As Edward Snowden’s revelation of PRISM has reminded us, the information that is hidden from the public can have just as much impact on the way the future unfolds as what we do know. Because of this simple and unavoidable truth, many of modern history’s defining moments came about because high level communications or information which were never intend to be made publicly available found their way into the public sphere. Here we look at five famous information leaks and how events could have unfolded differently, for better or for worse, if the information in question had never seen the light of day.

If Benjamin Franklin had not come across Thomas Hutchinson’s 1772 letters declaring his intentions to deprive colonists of their liberties, would America have had the motivation it needed to fight for independence?

Ben Frank

Thomas Hutchinson, one time governor of colonial Massachusetts and general historical bad egg, wrote the Hutchinson Letters during the 1760’s. These letters were his side of a debate concerning the level of influence the British Parliament should have over the 13 colonies of America. He believed that Parliament should have absolute control and deemed the ruling governors of other colonies who were hostile to parliamentary control to be acting against the crown.
The publication of these letters increased tension between the American Colonies and the Kingdom of Great Britain until, in 1775, the American War of Independence was declared and America earned her independence.

Although many factors led up to the American War of Independence, the Hutchinson letters provided the people of America with the proof they needed of the Great Britain’s less than honourable intentions and motivated them to take arms.

 If the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) had not been hacked and documents loosely stating that global warming did not exist had not been made public, would the denialist movement have gained as much traction as it has?


The hacking of emails and other documents from the East Anglia CRU caused the public to have serious doubts about the reality of climate change, and cast a shadow of irrelevance over the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit. These emails contained private communications between four prominent climate scientists and choice passages from the documents were presented by the media as a confession that global warming was a myth. This has since been uncovered as a huge misrepresentation of the facts, but the damage had already been done and because of these leaks, those involved with the climate change denial movement gained huge traction with the public at a crucial time.

If Bradley Manning had not leaked the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, would the public still be pre-emptively pushing for a ban of fully autonomous fighting machines? 

Bradley M

Bradley Manning leaked nearly quarter of a million United States diplomatic cables as well as several videos of air-strikes and military manoeuvres in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was the first time the public had been exposed to images which made the autonomous nature of modern warfare, where the man behind the trigger is often miles away from any immediate danger, clear. This gave the public a real wakeup call as to the technological direction the United States military was heading.

Some have cited this as a major driving force behind the public lobbying of governments both in the US and abroad to cut back on or cancel any plans they may have had to bring fully unmanned fighting machines onto the battlefield. Organisations such as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and the Human Rights Watchdog act as focal points for this lobbying.

 If the BNP’s membership list hadn’t been leaked, would their paying members still be teaching children, serving as policemen and representing Britain as service personnel in the Middle East?

Nick Griffin MEP, Chairman of the BNP
Nick Griffin MEP, Chairman of the BNP

The BNP, a fringe political party in the UK, hold strong views concerning immigration and a racially pure Britain. These controversial views lead many of its paying members to downplay or entirely hide their involvement with the party, who held strong links to Nazism before their modernisation in the 1980’s.
When sections of their membership list was made public, many public servants, serving military personnel, doctors, prison guards and teachers were found to be within the BNP’s ranks. Although not all attempts to remove members from these positions were successful, the leak still resulted in less fascism in British public institutions.

If the allies hadn’t cracked the enigma code and decoded vital German strategic information, would they have lost the Second World War?

Although more of a case of data “hacking” than an information leak, the Allies’ ability to crack the German enigma code during the Second World War was described as one of the most important British victories of this period. Churchill himself said to King George VI that “It was thanks to Ultra (the British signals interception team) that we won the war”.

What’s your opinion of data leaks and whistle blowers? Are they an integral part of the socio-political process? Do they protect the public from ill-intentioned governments and institutions?