Alvin Toffler pointed out a few decades ago that the 21st Century would be dominated by information warfare and espionage. That’s because intellectual property becomes increasingly valuable and powerful in a world connected by digital networks. Defending and exploiting intellectual assets is likely to present one of the biggest challenges for organisations in the future. But as William Gibson once put it, “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed”.
Every now and then we see glimpses of subtle battles for information control in stories such as the alleged claims that machines belonging to organisations including Wal-Mart, Disney, Sony, the Labour Party, the CIA and the Vatican, have been used to rewrite Wikipedia entries. It raises the important question of what is fair, ethical and legal in a world dominated by information warfare. After all, it’s reasonable for organisations to aim to safeguard their interests. But where does prudent behaviour end and when do dirty tricks begin?
Information is the lifeblood of the Information Age. It should be the objective of organisations to harness the skills needed to surf, source and spin information for competitive edge. Is it wrong to manipulate information for personal or corporate gain? Or is it simply what the future compels us to do? Should we be more broadminded about competitive information exploitation? Or should we aim to stamp out any actions that might mislead the public? I’m reminded of the decision of the US Secretary of State in 1929 to close down the US code breaking office with the words “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail”. That didn’t last long.