Wikileaks, Privacy and Gender

Wikileaks, established in 2007 has made quite a name for itself, and many column inches have been dedicated not only to the leaks themselves but to the new public figures who have exposed the secrets of government.   Wikileaks is considered a triumph of hacker culture, a culture which is heavily  dominated by men, but one in which that domination is frequently denied, asserting a gender blindness.  But gender is at the root of some of its biggest controversies, and the issue of privacy and the right to information is in itself a gendered discourse.

The right to privacy and the right to know are two flip sides of the same coin.  Who has access to information is a critical feature of our information age, and it is information which renders the nature of something “knowable”.   The dominance of the men in hacker culture, subtly reinforced by tropes of sexism encourage women to conceal their gender and, to be absorbed into the normative universal subject of man. It is the role of the subject to interrogate others and make them knowable.  The subject is then free to construct these others according to their interpretations of their revealed nature.

And it is in this vein that women’s privacy is continually broken.  In their construction as an object for the interrogation by men, men demand the rights to womens information – particularly within private relationships.  A recent case involving a woman who ended up in hospital after swallowing her mobile phone when her partner demanded to check her text messages is accompanied by a public narrative of “what was she hiding”?.  While many sites giving advice on domestic violence include information on how to delete your browser history and conceal the knowledge that you have obtained.  For knowledge is power, and power is deemed to properly flow only one way.  Women’s privacy is continually broken.

Its very common to hear men share all kinds of private information about their female partners.  It is not unknown for husbands/boyfriends to “let slip” that their partners are pregnant before they wanted it public knowledge or shared with that particular person, or shared other aspects of their personal information, especially medial information, without checking with them if it was ok to do so.   Also in terms of state surveillance, women’s experience of it is generally higher. They have more contact with state institutions, like hospitals, schools, welfare agencies, benefit offices, housing offices etc  giving out personal information to each one, than men generally do.  Individual women are then constructed on the basis of knowledge gleaned about them by others, rather than from their own self-construction.  Consequently the revelations of NSA surveillance  is more shocking to men, because they see themselves as private entities, whereas women have become accustomed to having their boundaries breached in all kinds of ways.

The ultimate embodiment of male power and subjectivity is the US Government.  Through its intelligence services it establishes its knowledge of all kinds of entities, constructs them on the basis of that knowledge in its own interests and then takes action secure that its subjective position is dominant and unchallengable.  Through information agencies such as the CIA it penetrates the organisations of others, discoursively refashioning them and controlling the consequent narrative depiction of them to suit its own agenda, while protectively guarding its own information lest others do likewise.

The video “Collateral Damage” which Wikileaks released, showing the US Army in Iraq initially firing on journalists and then subsequently firing on those who went to help them, undermined the desired image of the intervention as humanitarian and just.  It rendered the essential nature of the US Army knowable on the basis of information which they did not control.  When Wikileaks released the cables detailing the corruption in the dictatorships of the middle east, it produced a spark which ignited the Middle East, allowing people to know their governments, and thereby transforming them into subjects who could take action against them.  When  the extent of spying that the NSA had been indulging in on private citizens on what they thought were private channels of communication was revealed, it exposed how extensive the US’s government’s surveillance programme actually was.The founder of Wikileaks is Julian Assange.  In August 2010, he was accused by two women of sexual misconduct, who approached the police initially to force him to take an STI test after he had unconsensually penetrated them without a condom.  Those women wanted personal information about Assange, namely medical details which were relevant to their own health and which he had denied them. The details of his STI status had become relevant and necessary for them to know as a consequence of his behaviour and they sought to use state authority to assist them obtain that information.  On hearing the circumstance which led to that information being relevant information which they had a right to know, the Swedish police sought to arrest Assange on charges of rape.

Here again we see the complex interplay between the right to information, state authority and gender.  Assange had established himself as the champion of the individual subject – maintaining the individual’s right to know about information, yet personally denied access to information that others had the right to know, namely whether they had been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection.  Unable to obtain this information, the women who had potentially been put at risk invoked state authority to obtain it.  As part of invoking this state authority, the women were forced to reveal the circumstances by which they were claiming this “right to know”.  These circumstances indicated that a crime had been committed and the authorities moved to arrest Assange.  In the process the experiences of the women became public knowledge, under the public’s right to know of allegations of crime.

Since Private Manning got her first opportunity to speak in the aftermath of the sentencing, putting out a statement clarifying the uncertainty over her gender which had been a quiet background hum in the quiet background awareness of her ongoing incarceration and torture while more sexy topics like Julian Assange hit the headlines, her gender declaration has been a ongoing feature in the coverage, but little has focused on the gendered implication that she brings to the narrative presented.

Manning famously released a number of videos and logs which were US Army data, most significantly the “Collateral Murder” video, which showed an American helicopter firing on journalists and logs of the War in Afghanistan and the War in Iraq.   Her arrest came in May 2010, held in solitary confinement, tortured and humilitated and forgotten, while the world was consumed by the Assange case.  Earlier this year, following her sentancing she publically declared her gender.  There was a range of reactions to Manning’s declaration – from the positive affirmation of her as a transgender heroine; to the quiet acceptance of her gender and a plea to focus on the substantive, to outright denial of her right to self-determine her gender.  The inital decision by Wikipedia to systematically misgender Manning freezing her in time as “Bradley Manning” (now rectified) was a significant move by a powerful agent in the construction of public knowledge, yet still some insist on referring to her as Bradley.

Like the travel writer Fermor, and his contemporaries, who to the end of his life insisting on using the name “Constantinople” for the city of Istanbul, the right of the dominant to name their landscape and by that naming process control it.  The insistence that Chelsea Manning is “really” Bradley, is a demand to control the narrative around the story.  The story of Bradley Manning is that of a plucky young private, who penetrated the defences of the mighty US Army, who humiliated and pussy-whipped them into revealing secrets that they did not want to share.  The initial reports of Manning as a gay man served to underline, rather than undermine, this narrative.

The story of Chelsea Manning on the other hand is a great deal more subversive.  It is only this year that women have been allowed to serve in combat in the US military, a ban which Manning managed to circumvert by hiding her gender, a tradition which goes back to the American Civil War in which it is estimated around 400 women fought in despite being officially debarred, temporarily gendering as men to gain combat rights.  In war, men are allowed to be heros, celebrated for their daring exploits of bravery, while women are relegated to a lesser role.  The prevalence of sexual violence in the military reduces women military personel to the level of comfort women, provided for the amusement and entertainment of the troops, damsels in distress to be rescued, or to be used in psychological warfare, providing a convenient scapegoat on its discovery.

The military and the US government portray a male hegemony of an impenetrable body which through the NSA demands access to the intimacies of private citizens, while enforcing its will on the world at large.


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