A couple of weeks ago I came across this article in the Guardian (not my normal read, but their online media pages are useful) referring to the publication by the Wikileaks organisationof an archive of text and pager messages from 9th September, 2001, which effectively provides a narration to the terrorist attacks on New York city that day.
The archive contains text and page messages generated by both human beings and computerised systems. Many IT systems fall back on sending pager and text messages when something goes wrong, and unsurprisingly a lot of IT systems were going wrong that day. There were also lots of ‘tactical’ messages betweenthe emergency services, requesting people come in to work, etc. But what I find rather distressing – and maybe I’m over-sensitive here – is that amount of private messages between normal people involved in a very abnormal situation – folks in imminent danger of death reaching out to their loved ones in the only way possible to say ‘I love you’; worried watchers of unfolding events realising that their family was in the middle of it all and asking them to get in touch; basically, an awful lot of people in extremis reaching out to family and friends with concern and to say, in some cases, Goodbye.
Now, who on Earth could consider the latter clutch of messages to be of any public interest whatsoever? I’m honestly dismayed that Wikileaks did this. There are soem things in this world that are just personal. They may be of titillation value to the public, but to argue that there is any public interest value in publishing such personal messages in this way just beggars belief. I have to say I’d be very annoyed if I found a loved one’s last message to me published for all and sundry to read without my say so.
Wikileaksdoes a lot of good work, but they need to realise that there are categories of hidden information in the world. For the sake of argument, let’s call them Sensibly Secret, Public Interest, Private and Personal. Sensibly Secret is stuff that’s been officially labelled as ‘secret’ for purposes of national security, and validly so. Public Interest is stuff that is generated by our governments, local and national, our leaders, businesses, etc. that some may wish to hide but that it is genuinely in the wider public interest to ‘out’ – a government department covering up mistakes, a business hiding poor safety reports, bad public budget management, public safety, military errors that have cost the lives of our troops, etc. Then there’s Private – things that businesses and individuals MAY wish to keep secret – the day to day details of the running of a business, or Government, which may need to be publicised or made available to others in order to ensure that no wrongdoing is taking place. And then there’s personal; the stuff of the red-top tabloids; who Tiger Woods is sleeping with/ has slept with, whether x,y or z is gay or has a fish fetish, and private texts and emails between people facing death.
There….not perfect but not too difficult to get ones head around, is it? Personal information may well get out in to the world but it isn’t the role of whistle blowing groups like Wikileaks to publicise it. There are enough real, live, current Public Interest issues to chase up without becoming an electronic tabloid.