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If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear: Wikileaks and RIPA

Governments around the world have condemned Wikileaks recent release of US diplomatic cables, often while simultaneously denying they matter; the reactions are tellingly similar to the previous reactions from the US military simultaneously claiming the leaks were highly illegal, dangerous and irrelevant. At the same time many have defended the release as helping transparency. As David Waldock twittered: "Dear government: as you keep telling us, if you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to fear".

Is this correct?

The common good

In recent years we have seen an unprecendented expansion of government power to monitor citizens, driven both by technological change and changed laws. Often these laws have been constructed rather haphazardly, a combination of past regulations and emergency measures in response to events such as terrorism. The update and monitoring of such powers also show a significant lag (a current UK example is the criticism made by civil liberties groups of the brief consultation on the RIPA act that appears set to exclude stakeholders outside government and business). A common defense of such sweeping surveillance powers is that the common good must be protected, and people who have done nothing wrong have nothing to fear.

The first problem is what constitutes the common good in an international setting. Even if one accepts domestic surveillance as ultimately benefiting oneself or the community, it is not clear this applies to other communities. The 'common good' for the US might not be good for me or my community (e.g. it might benefit the US and its citizens to act against our interests or rights), and often national interests are clearly self-serving. It might be bad for the common good of the US to have diplomatic relations revealed but it could be helpful for the common good of other groups, even humanity as a whole. Whether the Wikileaks documents actually fulfill this is a complex and uncertain matter, but the case is certainly not weaker than the case made by proponents of government surveillance – they are also claiming great common good benefits, yet tend to be reticient in revealing any empirical support.

A key difference between Wikileaks and government surveillance is the limited filtering and oversight. In principle government surveillance in most democratic societies should be possible only under proper oversight (e.g. the RIPA act), limiting misuse, balancing rights and public interests and ensuring accountability. In practice this might fail, of course, but the aim ought to be to to serve the common good by limiting the spread of private information. On the other hand, the data released through Wikileaks has been claimed to be partially filtered to reduce risks to individuals, but is then left open for dissemination, interpretation, and use.  It is doubtful whether person-protecting filtering can be completely achieved, or even whether it is entirely desirable: there can be a strong public interest in revealing some information such as major crimes, even when that may increases the risk of violent or unlawful action against people.

The safety of innocents is vulnerable to both government surveillance and Wikileaks-style disclosure. Without the right context even truthful and inocuous information in a government database can be misinterpreted in ways that harm citizens (e.g. in some US states public urination convictions lead to people being placed in sex offender databases, with consequences far beyond the crime itself). As more information is gathered and used the risk of accidental misinterpretation increases.

Stuck in the panopticon?

The Wikileaks idea is to serve the common good by revealing the activity of organisations and nations as widely as possible. Rather than restricting information on a need-to-know basis, the leak aims to provide information to anyone wishing to know. It can be seen as part of a wider transparency movement.

The ability for the public to disseminate and process information has increased significantly. Back in the 1980's the current leak would have been a heavy filing cabinet, hard to transport and to copy, only accessible in a few places to a few people. Today it is not only accessible through the internet and hard to police, but also comes equipped with various attempts at improving browsing, visualisation and setting up further data investigations. Data leaks have become far more global and irreversible, at least if they promise to contain some interesting material.  There are good reasons to call for scientists to open up their data, since releasing it will likely improve the scientific process. Open data initiatives attempt to get government data into the open to help the deliberative process or encourage innovations.

One of the key arguments for transparency is that it improves accountability. If what we do becomes known, then we have rational reasons to act well. This underlies many procedural rules and freedom of information regulations in democratic societies. However, it can sometimes backfire. While the "climategate" affair may not have showed any serious scientific misconduct, it demonstrated the sordid state of everyday research. Ideally the risk of such a disclosure would lead to scientists behaving more responsibly. But one can easily imagine researchers instead avoiding to email or write down potentially damaging facts or opinions, leaving them in the ephemeral form of personal discussions. Increased freedom of information has apparently led many civil servants to avoid taking notes, since they could be subpoenaed. Some people have warned that Wikileaks might impair the work of future historians.

More seriously, as the Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt argued, this kind of leak could limit trust and confidence in diplomatic communications. If governments cannot communicate confidentially, they would be forced to make public 'megaphone statements' that presumably would be more polarizing. This argument has merit, but it is partially based on the idea of diplomatic channels are a gentlemens club in the first place. As some of the leaks have revealed, there have been mixing going on between foreign policy and espionage, demanded from top officials. That is surely a worse problem for the diplomatic system than the possibility that confidences are leaked.

If the risk of leaks is a serious problem to governments, then it seems that this is also an argument against data retention initiatives. Large databases on private citizens are surely not better protected than diplomatic or military information. While the impact of disclosure of government information might be more widespread than the impact of disclosing information about an individual, to the individual the effects can be personally more damaging. By collecting private information leaks can become more pervasive.

Similarly, if the argument that confidential discussions are necessary for the proper function of governments and international relations is viewed as true, then there is a strong reason to consider the confidentiality of discussions people have privately or as part of organisations as important. Trust is just as important for the functioning of civil society as the international community.


There are indeed paralels, if imperfect, between the increased ability of scrutinize citizens and to disclose government informations. Both can serve the common good (in a local or global sense), improve accountability by raising the cost of misbehavior and possibly help bring wrongdoers to justice. Both raises the issue of how to properly manage the costs of revealing private information and reductions of confidentiality in transparent environments. They also fundamentally differ in their specificity (at least as government surveillance regulations are officially formulated in democracies): need-to-know selective disclosure or want-to-know public revelation. Both are based on different assumptions about how the information can be used, the likeliehood of misuse and the benefit of innovative new uses.

Whether Wikileaks have acted morally in their 2010 releases is hard to tell without a deep analysis of their motivations, method of work and consequences (depending on your favorite ethical system). But regardless of the morality of their actions this release is unlikely to be the last.

We might indeed be witnessing the slow birth of a new world order where governments are subjected to scrutiny even when they do not desire it, as unable to defend themselves from it as individuals are from government scrutiny. This has so far been driven more by technology than legal or ethical principles (and is hence hard to prevent without sacrificing economical growth and many other benefits). However, there is also a strong countermove where governments increasingly claim a right of global monitoring without easy citizen oversight. This, fortunately, is not so much driven by technology as politics, and is in principle amenable to democratic and ethical control.

There are good reasons to watch governments closely. Historically the largest anthropogenic losses of life has been due to state activities (wars, democides, famines through economic policies), and even fairly benign governments have engaged in deeply unethical behavior that has both been hidden from and negatively impacted citizens. Two-way transparency might be the only way of surviving even more powerful states.

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7 Comment on this post

  1. Thank you, Anders for this clear exposition, to which I would like to add a couple of points :
    First, as you state, much of the argument centres on the notion of common good. However it is not clear that there exists a clear, accepted common good for the US (or Ireland ..). Is “saving the banks” for the common good, for example ? To say nothing of declaring war on Iraq.
    Linked to this point is the fact that governments use a variety of classification mechanisms to implement state secrecy and maintain confidentiality. It often becomes quite clear some decades later, when information becomes declassified, that what has been protected is not for the common good, but to protect certain interests, including the personal reputations of those who govern.
    Clearly there are real cases of necessary secrecy, but the current bias towards secrecy should be reversed, and Wikileaks is doing us all a service.
    I would add that I agree with your view that there are indeed parallels between the increased ability of governments to scrutinize citizens and their failure to disclose informations to these same citizens.
    Perhaps the common thread is that knowledge is power, and these two phenomena suggest that we need to rethink how power is exercised in a democracy.

  2. Anders points out that historically the largest anthropogenic losses of life have been due to state activities, but I wonder if he is giving enough credit for the positive roles that states play in people’s lives (including reducing non-anthropogenic premature death). Both Anders and Anthony are right to highlight the need to be clear what we mean by “common good”, but states can (and do) play an important role in forging consensus on precisely this issue, notably through the development of policy visions.

    This is not an argument for secrecy or against wikileaks, but there seemed to be an assumption that states are, if not inherently evil, at least something close to this, and I’m not sure that this assumption is really justified.

  3. The positive effects of states probably are significant. I am not entirely certain they reduce large non-anthropogenic risks, but they clearly have a positive effect on many smaller risks (civil defense, etc). For anthropogenic risks, a possible partial explanation for why the level of human violence has declined historically is better forms of inter-human coordination and peacekeeping. Similar coordination advantages likely help in many domains, although it might be unclear how much is due to the state per se and how much is due to markets and other institutions.

    But that states have positive effects does not mean they are safe, just that they like knives are useful but potentially dangerous tools. The rational strategy is to set up things so that the risks are minimized.

  4. Anders, I don’t have a strong disagreement on the substance, but I do have three concerns relating to the syle of argumentation here.

    Firstly, to describe states as “tools” seems to imply that they came into being by conscious design. While this is partially true for some newer states, the basic phenomenon of “statehood” is an evolution from earlier forms of kingdoms and empires.

    Secondly, before discussing whether states are “safe”, or at least in addition to doing so, we should also consider what alternative forms of social organization would provide the standard of living that at least some of us enjoy, and what such alternatives might look like.

    Thirdly, you say the rational strategy is to set up things so that risks are minimized. I disagree. Risk minimization is not inherently more “rational” than other strategies, such as the pursuit of positive visions of the future. Certainly in our personal lives we do not always seek to minimize risks. In the best cases we rather pursue positive goals for our lives while *managing* our risks to keep them to levels we judge acceptable. Otherwise we would never get out of bed.

  5. “Dear government: as you keep telling us, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear”.

    Is this correct?

    Good question. When used by governments, there are two distinct but related problems with this form of justification.

    First, philosophers such as AC Grayling will argue that, as a justification for action, ‘If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear’ is prone to ‘mission creep’ whereby government uses the presumption neither of guilt nor innocence to invade or impose upon our private lives more and more, gradually eroding privacy.

    The second and related problem is that when government invokes this justification it is government amassing the information, intelligence or evidence. But according to ideas of how government agencies should run, no particular government agent is indispensable. As such, no one person is responsible for safeguarding the amassed information; any single person can abdicate responsibility for keeping your records confidential. So, governments contain the inherent potential to ‘leak’. You do then have something to fear, even if you haven’t done anything wrong. The ‘something’ is that private information about you will become public for no other reason than that someone leaked it from government.

    Your question, however, is directed at government. And the idea that the shoe would be on the other foot is so novel that I couldn’t possibly offer a considered answer.

    But, coaxed, if I were to pluck a response from the aether I would draw on the anarchist idea that the conditional is always true when applied to governments. If a government has done nothing wrong then it has nothing to fear (~W –> ~F). But from this we can neither assert that if a government has done something wrong it has something to fear or nothing to fear ((W; Therefore F) OR (W; Therefore ~F)), nor that a government with nothing to fear has done nothing wrong (~F; Therefore ~W) without committing the fallacy of denying the antecedent and the fallacy of affirming the consequent, respectively.

    What we can conclude, however, is that given the justification ‘if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide’, the fact that the US government fears WikiLeaks publishing these documents means the US government must have done something wrong (F; Therefore W). But the next question is whether or not it is legitimate to apply this justification to governments when we are not happy to suffer it ourselves.

    If we apply the two objections raised when the justification is applied to citizens to government, then the justification may be sound if there is no risk of mission creep and if the keeper of the information is responsible for its keeping. On the first objection, mission creep, WikiLeaks’ aim is to erode government ‘privacy’. Whether governments are entitled to privacy is another (and the bigger) question. On the second objection, accountability, leaking is by its nature an act of not keeping information safe. Similarly, whether such government-damaging information should be kept from leaking is another (and bigger) question.


  6. Mohammad Saad Shibli

    if the wikileaks contents are true then it is great service for the Americans nation because Americans can understand why other country hate the American policy. but in my view wikileaks are not factually true because all comments which are described in wikileaks for Pakistani politicians are untrue. our Pakistani political leader worker are most corrupt person, they agent for other power full country and working in the interest of other not for Pakistan Pakistani

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