Constantin Eckner, PhD Researcher, University of St Andrews

Proposal Type


  • Seeking Additional Presenters
  • Seeking General Feedback and Interest
Related Topics
  • Archives
  • Digital

My topic is the phenomenon of leaks and hacks in the 21st century, as this phenomenon could change the way historians can and will conduct research when confidential documents are available soon after they have been authored. The often discussed tweets or Facebook posts, which are public by nature, will only be a one part of what historians will have to analyze for the purpose of studies which include digital and web-based sources. I wish to discuss the chances and risks that come with web sites such as Wikileaks and whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and what the changing access to relevant sources could mean to historiography and our profession.


Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange have changed the world. Ever since Wikileaks has started publishing documents of governments, politicians and enterprises on the internet, making them available to investigating authorities, journalists as well as every citizen, scoops relying on leaks of confidential documents have become part of today’s media coverage.

While the importance of leaks and hacks has been growing in the media and in regards to politics, it could become equally important to historians. However, massive document dumps, which perhaps would have never been accessible to researchers, raise questions—some may be similar to traditional source criticism in historiography; some are new due to the way the sources are stored:

1) How do we handle the sheer amount of documents?

2) How do we treat the fact that these documents were not meant to be released and include confidential or private information?

3) How do we judge the role of those who leak the documents or make them accessible on their web sites? How can we be sure that web sites like Wikileaks do not keep documents under wraps?

4) Are we, as historians, competing with journalists or offering a different angle on things once the dust has settled?

Of course, Wikileaks and the phenomenon of leaked documents in general is just one part of an increasingly digitalized world in which we have to adjust—not only in terms of how to present research but also in terms of how to deal with email correspondences, tweets and such like, and the fact that classified documents could be available soon after they have been authored and not after an archival blocking period. As we can never be sure whether all documents regarding a case are released, is it for us, as historians, appropriate that we intend to draw conclusions not knowing whether we have gathered all information? Does that uncertainty inhibit any research involving leaked documents?

My idea is to widen the discussion on digitalization and historiography, additionally including the debate whether historians should explore the possibility offered by leaks and hacks right away or wait years or decades before they work on studies.

The reason I submit this proposal is that I would like to know whether this topic could be of importance to the conference and if there are researchers who would present similar topics or if it could be coupled with papers that touch on digitalization and digital sources to put a roundtable together.

If you have a direct offer of assistance, sensitive criticism, or wish to pass along someone’s contact information confidentially, please get in contact directly: Constantin Eckner, [email protected]

If you have general ideas or feedback to share, please feel free to use the comments feature below.

All feedback and offers of assistance should be submitted by July 2, 2017.


  1. Heather Heckler says:

    I think that this is a really interesting idea in relation to the conference theme of “power lines.” I think you could have an interesting discussion about how leaks and hacks can potentially upend the power structure (for better or for worse) and make information that might otherwise be hidden open and available to the public. Questions come to mind about how/why information is classified, who benefits from leaks/hacks (and who loses), what our ethical obligations might be in using hacked documents, how we verify the authenticity of these digital documents, etc.

  2. Constantin Eckner says:

    Thank you for the advice, Heather. These are some really intriguing questions.

  3. Karen Miller says:

    This is an important discussion to have from the perspective of those who want information available to the public but also from the perspective of those working in government who have an obligation to protect information. How do we balance those two and what effect do major leaks have on the availability of information as a whole. While it might in the short term provide lots of information, it could have longer term consequences that are unforeseen.

  4. Melissa Barthelemy says:

    I think this is a really fascinating topic and I think the session would be popular. I think it would work as a roundtable or also as a great structured conversation session format.

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