Commentary: In a WikiLeaks world, nothing is secret

The Charlotte ObserverDecember 5, 2010 

The surprise isn't that WikiLeaks is apparently going after Bank of America. The surprise is that it hasn't happened before now.

More than a year ago, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said he had a trove of information taken from a BofA executive's hard drive. Since then, WikiLeaks has published a classified video of U.S. forces killing Iraqi civilians; war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan; and, just this week, more than 250,000 messages from U.S. diplomats stationed all over the world.

WikiLeaks gets the goods. And although the bank put out a statement saying it has no evidence of any documents being leaked, you have to figure there's some trembling on Tryon Street.

Investors are definitely nervous. On Tuesday, BofA's stock dropped to $10.95 a share, the lowest since spring of '09. (It was back to $11.29 when the market closed Wednesday.)

These moments - before the story comes out, whatever it is - seem like a good time to state some truths about secrets.

1. A free society depends on people telling secrets.

There are three ways real news comes out. Somebody digs up new information. Somebody has a fresh insight into existing facts. Or somebody tells something they're not supposed to.

There's not much point in attacking WikiLeaks for telling America's secrets. I don't like WikiLeaks' recklessness. But one of the basic assumptions of a free country is that the government can't be totally trusted, and the press has to be able to tell uncomfortable truths.

Who makes up the press? That's a lot harder question because of point No.2.

2. Secrets - like all other information - can now be gathered instantly and published globally.

Daniel Ellsburg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, had to photocopy 47 volumes of material that totaled more than 7,000 pages. Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier accused of providing military records to WikiLeaks, supposedly loaded some of the documents in just seconds onto a rewritable CD that held Lady Gaga songs.

Web tools make it simple to take that information, hit a button, and show it to the whole world. WikiLeaks is partnering with the New York Times and other media outlets to build credibility. But the fundamental actions - collect and publish - can now bypass all filters.

3. More and more, we're living in a secretless world.

People volunteer their lives in great detail to Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. What they don't volunteer is findable in government documents and open databases. We're increasingly losing the concept of a private life.

And as our lives become transparent, it follows that we'll want the companies we work for, and spend our money with, to do the same.

It may be that WikiLeaks has secrets that will hurt Bank of America - and, by extension, Charlotte. But this is what we've signed up for. We should expect everything to eventually be spread out on the table. And we should understand that a secret you tell somebody else might as well not be a secret at all.

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