Wikileaks & RecordKeeping

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The world will probably not be the same after WikiLeaks. It is clear that the world of record keeping will definitely not be the same. One of the main tenets of recordkeeping systems – whether paper or electronic – has been the importance of ensuring the safety of information. In fact, ARMA, the leading international records management association, lists the Principle of Protection as one of its eight record-keeping principles. This Principle states, “A recordkeeping programme shall be constructed to ensure a reasonable level of protection to records and information that are private, confidential, privileged, secret, or essential to business continuity.”

The custody of over 250,000 United States diplomatic cables (official records) has been breached and like people all over the world we are reading frank diplomatic communications not intended for public consumption – at least not now. Among the many implications of what has been described as the “most massive leak of US classified documents in history” is the effect this will have on recordkeeping practices especially as these relate to the management of confidential information.

A likely danger is that officials might be reluctant to record either on paper or on electronic mail their frank assessments of leaders or sensitive issues in fear that they might be leaked to newspapers. They might turn instead to high-tech “secure” phones that are safe and leave no record. As there is no “paper trail” there would be no proof for accountability and transparency. This also has implications for decisionmaking purposes as decisions are made (or should be made) on factual evidence which should be kept as proof or as evidence of the particular matter or transaction.

For the historian of the future, this might mean there might be no records for them to peruse and analyse, or records so carefully worded that they do not accurately reflect the situations with which they deal. One of the great ironies of the WikiLeaks attempt to force openness in government operation is that it might have the opposite effect. This would be to increase secrecy and reduce accountability. In the end, the public’s right to know, and historians’ ability to explain, would suffer.

Hopefully, governments will react more positively and will pay closer attention to their record-keeping practices so as to ensure that procedures are in place to govern the maintenance and security of their records, especially their sensitive ones. As most records today are being produced electronically, this means that the management of electronic records should be an important component of any records management system. The system established should indicate the length of time to keep records, the format in which they should be preserved, the categories of people who have access to them, as well as the people with the authority to approve their disposition. Organisations should not discourage the creation of records or dispose of them indiscriminately without having proper systems in place to appraise and evaluate their short- and longterm value.

Rather than being negative, WikiLeaks could therefore have positive effects on recordkeeping practices as attention is focused on how to safeguard information crucial for decision-making purposes and business continuity and to make them available for research purposes in an organised manner. Whatever happens, record-keeping practices along with international diplomacy will never be the same after this.

This article, written by John Aarons, University Archivist, was first published in the Jamaica Observer 28 December 2010.

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