Richard Posner on "Wikileaks and the Art of Shutting Up"

Wikileaks and the Art of Shutting Up
Richard A. Posner
The New Republic
December 3, 2010

The public disclosure of some quarter million State Department cables (e-mails with multiple recipients, in essence) raise ethical and legal issues that I won’t discuss. Nor will I try to estimate the net harms (or maybe benefits) of making the cables public. I will address other questions: I’ll call them communication discipline, a culture of self-display, the technology of snooping, media desperation for content, and the social costs of overclassification. They are all closely related. 

It is remarkable how often businessmen, public officials, celebrities, and, for that matter, nobodies, get themselves into trouble by indiscreet e-mailing. They can’t control themselves. It is partly because e-mail feels private—you’re all alone with your laptop or your handheld device. But it’s also because modern people in rich countries cannot shut up. They are constantly communicating, usually banally, because in America everyone is a king and thinks that any thought that occurs to him or her is worthy of being communicated, preferably to many people. They blog, they tweet, they post random thoughts on their Facebook wall—and, if they’re diplomats, they send undiplomatic cables to their colleagues and superiors. 

All of us should know that anything communicated over the Internet, or any other electronic network, however “secure” the network is believed to be, can be hacked, and, if the senders are public officials, celebrities, etc., it will be, sooner or later. Maybe a lot of people still don’t know how vulnerable the Internet, the telephone (including cell phone) network, etc., are. But if they are public officials, they have the additional, erroneous assurance of “classification,” which could in principle open the hackers to heavy criminal penalties and should therefore deter them. No doubt it deters many of them. But the ranks of the hackers, the disaffected, the spies, are very dense. Meanwhile, the media, desperate for content, cannot resist publishing juicy secrets, whether they are the secrets of individuals or governments; and the U.S. government is reluctant to alienate the media by bringing criminal or civil actions against them.