"Operation Payback" is looking more like the sequel to Revenge of the Nerds. This week, cyber attacks were mounted by pro-WikiLeaks digital soldiers against MasterCard, Visa, PayPal and other companies for terminating WikiLeaks accounts or pulling the plug on services.
The damage appears to be minimal, but it may not be the next time. Collaboration plus transparency are watchwords in the lexicon of the Digital Commons, as it is known. For governments, businesses and individuals there are fewer places to hide, few secrets that cannot be unearthed and no government capable of reversing the transformation underway.
"Power shifts from secrecy to transparency," wrote web guru Jeff Jarvis on his authoritative blogsite Buzzmachine. "Too much of government is secret. Why? Because those who hold secrets hold power."
Bureaucrats, in business and government, have always known this. Secrecy is power in politics. The inner circle, the elite, the insiders.
In the private sector, secrets also confer wealth. Consider how valuable privileged information can be, such as the knowledge of decisions made in a cabinet, insider information from a publicly-listed corporation, Google's algorithms or Coca Cola's formula.
Secrets are sometimes essential, but the vast majority are not, nor should they be. Clearly, criminal investigations, military and security issues must be protected for the safety of everyone. And insider info that affects shareholders should be too. These must be protected by impenetrable firewalls, but aren't for the most part. Look at the ease with which the U.S. State Department archive could be accessed, stolen and shipped to WikiLeaks.
Arguably, WikiLeaks has performed a public service by exposing the government's digital negligence or its proclivity to keep dirty little secrets about other nations that the public has a right to know.
The site was founded in 2006 by Australian hacker and journalist Julian Assange. He rose to prominence by publishing documents about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, dumping of toxins in poorest Africa, Sarah Palin emails and now the U.S. State Department files.
It's mostly gossip, diplomatic opinion and pretty tame so far. Consider the so-called revelations: Russia is a kleptocracy? Canada has an "inferiority complex"? Canadians don't understand terrorist threats? Canadian courts are soft on terrorist suspects as well as criminals? Berlusconi's ridiculous? Merkel is uncreative and Sarkozy's personal popularity is wobbly? That Afghanistan is a hopeless mess and the Karzai family questionable? Tunisia tortures people? China's worried about North Korea, too?
Maybe more serious intel that could cause damage is on its way. This is what Washington is claiming and why it's talking tough to its employees and others about a legal crackdown against WikiLeaks and its sources.
But this is shooting the messenger.
The fault lies entirely with the US government for allowing everything to be so accessible.
Even if controls are imposed on top-secret info, governments cannot control leaks. WikiLeaks is the new journalism. It's the globalization of the scoop. It allows a disgruntled employee, corporate saboteur, criminal, or hedge fund searching for insider information, rival or shareholder to spread information instantly everywhere. Leaks are the media's stock in trade.
Mr. Assange has created a model that will be replicated, as long as the Digital Commons demands transparency and as long as juicy secrets are left around unguarded. WikiLeaks is not a business. It is a volunteer organization, based on donations, and its site is fed from servers scattered around the world. Lacking assets to seize or sue, it falls through the jurisdictional cracks and legal attempts to curb its site, based on privacy concerns, have gone nowhere in the US and other democracies.
Mr. Assange is now in jail in Britain on unrelated charges of rape and molestation in Sweden. He denies wrongdoing and some believe he's being set up. The site has been disabled in most jurisdictions, but the New York Times and The Guardian still spoon feed the leaks to the public and the rest of the Internet republishes them.
Whatever happens, there will be more WikiLeaks. And governments, companies and individuals must realize they had better be more transparent and, at the same time, nerd-up to hide truly essential information from the public.