Monday, January 3, 2011

The Threat to Free Flow of Information

The world has changed. More than ever before, it is dominated by two opposing forces: the compulsion to share information and the need to control it. The year 2010 can claim to have a pivotal spot in the technological history of mankind, though not evidently for the better.

On the eve of the New Year, I began to wonder what some of the most significant world events were and which of these stood out. How could they further have an impact on a world already paranoid about privacy and national security on one hand, and obsessed with the advancement of techno-devices on the other?

The WikiLeaks headlines obviously top the list on a global scale, followed by the Google pullout from China, which left its mark on the world of corporate espionage. Third is the pressure exerted on the Canadian company Research In Motion (RIM) to hand over its Blackberry encryption to several governments.

These three events signify a paradigm shift in the gathering and sharing of information.

Where do you draw the line between the freedom of information flow and the right by authorities to control and seize information for the sake of national security? The advance of the Internet in the 1990s, along with the increasing popularity of handheld devices and social networking platforms over the past decade, have further contributed to the blurring of this divide.

The corporate world has also taken this cue to gain from the arbitrage of information.

The WikiLeaks releases over the past month -- a quarter of a million official messages and diplomatic cables dealing with how the United States conducts its foreign policy, have definitely left a scar not only on diplomatic relations. That doesn't mean just with America but any country seeking to conduct private bilateral dialogues. It is a reminder to everyone on what, what not and how to say, write or convey a message/opinion in any medium. It also demonstrates the growing power of online reporting, from citizen-reporting news portals to YouTube and now WikiLeaks.

The Google decision to quit the Chinese market early in the year went beyond just obeying or defying government censors and the Internet giant's claims about being the target of cyber attacks originating in China, allegedly orchestrated by Chinese authorities. The latter led to the discovery of hacking and "highly sophisticated and targeted attacks" on the infrastructure of more than 20 major American corporations, which confirmed that the once shadowy world of spies and intelligence has passed seamlessly from switchboard to keyboard, with corporate espionage and business intelligence becoming as important to governments as the spy game.

Which brings us to the next on my top-three list, the Blackberry-dominated business world. Several governments, notably India and the United Arab Emirates have demanded that RIM hand over the encryption keys and codes of its corporate email and messaging services of its Blackberry devices so that their intelligence agencies have control over data and information exchange, citing the need to monitor potential terrorist threats. There is every indication that other governments will follow the two to demand such control.

While the eventual arrangements are still being ironed out, notwithstanding the impact on RIM with the iPhones and Android devices already hot on Blackberry's heels, end users are once again starkly reminded that Big Brother is always watching and in fact intends to find new ways to peer over everybody's shoulder.

It thus appears that the "safe and "secure" platform is just a fantasy for the man on the street – as the need to control and seize information will unquestionably be on the rise on the backdrop of terrorism and national security issues for the governments as well as gains from information for the corporate world.

Yet the social networking giant Facebook is now the most popular web site, with some half a billion users, and still growing despite the lingering issues of privacy and security.

One cannot help asking: what is the motivation to share information? Has the world not come to grips with the inconvenient truth that no information is ever safe? Recall the news about how the wife of the new MI6 chief caused a major security breach and left their family exposed after loading photographs and personal details onto Facebook.

Looking back, 2010 has indeed brought the perplexing issues of information flow ever closer to a disturbing surface. It is only going to get worse. Perhaps that explains why Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was Time magazine's Person of the Year.

By Vanson Soo Hong Kong-based expert in business intelligence and corporate investigations, specializing in the gathering of pivotal information and intelligence.

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