Take Aim

Don't Shoot the Wikimessenger

By now we’re all up to date on the latest release of classified documents by WikiLeaks. Having this information made public on a global scale has caused great embarrassment for the U.S. State Department, as well as many other world diplomats. Depending on whom you ask, this is either an amusing behind-the-scenes look at high-level diplomacy, or the greatest act of treason ever perpetrated against the U.S. (Fun Fact: Treason against the U.S. can only be committed by a U.S. citizen, which WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is not).

On the heels of this latest document dump comes some serious sweating and hand-wringing from Bank of America (BoA), which is rumored to be WikiLeaks’ next target. Assange has said he’s sitting on a treasure trove of data from a large U.S. bank, and in an interview, claimed to have a hard drive once belonging to a BoA executive. The rumor was strong enough to induce a temporary 3% drop in BoA’s stock price.

Rest assured these events will have a chilling effect on the social media efforts of many organizations. Research from i4cp has found that corporate leaders are often very resistant to the implementation of social media technologies. This episode will likely give those who are opposed to using these tools more ammunition when saying no. Imagine what will happen when the CFO hears that the company wants to start an internal wiki to share best practices. “Isn’t that the thing that crushed Bank of America? No thanks.”

But wikis are a very effective collaboration tool, and any organization that shuns them (or any other social media technologies) purely for security reasons is missing a real opportunity. These high profile incidents are not caused by social media. Social media did not drop a 5GB hard drive into Assange’s lap. Information leaks like this will get out if proper protocol is followed or not. WikiLeaks did not hack anything to get the diplomatic cables, or the military documents it published earlier in the year. These things were given to them, albeit through the power of social media, by people within the organizations. Something broke down in the security protocol within the organizations affected.

The problem does not lie with the technology, although it undoubtedly makes it easier to share and disseminate information. Instead, the problem lies within the organization. If there is proprietary information that must never go outside of the organization, take precautions to make sure that it doesn’t happen. i4cp’s Social Network Regulation Survey found that companies that use these types of technologies normally take precautions to prevent leaks, including firewalls, policies, training and monitoring. If there is wrongdoing that would be better left undiscovered, perhaps technology is not your biggest problem and you need to focus more on business ethics.

So are the calls for Assange’s head appropriate? Is it his fault that diplomats spoke poorly about one another in their cables? It’s not because of WikiLeaks that people said one thing publicly while a completely different truth was communicated confidentially; WikiLeaks is simply the vehicle by which the awkward truth has become known. If critics are successful in shutting down WikiLeaks, two more will likely pop up in a matter of days. It’s the same as what happened with illegal file sharing (anyone remember Napster?). In fact, once Amazon shut down WikiLeaks’ servers, they were moved to a bunker-like cave in Sweden within a day. Even when their domain provider shut down WikiLeaks.org, WikiLeaks.ch was up in a matter of hours.

You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. This technology isn’t going away, and indeed will only become more prevalent and easier to use. Companies need to get ahead of the curve to determine how they are going to leverage it while keeping themselves safe.
What’s your opinion? Who do you think is ultimately culpable: WikiLeaks, social media, the leakers or organizations that promote a culture rife with embarrassing secrets?