THE release of the names of confidential sources in 250,000 WikiLeaks cables is a potential disaster for those whose lives are at risk. But it is also a problem for free speech, undermining efforts to make transparent the workings of governments and other organisations around the world.
There are competing stories about who is responsible for the breach of security that has left unredacted US diplomatic cables swirling in cyberspace.
WikiLeaks says it's the fault of Britain's The Guardian because one of its journalists published a password in a book; the newspaper says a Twitter user found the database by following hints published in media outlets and on WikiLeaks' Twitter feed. Whatever the truth, surely the issue here is the extreme difficulty that an electronic clearing-house such as WikiLeaks faces in trying to protect those inadvertently caught up in the exercise.
Julian Assange's organisation has made efforts to redact the cables and publish them in a way that protects those who, for example, have provided information to US officials in countries that are hostile to Washington. But all that is as nothing when the original cables are out there, trailing in their wake potential damage to reputations, livelihoods and, indeed, life and limb.
This is not an argument against whistleblowing. We do not condone hacking, but we are in favour of information that should be in the public arena being put out there by brave and committed individuals who choose to reveal secrets because they consider them to be in the public interest. The problem lies in the failure of WikiLeaks to adequately manage leaked documents in order to minimise risk and maximise results.
The internet is a glorious tool for communication and access, but cyber privacy is a non sequitur. There are clearly dangers in dumping hundreds of thousands of documents on a website. Indeed, WikiLeaks has acknowledged those problems by choosing in recent times to work through professional print outlets, such as the Guardian and The New York Times, to sanitise the data before release.
We would go further and suggest whistleblowers are better off dealing directly with experienced journalists at reputable newspapers rather than a "drop box" that so often operates in a twilight zone of digital anarchy.