governments are having to scamper and look for a beefed-up security and a redefined ethics. While for many WikiLeaks is about letting the truth out, for others, it has created an atmosphere of fear and caution about speaking out or even speaking.

Subimal Bhattacharjee writes on technology and security. The views expressed by the author are personal.