Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Due to Godwin's Law and a severe free-time shortage, I rarely engage in forms of internet discussion or commenting (hence the scarcity of chatter here). However, the poorly-researched, complacent and fundamentally flawed Artleaks project was one poorly-researched, complacent and fundamentally flawed art project too many and I took the bait.

Artleak's aim is to expose the "abuse of [artists, curators, art historians and intellectuals]' professional integrity and the open infraction of their labor rights." How? "With online tools... we welcome cultural workers to publish reports on the situation inside of the institution in any form. Both anonymous and signed reports are welcome."

The tools they provide? A Wordpress site and a collective gmail account. This exchange took place on their Facebook site.
Adam Thomas: Genuine question: how secure is the 'anonymous' contributions webform on your site? "We understand that some cases require anonymity – and pledge not to disclose your identity if you so request it of us" doesn't really fill potential leakers full of confidence I would imagine. How much IP information is recorded? How secure are the email addresses that you reply from?
ArtLeaks: Dear Adam - thanks for your interest - just a short remark - first of all we stay for open political confrontation for which better to use a real names ; but if some cases would demand anonymity then for sure only idiots would use any net platforms - there are many other ways to deliver information
AT: Thanks for the reply, but with all due respect it's hard to take you seriously with a response like that. Firstly, what other ways would you suggest? Your wordpress site only offers a webform and a 'collective' gmail address. Secondly, the right uses of SSL, https, gnupg, etc. can make a secure web platform delivery possible (and therefore help you achieve your goals). I'm all for your ideals when your mission statement refers to wanting to fight against the "abuse of... professional integrity", but I think the unprofessionalism with which you are approaching your task abuses the integrity of people who either work to educate about web privacy, build secure information systems, or indeed risk careers (and more) by providing information. And if "only idiots" would use a net platform whilst requiring anonymity, why does your website suggest they should use your web form? "In the initial stage, please complete the form below, describing your case in one or two paragraphs. We understand that some cases require anonymity – and pledge not to disclose your identity if you so request it of us."
ArtLeaks: OK - I got your point and you right we are not into all this issues because if you read all cases that we publish you will see that they are open public cases and looks like that you are not familiar with art matters and system which are much more low scale and where all actors very easy to trace if they give a certain information. I would imagine that things might happen that people do not want to reveal the names but then I can hardly imagine that any art institution could get into business of tracking Gmail addresses and hack it - looks like that we speak from completely another worlds.. and in any case of course we respect any professional communities but looks like that any protection could be broken when someone have interest in the case... and also materials could be delivered in any way outside internet - from oral witnessing up to data storages... dmitry
AT: Thanks for the reply Dmitry. I'm very familiar with art matters - I'm a well-established artist and curator - and very surprised you're so complacent when it comes to this. I think it shows a real lack of respect to the profession you're choosing to try and speak on behalf of. I think you have a duty of care to people who might want to leak - you're claiming you can keep this process anonymous when it's not and a fundamental tenet of your mission rests on this. The Openleaks project has a succinct take on this: "Trust in someone whom you supply with confidential material has two major aspects: 1) trust in the integrity of those receiving the material and handling it, 2) trust in those supplying and operating the technical infrastructure." Unfortunately you fail on both accounts, and so, by proxy, does your project. (Fortunately, there's a way out. Change the language on the site or do a little research into the things you claim to be protecting in your mission).
ArtLeaks: Dear Adam, we appreciate your criticism and your insight into the matter of privacy. I am the one who implemented the website - so please direct your concerns in my direction - and please use our collective email to voice them - I hope we can have a productive conversation. Dmitry and the rest of our group worked very hard to see this project come to fruition - and we also put ourselves out there as a sign of solidarity, engagement and integrity - and we hope to improve the project as we go along - let me assure you that we do not take our responsibilities to the community lightly - I think this conversation has been drawn out long enough, so i encourage you to email us with further suggestions - Corina
AT: Thanks for the conversation - I hope you see that if people can trust your systems, they'll also be able to trust what you report. To end of a positive and constructive note, there's some great toolkits which might be of use (http://www.tacticaltech.org/protect/project/survival-digital-age for instance). There's an amazing directory of whistleblowing resources (software, frameworks, platforms, legal information at http://leakdirectory.org/index.php/Leak_Site_Directory and you might also look towards OpenLeaks and GlobaLeaks for inspiration, ideas and support. Thanks!

Remain critical. Privacy of information, secure tools and transparency of process remain absolutely vital to artists as much as they do to anyone else. By taking whistleblowing (and subsequent fact-checking and redaction) away from the journalistic domain and turning it into  protest or art or controversial discourse for the sake of it, real damage can be done.

The risks for advocates and independent journalists are becoming more complex. Confusion in these matters often either leads to a false sense of security (and danger is introduced into the information hierarchy, sometimes indirectly to people not involved) or leads to inaction.

Projects like the above simply serve to underline that fact, and undermine the work of people who put careers and lives on the line whilst trying to maintain freedom and openness in the media and online. If Artleaks wants to take itself seriously, and wants people to trust its reports, then it needs to start taking whistleblowing, online security and real journalistic process seriously.

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