How WikiLeaks Changes the Face of Government Transparency

November 14, 2016

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Now that the election is over and the dust is starting to settle, it’s a good time to stop and take a look at how WikiLeaks not only significantly influenced and impacted the U.S. presidential election but also affects other parts of the world.

Love it or hate it, WikiLeaks has begun a campaign to open the world’s governments and to enable people to see how things work in more direct, transparent ways. 

What Is WikiLeaks?

WikiLeaks is an international group of activists (often anonymous) who specialize in vetting, archiving, and releasing information regarding “war, spying and corruption.” It is not funded by any government agency, nor does it necessarily favor particular countries or political parties. Instead, it archives and releases information that is typically hidden from average citizens.

Where Does WikiLeaks Get Information?

Information posted by WikiLeaks comes from individuals within governments, campaigns, charities, and such. WikiLeaks does not engage in espionage, but instead spends time verifying the provided information, making it indexable, searchable, and accessible to the web at large. 

Does WikiLeaks Publish Everything It Receives?

No. Some information provided to WikiLeaks remains unpublished, usually because it cannot be verified and vetted as genuine. Other pieces, however, are rumored to remain unpublished because of concern for damage that could be caused by their publication. 

How Do They Get Away with This?

By living in the digital shadows, WikiLeaks staff members are for the most part anonymous, and they have no public role apart from the organization itself. A few key members have publicly identified themselves, but the vast majority of WikiLeaks staff is well hidden.

What about the Public Staff?

Because its staff members know too much, or because enough governments believe they do, WikiLeaks routinely publishes its “insurance” files to the web. These are zipped archives of everything WikiLeaks has, released and not. The files are AES256 encrypted, meaning that they will not be able to be opened without the encryption keys. As Hollywood as it sounds, those keys are rumored to be set for release on a deadman’s switch.

Essentially, there is a program set up that watches to see if someone (or several someones) in the WikiLeaks organization triggers specific things on a set schedule. For example, if the program is set to watch for emails, and a staff member is arrested and unable to perform this ritual on schedule, the keys would be released. At that point, the insurance files would be opened for public scrutiny after being downloaded by thousands of people around the world.

Was This All about Hillary Clinton?

While WikiLeaks may have played a role in the US election results, there’s little evidence that they favored one party over another. Certainly, there is no love lost between WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the US government, which has threatened to extradite and arrest him. But the WikiLeaks staff has been clear from the beginning that they are (and continue to be) willing to publish any verifiable information leaked to them, regardless of which campaign is the source or which campaign staff members it may favor. 

Why Does This Matter to the Church?

This is an important topic, because there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed. While WikiLeaks has no interest in the church (apart from as a political entity), there are still valuable lessons to be learned from the rise of enforced transparency in government.

First, congregational leaders should be aware that they need to govern with an openness to the members of the congregation and the community. Apart from specific matters of church discipline (which are hopefully rare), there should be nothing discussed in church council or similar meetings that couldn’t be broadcast on a Sunday morning. This applies doubly to private communication between church staff and leadership. If your emails were hacked and published, the readers of those emails should find themselves greatly bored.

Pastors are often privy to secrets that need to be kept quiet, especially those things told in confession. Thus, it is important to be extraordinarily careful about how much of that information is committed to digital media. Sometimes a phone call might be a better answer than an email. 

As attack methods become easier to use and security becomes an ever-more-expensive arms race, we will inevitably fall behind and become, whether we like it or not, transparent to the world around us. Now is the time to begin deliberately cultivating a culture of transparency, especially digital transparency. In our congregations, when we are subject to public scrutiny (something that will happen sooner rather than later), we should simply have nothing to hide.

For other helpful ideas and topics, visit the CTS Blog Technology & Your Ministry.

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