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From insanity to inanity

June 12, 2011 1 comment

How to craft rules in a BigData world for information access? It is a hard question. But how not to is far clearer.

According to a new US government policy, lawyers representing Guantanamo prisoners are allowed to read Wikileaks’ classified US documents — but not print or save them. The actual policy “guidance” is here (from Politico) and an analysis by Politico’s Josh Gerstein is here.

Are the US officials that devised this policy out of their minds? How could anyone rationally adopt such an inherently inconsistent policy?

If the lawyers cannot read the material, they are blocked from accessing pertinent information that is already in the public domain, which could help them prepare a defense. Allowing access is only sensible. To do otherwise would be to deny reality (that the material is widely available), and might deny justice too.

However, crippling that access by placing arbitrary restrictions on its use make no sense whatsoever. Why? On what basis is one allowed to read but not print or save? Surely the US does not mean for the frailty of a person’s memory to govern how material is put to use. But that is the policy’s effect.

The irony is that the current policy is actually a slightly more rational shift from previous rules that forbid any access at all. It underscores the fact that the government has no clue how to respond to the new world we’re in regarding BigData leaks.

And it is a longstanding problem. Just this month, the US officialy released the trove of documents known as the Pentagon Papers — 40 years after they appeared in the New York Times. (The AP’s story is here) The Economist, in an article last month about it (“The open society and its ostriches“) argued that the way to think about these cases is that “the illegal disclosures in effect declassify the information.”

When the contradiction between futile policies and the reality on the ground grow so wide as to be preposterous — as it is now — something has to give. It will be the rules, of course, that go. But with government, this takes a long time.

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