Back then, industrial scale betrayal took commitment and discipline, lasting for years. The betrayer needed to take some interest in individual documents. Now? A small USB stick and a reckless attitude are sufficient. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning was a junior US soldier who handed over to Wikileaks some 800,000 US military and diplomatic cables. Edward Snowden was a computer expert working with the US National Security Agency who took it upon himself to dump on the Internet formidable quantities of US, UK and other sensitive intelligence information before scurrying to Russia.
It’s not just government information that gets leaked. In 2015 thousands of private Swiss HSBC bank account details were leaked, to huge embarrassment for all sorts of people. And now we have the so-called ‘Panama Papers,’ a sprawling database of over 11 million documents covering 40 years of clever manoeuvring by banks, kings, politicians, film stars, football players and others who had hoped to keep their financial activities run unobtrusively by Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca.
What do 11 million documents look like? You ask, I measure:
Eleven million A4 documents would stretch 3,267 km, or from London well beyond Moscow to Samara. We certainly have lots to read along this long trail. The previously private business dealings of relatives and close friends of top Chinese, Russian, British, Malaysian, Kazakh, Pakistani, Azerbaijani, South African, Moroccan, Ukrainian, Saudi Arabian, Argentinian and many other national leaders have been painfully compromised.
Is this a problem or just a fact of modern life? Iceland’s Prime Minister speedily resigned when the indignant Icelandic masses found out that his family had sheltered money offshore. But has it really made much of a difference to most of the other governments concerned, or their forlorn citizens? The British government huffs and puffs about corruption elsewhere. But why bear down on Panama for having a tax haven, when the real problem is oppressive bloated Western tax systems that encourage anyone with money and sense to make ‘other arrangements’?
What does it all mean? Isn’t all this brutish transparency and ‘leaktivism’ good? Democratic? Fair? Or is it selfish, subversive and essentially chaotic?
Mere governments are left scrambling to find a solid base for their laws and principles for governing both official and commercially owned information. No-one seriously disputes the idea that some information needs to be kept private if not secret. But what categories of information? Who decides? Who has access to it, and how? What happens if the agreed rules aren’t adhered to? What happens if the technology jumps ahead far faster than the rules to control it? What if (gulp) there is no way to apply any useful rules to this baffling situation?
Examples of new policy difficulties pop up everywhere you look. Old ways of doing things abruptly become obsolete as new options emerge. Should the US public have the right to know who visits the White House and whom they meet there? No, says the White House (although it does now make many visitor logs available).
What about patients’ medical records held by state health authorities? Obviously private! But why not release for public analysis aggregated anonymised health data so that experts and the wider public alike can start to assess for themselves what is going on between different hospitals and treatment strategies? People can already see how local crime rates and school success rates affect their property values. Why not see what local factors affect your health?
While we’re at it, why not look at taxes differently? It’s easy to trace vehicle movements now. Why not link road tax and car insurance premiums directly to how many miles each car drives and where/when it travels? Safe drivers respecting speed limits get discounts.
What about state spending on, well, pretty much everything? We currently record public spending much like we did centuries ago, namely in records largely kept confidential by each government agency concerned. Nowadays the records are electronic but the principle is the same, even if it is qualified by laboured Freedom of Information procedures.
Why not turn it round so that almost every government spending transaction is published in real time? That would make diplomacy quite lively. The British Ambassador in (say) Peru hosts the Peruvian Deputy Foreign Minister for lunch? Ka-ching! The lunch and its cost (and the extra dessert) instantly appear on the Internet, for anyone to see in both the UK and Peru. As does the Ambassador’s salary and allowances. How about the record of the conversation too?
It seems as if the vestigial FCO is taking all this to heart. I’m told that stern instructions have now gone out to tell ambassadors not to send anything sensitive by e-telegram any more, as such documents are so widely scattered around Whitehall and elsewhere that leaks are uncontrollable. Emails to named individuals are now all the vogue, playing even more havoc with any long-term public records strategy as well as any lingering capability for FCO officials to follow anything other than by Wikipedia.