This is not an essay about Wikileaks, although it will talk about it. Rather, it's an essay about naming and analyzing a new force of nature that--in the western world--has been building for the last 400 years. This essay is about secrecy and privacy, two different but related beasts. One is on its way to extinction, and the second is at the mercy of our culture--like an animal that has lost its natural habitat and is kept extant in zoos and nature preserves at the whim of society.
Secrecy is the animal threatened with oblivion, for as far as the universe is concerned there was no such thing as a secret, and the little swamps and wetlands it could survive in are being drained and paved. A secret relies on the immobilization of all information that could betray it, but in the real world everything that happens will have a consequence that somebody can detect, make deductions on, and compute the likely cause. What a government transmits to its embassies abroad, or a senator says behind the closed door of his own office will always ripple out into the rest of the world somehow, by some detectable means. All secrets of sufficient importance leak related information through side-channels that are difficult and often impossible to suppress. Their reconstruction into intelligible forms is getting easier and easier, thus the impending demise of the species.
Privacy is the species we may wish to keep, but only by an act of conscious social will. What you chose to do in your bedroom with a consenting partner is none of anyone else's business, but it could be deduced with utmost fidelity by an intelligent observer of circumstantial facts. What would keep your neighbors from surmising the truth, or from gossiping, is nothing more than a sense of politeness.
Wikileaks is a modern example of the principle that "information wants to be free", but more importantly it's an example of a new and emerging force of nature. Like any other force--like weather, gravity, magnetism or convection--it can't be reasoned with, can't be bargained with, and is ineffective to suppress for too long or too wide. It's enabled by computers and the Internet and all the devices that we connect to it, like cell phones, cameras, memory cards, temperature probes, you-name-it. It can, however, be harnessed like any other force of nature. For the sake of this essay, I'm going to call this new force of nature Candor.
Forces of nature act locally but originate globally. If you fly a kite it's because air is moving from a locale of high pressure to a locale of low pressure, and you're taking advantage of the wind it creates. But that force originated in the movement of the whole Earth and of the Sun shining on it and heating the air. Information originates and moves in similar ways, so lets define a few terms useful when talking about Candor.
When information is scarce on a global scale, it means that nobody knows it consciously yet. This is the world of undiscovered science, the nature of "Dark Matter" and "Dark Energy", the exact date when we'll run out of oil, the sequence of the first gene to evolve, and the location of socks that mysteriously disappear in the dryer. But none of these things are unknowable, we can figure it all out given enough time and effort. The key difference is that this information is still in raw form, waiting to be extracted and refined like a mining company extracting metals from ore.
Global Information Denial is when somebody knows something, but isn't telling. It's when you get an idea in your head, but don't write it down on paper. The information exists in an intelligent form--inside your head--but you don't express it in a communicable form. You don't speak it, you don't write it down, you don't even sketch it. But it's inside your mind, itching to be let out. Perhaps you just realized who murdered your friend, but you daren't say it least they target you. Perhaps you've figured out who leaked the embassy cables to Julian Assange, but you want to protect their anonymity. As long as you don't say it, it's still a secret, right? Perhaps not. Global Information Denial is very hard to crack, but not impossible. The more important the information is, the more it influences your subconscious behavior; the way you stand, walk, speak, avoid subjects, betray emotions or move your eyes is consistent with what you know. Someone could deduce what you know by figuring out what's consistent with your behavior.
The moment your knowledge leaks in a communicable form, either because you spoke it or because someone figured it out and wrote it down, it becomes Global Information. Now we enter a new realm of information.
Censorship, in a nutshell, is a form of Local Information Denial. The information has already been discovered and leaked into some kind of communicable form (a letter, a drawing, a sound recording, etc), but somebody is actively trying to prevent it from being known to a particular constituency. This could be a cabal trying to prevent its secrets from being known to the public, or a government trying to prevent its citizens from unearthing the truth by censoring the press or suppressing an informant. The key difference between Local Information Denial and Global Information Denial is that information has been extracted from the rocks and refined into knowledge, but now the flow of refined knowledge is being restricted.
It's "Local" because the universe already knows it, in one form or another, but efforts are now being made to purposefully frustrate a specific group of people from discovering it in its refined form. Local Information Denial also includes unpublished scientific papers, because it means there's some scientist somewhere who has extracted a meaningful grain of truth from the universe, but is withholding it until his paper is finished and has been peer reviewed. This isn't the same as censorship, but for our purposes it is a type of Local Information Denial because it's still a form of withholding knowledge, even if it's for benign reasons.
Local Information Denial is even harder to suppress than Global Information Denial, because the knowledge has been condensed, meaning that it now has two forms: its original, nebulous form in the universe, and the intelligent, communicable form of a deduction. It might have also been written down or recorded, copied and backed-up, which spreads it over a wider area and provides more opportunities to be uncovered.
Penultimately, lets distinguish active censorship from poverty, laziness and apathy. Local Information Scarcity is when a group of people don't know something because they can't afford to acquire what's freely available, or can't be bothered, or don't care to know. A scientific journal can cost hundreds of dollars a year to subscribe to, but it's not the same as LID if you can't afford it. Maybe you'll borrow someone else's copy, or overhear the relevant details of a new discovery from someone who does subscribe. If that's so, it's the least of your problems. For the vast majority of the human race, Local Information Scarcity is caused by either a lack of interest, or a lack of motivation. Whenever you see the abbreviation "TL;DR" (Too Long; Didn't Read), think of LIS. It could be that the reader couldn't bother, didn't care, or didn't have the time.
Sometimes it looks like LIS and LID have a fuzzy border. Maybe the information has been deliberately overpriced to make it impossible for you to learn it, but in which case that would be a form of LID because of the intent. The intention of a scientific journal is not to put information out-of-reach, though, but to cover their costs to have it reviewed, published and distributed.
And finally, the saboteur. The agent of change. The mischief maker. Let us suppose that there is nothing that happens in the world without some detectable and inferable trace of it being abundant to any other citizen in the universe, no matter where they are. All mass has gravity, for example, so if you move a chair in your dining room then there is--quite factually--a minor change in gravitational balance that radiates through the entire cosmos. It may be very tiny, but we might have only a few years before someone builds a device that can detect the movement of objects from the other side of a wall.
Then there's Forensic science, which is based on the principle that every object which comes in contact with another object leaves a trace of itself on the other. A car leaves flakes of paint on a hit-n-run victim. A thief leaves fingerprints, hair and skin cells at the crime scene. A bullet carries scratches unique to the barrel it was fired from, and murders are routinely solved by matching the two.
Every sound carries. If it meets an obstacle it vibrates that obstacle. Light does not completely disappear; it transfers its energy as heat or chemical changes to any dark or non-completely-reflective object it touches--which is how photography works. And at the quantum level we can learn about the presence of things without any particle ever touching it at all.
Van Eck phracking is a real-world example of how one can use LIA to defeat LID. Every electronic device you use will emit EM radiation unique to the device and what you're doing with it at the time. It was used in 2009 to detect the choices made on electronic voting machines in Brazil, and the Dutch government--following the research set by Wim van Eck in 1985--banned electronic voting machines in their 2006 election to guard against such evesdropping. Research conducted by the NSA in the United States, codenamed TEMPEST, found that a complete picture displayed on a monitor (both CRT and LCD) could be reconstructed by equipment on the other side of a wall just by analyzing the radiation given off by these devices.
The limiting factors are distance and sensitivity. If you're too far away from the source it can be drowned out by attenuation and other noise sources, and the quality of the reproduction is limited by how sensitive your instruments are, and how well you can filter the ambient noise. But consider that in the UK, where there's a tax on television use (and used to fund the BBC), the law is enforced by "TV Dectector Vans" that prowl the streets at night and can identify houses using an unlicensed TV. They work by detecting the EM radiation given off by the set, and are accurate enough to know which channel you're watching and whether the set is color or black-n-white.
Yet both distance and sensitivity are barriers to be felled by technology. For one, the detectors can now be made smaller and cheaper so that it's feasible to blanket a city with devices too small to easily spot. Second, the sensitivity of antennas and sensors are being improved. And third, techniques for signal analysis are getting better, yielding higher fidelity reproductions with less noise.
We're even unwittingly deploying many of these devices ourselves, such as when we set up baby monitor or a webcam that broadcasts its picture over an unsecured WiFi network.
But of the three improvements analysis is the most important, as I'll explain in a moment.
Leaks short-circuit LIA by dumping information in its original form into the public sphere. As we talk about the emergence of a new force of nature, unstoppable and unreasonable, leaks are making up the bulk of it today. Secrets just don't want to stay secret because people want to tattle by nature. The more incredible or important the secret is, the more likely it is to leak.
Important secrets leak for two reasons: first, they prompt massive action with huge side effects, and second they have value in and of themselves.
There are the fundamental forces--gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the nuclear forces--and then there are what we call forces of nature, which are emergent: they appear because of the combined activity of many agents, sometimes trillions of agents. Tides are a force of nature, as the seas are pulled by the Moon as Earth spins and the Moon orbits around it. But so are plagues of locusts a force of nature, caused by millions of individual insects acting on instincts programmed into each. And this is how Candor has been acting, as it wakes up and builds momentum. It's a force created by many different agents and trends that unite as one. Forces of nature can't be bargained with, can't be globally suppressed, and react unpredictably to influence.