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The Lesson of WikiLeaks

tom_honig_sThere’s a big lesson stemming from Wikileaks—and it’s not really a political one. Actually, there’s a lesson for us all.

Some are outraged over the documents that have now become public; others are overjoyed that “the truth” has come out.

But the overriding lesson goes far beyond that. We are now living in a Wikileaks world.

It’s hard to gauge what damage, if any, will be done by the Wikileaks revelations. Has the release of classified information been damaging—or is it just embarrassing?

The most serious aspect of the entire caper is that some innocent-seeming people who in reality weren’t so innocent could be endangered. Secrecy is the name of the game when it comes to international relations and warfare. Let’s face it, however, nothing really can be secret in this over-wired world, and now even governments need to realize it.

There’s an old saying about one’s own conduct: if you don’t want your mother to find out, don’t do it in the first place. Oh, my, but politicians have found that out over the years. Remember that Southern California “family values” legislator who was bragging about his extramarital exploits over an open microphone? Oops.

The people who seem to be enjoying the Wikileaks episode are largely the “blame America first” crowd. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has a definite purpose in releasing information—and that’s to hurt or embarrass America. Many of us who actually still believe in the American experiment feel differently—that much of the information would have been better not revealed. It’s a dangerous world and in order to defend the American people, our government needs to work in that deep netherworld of secrecy.

Alas, secrecy just may not be possible anymore. There are too many people with security clearances working on too many fronts. Leaks are inevitable; so is an outfit like Wikileaks. If it weren’t Assange revealing secrets it would probably be someone else.

So what’s the lesson?

Nothing is secret anymore.

There’s a double standard in America that I’ve noticed for years. There’s a kind of practiced yet naïve cynicism that’s existed about our elected officials. You see it all the time in letters to the editor and even some political commentary. It’s a kind of sneering, “all those bastards are on the take,” attitude, viewing entire groups of officials as crooks – even if there’s no evidence.

Yet some of those same practiced cynics are the same ones who themselves are happy to work for cash to avoid paying taxes, or who fuzz over some information on real-estate disclosures. That sort of thing.

We probably all cut corners in one way or another. We probably all do or say something that we’d regret if it were released on YouTube. Or in a Wikileaks document.

Essentially, nothing is secret anymore. Or at least it may not be.

And there’s a huge lesson for business. In a smart commentary on a business website called “Learn That,” writer Jeremy Reis ponders the impact on a company if its internal memos were to be released.

These damn internal memos used to drive me crazy when I worked in a newsroom. By the time e-mail came along, people who actually used to talk to each other and work out their differences chose instead to insult each other via e-mail. At all businesses, there are way too many written messages—and way too few actual conversations.

Reis writes: “A business generates a lot of internal documents, from inane e-mails to complex, secret business processes that provide … a competitive advantage.”

Here are his lessons: There are no completely secure systems; Weigh the risks of a data breach; Segment your data; Understand the maturity of your staff.

There are right and wrong ways to handle an embarrassing data breach.

These aren’t the skills that most businesses used to need. But as politicians have learned, assume that somewhere nearby there’s an open microphone, a running video camera, or a nosy reporter.

Who knows? Maybe Assange has done everyone a favor. Now we’re more on guard. And despite what some like to believe, what has come out really carries no major surprises. A lot of the documents are embarrassing, but even the most spirited conspiracy theorist isn’t going to find a lot of villainy there. Mostly diplomats were doing their job.

And—they’ll certainly be more careful in the future.


Contact Tom Honig at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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