skip to content

WikiLeaks & the Archives and Records Profession: A Panel Discussion

Before I begin I would like to thank ARMA and ART for the opportunity to be part of this panel. I have been thinking that the engagement of recordkeeping professions with WikiLeaks has been a long time coming. I would also like to acknowledge my colleagues whose insightful commentary and challenging opinions have informed my remarks, namely Hillel Arnold, Craig Savino, and Amelia Abreu. They, as well as others, have assisted in the process of clarifying my arguments and I am certainly grateful for their input.

With all due respect to Kiron Skinner, I am not terribly concerned about how record creators may change their behavior, as writing in code, creating intentionally incomplete documentation, or tampering with records is not new behavior for the “policy makers, intelligence analysts and statesmen” she identifies in her opinion piece for WikiLeaks has, and will continue to have a significant impact on the theory and praxis of recordkeeping, and is actively forcing us to gain a deeper understanding of the insufficiency of key concepts within archivy (at least those of us who have been educated in the American archival tradition). My primary concerns, which will be reflected in my remarks, fall in two major areas: 1) the insufficiency of our conception of provenance, and 2) the burden of contextualization.

Our understanding of provenance is muddied by a lack of clear language or an intellectual framework that can be applied in different circumstances. The term “provenance” in its various uses within the profession includes concepts relating to actors in record creation and office of origin, custodial history, and business function. In the case of Cablegate, provenance is much more nuanced and multifaceted. In an official sense it includes the Department of State and its diplomatic missions; the functions and mandates that lead to their creation; and even the routing and handling processes for telegrams. A deeper understanding of provenance should focus on relations between actors and information resources, as a traditional understanding of provenance would provide only a limited understanding of how WikiLeaks may influence the resources they release to the world.

Even as a relatively loose-knit enterprise, WikiLeaks asserts as using a methodology to verify the authenticity and potential veracity of material they may release. The lack of transparency of WikiLeaks, itself complicating the provenance of information resources they release, is a key part of what enables them to continue operating. We should also endeavor to understand what Chris Hurley has called “ambience” within recordkeeping, or the greater contexts of provenance. Given that recordkeeping acts of all kinds are context-bound, the motivations behind those acts are equally context-bound. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has proven, using multiple requests for a set of given documents, that redaction decisions in FOIA requests can appear arbitrary. While the need for conclusive policy about redaction criteria should be clear, we must remember that redaction decisions often reflect the sensitive issues of the day and can appear inconsistent over time. We should consider the use of detailed redaction policies as a tool to provide further context to understand the motivation of actors who undertake redaction.

While these issues surrounding provenance make things challenging enough, a further challenge is determining the appropriate manner of describing the provenance. Monolithic descriptive systems like the traditional finding aid, and even EAD on which it is based, allow for little nuance. In the monolithic model levels of description allow for only simple understandings of “creatorship,” where a number of actors can be explicitly identified with little analyis of the way in which they influenced the records. Custodial history is subsumed into a textual note that does not always clearly express the subtle relationships at play into how, why, or from whom archives received a body of records. All the same, we need a rubric by which to determine which information is actually useful to understanding context so we do not overwhelm the researcher.

I believe WikiLeaks also challenges the archival enterprise in a critical manner because they are shifting the burden of contextualization of their releases onto the rest of the world. While WikiLeaks has a track record of releasing material with a minimal amount of analysis, Julian Assange has been quoted as stating that WikiLeaks follows a model of “scientific journalism.” Leaked material is released in its raw state, allowing readers to read a news story and see the original documents on which the story is based. While Assange states in “WikiRebels,” SVT’s documentary on WikiLeaks, that the original intent was to have the general public write analysis articles for the site, the documentary also notes that average member of the general public does not have the time, interest, or resources to perform the analysis on released documents. In last night’s Symposium on WikiLeaks and Internet Freedom, presented by the Personal Democracy forum at NYU, Clay Shirky argued that “just making the data available doesn’t do it” and argued for the need to contextualize the information within leaks. Shirky compared this problem to a similar one experienced by The Sunlight Foundation and ProPublica, wherein raw data still needs a “template” for understanding as stories are the key to human understanding.

A further complication is that WikiLeaks releases documents that are divorced from their larger contexts, which makes this validation all the more complicated. Many if not all of the releases by WikiLeaks provide minimal contextual information about the original recordkeeping systems, functions, or sociotechnical and communication processes that created or influenced the information resources within the releases. Scientific journalism arguably will not work unless individuals come to the leaked documents with some sort of existing knowledge of a topic, or knowledge of the research needed to recontextualize the material. As archivists, we need to understand what our burden will be. Will we be expected by society to be the experts, as many assume we are? We need to have a clearer understanding of the methodologies of analysis that researchers will use. This is not to say we should discourage researchers from undertaking analysis if they don’t seem “qualified.” Our burden in part is identifying how researchers can improve their analysis skills to interpret the records under our care.