Wikileaks, Snowden, And Free Flow of Information

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Context
Since the first leaks of Wikileaks, the disclosure of classified information, from one source or the other, has become a norm. The founder of Wikileaks Julian Assange has since been castrated for his revelations, including Bradley Manning, the source of the treasure-trove.

PoliTact has previously noted the impact of the leaked classified cables on the conduct of international relations; it exposed the duplicitous public and private conduct of the states in question, including Pakistan. In addition to the other causes, the insights revealed by Wikileaks also became the motivation behind Arab awakening. The impact of social media in stimulating the Arab revolt continues to be a theme for further research.

Now the Edward Snowden episode has shaken the US and its relations with the world once more. The dent is considerably larger than is generally perceived. In the long run, the causality is the trust between states, essential for the conduct of diplomacy.

Not only that, the central role of technology in the conduct of surveillance has shaken the premise that free flow of information is generally a benign activity. The public confidence on the tech giants complicit in these monitoring activities is certainly going to take a hit. The Snowden disclosures have literally put the ‘global village’ vision of the future world at risk.

Analysis

Many of these government sponsored international surveillance actions have showcased how far a state actor can go to address its security concerns or to gain a competitive advantage, but without due consideration to the long-term implications. Furthermore, these activities have also blurred the traditional lines on who to consider a friend and a foe.

Pakistan-US Ties

Consider for example the operation to get Osama Bin Laden conducted in May 2011. The report prepared by Pakistan’s commission that was investigating the event was leaked to Aljazeera last week. The leaked report does not seem to contain any earth shattering information. In any event, while US attained its objective during the mission, its not clear if the long lasting damage the operation caused to US-Pakistan ties was considered at the time. The American operation may have played a crucial role in Pakistan’s decisive strategic tilt towards China, which is indicative from moves like handing over the Gwadar port to China.

If the decision to conduct the operation was made despite the heavy costs for Pak-US ties, this does not bode well for the future prospects of the relation. The mistrust between the two countries is still so high that all public and private contacts and initiatives are overshadowed by and mired in suspicion.

The operation created many problems for ngos that are genuinely conducting critical education, health, and disaster relief related work around the world. Other than a symbolic win, it’s not clear what benefit was derived in eliminating Osama in such a fashion.

US-Latin America Ties

On the other hand, the Snowden affair has taken on a truly multidimensional angle. The plane of President Evo Morales of Bolivia was forced to land in Austria on July 2ndafter having denied entrance in to the airspace for Austria, Spain, France, and Portugal. The president was returning to Bolivia from a visit to Russia, where Snowden is also holed up and from where he has applied for asylum in a number of countries. Media reports indicate US officials suspected the plane was carrying Snowden and asked European authorities to intervene.

As retaliation for this high profile humiliation, the leaders of South American countries belonging to Mercosur trade bloc (Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Uruguay) have decided to withdraw their ambassadors from the European countries involved in interfering with the flight of the Bolivian president.

“The gravity of the incident – indicative of a neocolonial mindset – constitutes an unfriendly and hostile act, which violates human rights and impedes freedom of travel, as well as the treatment and immunity appropriate to a head of state,” the Mercosur nations laid out in the joint statement.

US-European Ties

According to the Snowden revelations, even European allies and European Union were not spared from the extensive Internet monitoring and spying, and their embassies and missions were targeted in the US. The reaction has been especially severe from privacy sensitive Germany where Angela Merkel raised the issue herself with president Obama. The whole episode reminds one of Cold War days. Other information that is now surfacing suggests that the intelligence organizations of UK, other European nations, and US, collaborated on many of the data mining and collection efforts related to the war on terror.

And, the reference here is not towards cyber threats where an individual or a state uses information technology to steal sensitive information from the computer networks of another state or entity, or tries to implant a virus to inhibit it. This has come to be known as cyber warfare and China and US seem fully engaged in it presently. Chairman of Pakistan’s Senate’s Defence Committee, Mushahid Hussain Syed recently proposed a 7-point plan to ensure cyber security for Pakistan.

Conclusion

This all fits in with what renowned futurist Alvin Toffler wrote in ‘Power Shift’ referring to knowledge as increasingly a source of power and not just wealth. The dilemma is that while a snippet of information may not have any value for one, but it may be the missing link for another player. This falls under the realm of what is known as information management, which is the methodological categorizing and collection of certain pieces of information using technology, for the purpose of creating knowledge. Towards what end, is a different question. In layman terms, this is often referred to these days as connecting the dots.

What Snowden affair further reveals is that security concerns have overwritten the privacy sensitivities or whatever other sovereign rights a state may have enjoyed. This will ultimately impact economic ties and impede online activity. The pursuit of information superiority is directly conflicting with the present order of the world, leading to more mistrust, and potentially less free flow of information and ideas.

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