The 250,000 plus dispatches on SIPRNet, or the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, have recently become part of the public domain via intrepid reporting by WikiLeaks. While the recent cables do not contain any classified information aside from time, recipients, and the subject title, the amount and frequency of cables sent between various U.S. Embassies raises the question: does publishing this information constitute an uncomfortable and potentially ill-advised breach of open data’s unstated rules of privacy?
Whatever anyone thinks of the U.S.’s foreign policy (which, admittedly, has never won a ‘Ms. Congeniality’ award) publishing this type of information begins to infringe on the sovereign rights of a nation-state. Open data is a movement dedicated primarily to helping people easily access information about their communities in an effort to improve their lives. Very few people, however, wish to have their tax records in the public realm. Not everything is made for public consumption; some communication should always remain private.
By publishing this information, WikiLeaks and the open data movement by association are making a bold move which will backfire. By antagonizing governments instead of working with them, those who push too far too fast engender ill will. Nothing is less desirable than an angry, wounded hegemon. While the release of the cables will not in of itself necessarily pose an immediate threat to world political relations (describing Kim Jong-il as a“flabby old chap” is a heart warming moniker compared to his daily online nicknames), the anger at those who breached confidentiality will not simply disappear. Those who strive to increase transparency using government data may encounter swift and undeserved retribution for the actions of their peers. The old fogies may not understand computers, but they do understand social relationships.
The open data movement must not only continue working to increase the amount of data available, but also it must dedicate effort toward fostering warmer social relationships and respecting each government’s particular boundaries. The U.S. undoubtedly needs to rethink its foreign policy, but it needs to come to that decision without having the equivalent of a virtual stick shoved in its eye.