Wikileaks: Collaboration vs Silos & Stovepipes

I expect more than a few CIO's have reached for the Pepto Bismol after hearing the news about WikiLeaks releasing 251,287 leaked United States embassy cables on the public internet, given how similar the situation is to their responsibilities for protecting data and information.

I expect more than a few CIO's have reached for the Pepto Bismol after hearing the news about WikiLeaks releasing 251,287 leaked United States embassy cables on the public internet, given how similar the situation is to their responsibilities for protecting data and information.

Diplomatic embassy 'cables'  containing confidential communications between 274 embassies in countries all over the world and the State Department in Washington DC  dating from 1966 until February this year were leaked from SIPRnet.

I wrote about the US State department's eDiplomacy environment last month, and video of Richard Boly presenting it at the Enterprise 2.0 conference earlier this month can be seen here.

According to Time magazine the US State department are temporarily disconnected from SIPRnet today as a result of the WikiLeaks release.

...Clinton's undersecretary for management, Patrick Kennedy, had a simple suggestion: pull the plug on SIPRNet, the classified DoD network that PFC Bradley Manning reportedly used to download the cables from State's inhouse classified database. “The White House said do it,” says a senior administration official.

At State, they created the “Net-Centric Diplomacy" database or NCD, where State stored classified information up to the top secret level. Agencies across government had access to that database through their own secure networks. In DoD's case the network, created in 1995, was called the Secure Internet Protocol Router Network, or SIPRNet.

...Post 9.11 the imperative from Congress and the White House was to break down the “stovepipes” that prevented sharing across the so-called intelligence community—the sprawling collection of intelligence offices in more than a dozen different agencies across the U.S. government and around the world.

This is a classic example of the dangers of centralized information: the 'Cables' (an archaic term still in use to describe what used to be paper telegrams and are now digital communications) were a sitting duck on SIPRNet, were they sat in the digital equivalent of a huge filing cabinet where they could be downloaded en masse to a portable flash drive. The typical reaction of those who still equate data and information in terms of the old document/postal/telephone/telegram paradigms is to split everything out into lots of smaller digital filing cabinets so it's harder to find stuff...the stovepipes and silos that slow bureaucracies to a crawl.

The Wikileaks drama, which the Economist characterizes as mostly gossip fodder rather than anything earth shatteringly secret, is fairly typical of the trials and tribulations of Enterprise 2.0 data issues at scale. The CIA Intellipedia environment was created, on a tiny budget, to attempt to break free of crippling siloed bureaucracy after the US September 11 2001 security disasters, but became a victim of its own success, running into increasing internal political pressures, resistance and inertia.

The current US administration started their term in office with much talk of transparency, participation and collaboration with initiatives such as Open Government.

Official Government "Ethics czar" Norm Eisen, who a year ago was pushing for 'A Washington that is More Reflective of All of America' was nominated as ambassador to the Czech Republic this summer. Some of Eisen's duties were handed to Domestic Policy Council member Steven Croley,  the rest to an already very busy White House Counsel Bob Bauer.

Since lawyers typically are locked in the lowest common denominator document/postal/telephone/telegram archetypes it is likely we will see a period of obscurity and inefficiency around government security collaborative endeavors until the next crisis that demands greater cohesiveness occurs.

The balance between collective collaboration and maintaining the sanctity of sensitive information and security is woefully underestimated by many. Whether throwing up a low budget LAMP stack and building out an open source collaboration platform and seeing where 'adoption' will take it, or rolling out expensive software purchases to meet specific hopes, objectives and business goals, scant attention is paid to the potential of increased fluidity of information access.

Siloed 'need to know' cultures are initially easier to set up, run and manage, as Sharepoint environment owners will attest, but information organization, navigation consistency and findability of this approach is typically obscure over time to everyone but those running the systems. The result is chronic inefficiency and the whole cycle to accelerate performance begins anew, albeit with the added task of reorganizing terrabytes of unique data and information residing in multiple unconnected silos.

The Economist commented, '...while information may want to be free, human beings are usually better off when it's on a leash'. This sentiment is half correct in my opinion - we typically expect sensitive information to be well organized and the various checks and balances to be in place as they are in our physical world. In this digital era it's impossible to return information to hidebound obscurity - the pace of your competition's networked collaboration forces your hand.

Informed strategic planning by people who know what they are doing may seem an expensive proposition to those who equate anything 2.0 as breezy, easy and lightweight ...but robust, well organized and efficient systems are a lot easier on your digestive system over time than disorganized, leaky ones and won't spring nasty surprises on you...

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