A quick thought on redaction

In reviewing cables sent from USINT in Havana to Washington, I was surprised to see that that WikiLeaks redacted Yoani Sánchez’s name from all of the cables in which she was mentioned. I was surprised because, in spite of this effort, her identity was quite apparent. The obvious giveaway was the mention of Sánchez being included on TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2008. But even the smaller things seemed problematic. For all those who follow Cuba closely, but are not physically on the island, the terms “Cuban blogger” and “Yoani Sánchez” are nearly synonymous. It would be almost impossible to truly anonymize a person like Sánchez in this context.

And this is probably fine. The Cuban government is well aware of Sánchez’s actions, her political leanings, and her influence in the international community. While the cable that described Sánchez’s meeting with Bisa Williams gives ardent Castro supporters yet another reason to lambaste her on the Internet and in state media, it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that it will do her any real harm. But it made me wonder about other cases in which WikiLeaks might have done a similarly ineffective job at hiding a person’s identity.

In other situations, or in places where state security is not so airtight, to what degree can name redaction protect people? As these kinds of information troves continue to emerge, is there an ethic of redaction (of names and information) that can allow documents to be made public without endangering the lives of their subjects?

This is a complex question that is impossible to answer on a broad scale—every case is different, and context really matters. But I think it’s worth throwing into the mix of questions that have been flying around about the very powerful information space that WikiLeaks has become.


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