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Bradley Manning Trial: Is Our Future an Orwellian Nightmare Or Information Anarchy?

At its core, the ongoing military trial of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the admitted conveyer of three-quarters of a million classified U.S. government documents to Wikileaks, is about the evolution of big data into a relentless and almost certainly unstoppable social force. Pfc. Manning, a U.S. Army intelligence analyst arrested in May 2010 and charged with 22 offenses involving the passing of information to Wikileaks, is seen by many as a whistleblower whose actions revealed mendacious covert actions of the U.S. government in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Many consider Manning a hero on the level of Nobel Peace Prize laureates Martin Luther King Jr/ or Polish champion of democracy Lech Walesa. In fact, some 65,000 people already support a petition to award Bradley Manning the Nobel Peace Prize for the way the information he passed to WikiLeaks contributed to withdrawing troops from Iraq. Others see him as a traitor whose leaks have materially aided and abetted enemies of the U.S., noting that among the documents found with Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan hideaway, were a trove of the documents Manning leaked about U.S. actions against Al-Qaeda.

Manning has pled guilty to ten of the charges against him with a maximum sentence of 16 years. But the Obama administration, clearly alarmed at the ease of such a classified info hemorrhage, is continuing to try Manning on the other 12 charges. Wikipedia (which has no connection to Wikileaks) reports that the most remaining serious charge is "aiding the enemy," a capital offense, though prosecutors have said they would not seek the death penalty. Still if convicted on that charge Manning could face life imprisonment.

The Financial Times, which has been covering the trial, comments that "The problems of balancing a free press with keeping secrets is bedeviling the Manning trial, with prosecutors estimating about 30% of proceedings will be shut, to protect classified evidence and the identity of witnesses."

The judge in the court-martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning has said that she will close portions of the trial to the public to protect classified material, a ruling that is likely to frustrate civil liberties groups that have alleged that the case is being shrouded in secrecy.

In civilian court such a closed trial would not be permissible, and an attempt to bar disclosure of secrets might result in a dismissal. But Manning's court-martial is conducted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which grants the military judges the discretion to close trials to protect sensitive information. That means Manning could be imprisoned for life without the public knowing precisely why.

So, big data?

In part, the Manning incident only points out the virtual impossibility of protecting secrets in a social cosmos of instantaneous communication and universal access to information. No matter how harsh a punishment the court visits upon Manning, the documents he leaked are out there everywhere in the cloud, impossible to recall. Anybody who has stupidly posted an embarrassing photo on Facebook knows the futility of trying to rebottle that genie.

The emerging kerfuffle over the National Security Agency's surveillance and data mining of most internet communications from foreign nationals, looking for traces of information suggesting communications between terrorists or others threating harm to the U.S., is an example of government worry over this phenomenon. (Paranoia? Maybe, but as the old saw goes, even paranoids have enemies). The fact that China apparently has a sophisticated information espionage operation directed against government and corporate IT systems in the U.S. is similarly a big worry. Many other countries are likely doing similar information espionage and making similar efforts to plug information leaks. (Fast systems today can quickly examine and mine usable information from exabytes of data – an exabyte is a million times the storage contained in your home computer's 1 terabyte hard drive.)

The computing power of the fictional super computer of the TV series Person of Interest — capable of tracking what every human on earth is doing in real time — is probably only a couple of Moore's generations from reality. With that in mind it is clear that Bradley Manning's leaks are only a splash in a much large ocean of issues about the control and dissemination of information in this new age of big data. We are rapidly approaching a time when we will be able to instantaneously discover the details of everything occurring in the world. Sadly, what seems still far away is an equally powerful filter to differentiate between what we need to know and what we need to keep private.

An aphorism attributed to Mark Twain (and others) goes that a lie can travel halfway around the world in the time it takes for truth to get its boots on. Apply that to the flow of information and you might say that embarrassing facts can travel everywhere in the world in less time than it takes for the data cops to know those facts have been stolen.

So, whether Pfc. Bradley Manning is a traitor or a hero to you, he is only among the first of a new breed of information Robin Hoods stealing information from the knowledgeable to give to a world hungry to be informed.

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