Wikileaks is currently replaying the events of 9-11-2001 in a very unexpected way: It’s releasing in roughly real-time chunks over 500,000 hacked pager messages that were transmitted that day. As a data source its chilling but historically speaking it’s fascinating.
Wikileaks is usually associated with muck-raking and sensitive information leaking, but in this case it appears to be trying to shed its negative image by sharing with the public precious personal information that may shed new light on the tragic events of September 11th. That the site has gotten a hold of half a million pager messages sent by the Pentagon, NYPD, and transit network employees is perhaps a little questionable. But pagers have never been a particularly secure method of transmitting info, and Wikileaks is intimating that its source is a collective effort that had been gathering data for a long time before and since 9/11–that’s one in the eye for conspiracy theorists.
The early messages are in many cases boring, since they contain automated reporting from computer systems as well as workers checking in, and network-wide notes to particular groups of employees about standard procedural stuff. It’s when the time clicks around to 8:46 AM and the first WTC building impact that things go haywire, of course. Then the messages are a potent mix of panic, rapid-fire information sharing (dazzling in its inaccuracy at first), and the horrifyingly personal. Here’s a tiny extract:
2001-09-11 10:00:05 Metrocall  C ALPHA I NEED TO KNOW YOUR AVAILABILITY ASAP WE KNOW NO DETAILS YET CALL ME AT xxx-xxxx THE WHOLE TEAM NEEDS TO RESPOND WILL HAVE MORE DETAILS LATER NEED TO KNOW YOUR SITUATION NOW. LEE
2001-09-11 10:00:05 Skytel  B ALPHA Slwynne2@xxx.xxx|.|ALL planes in air in US ordered to land. NOTHING taking off in US.
2001-09-11 10:00:05 Skytel  A ALPHA DAD, ITS TINA. CALL ME AT WORK ASAP
On the one hand Wikileaks’ data is another potent reminder of the tragedies of that day, but it’s also likely to be a rich data source for academics interested in group behavior and how the public responds to emergencies–the kind of research that could well save lives in future disaster situations. And that’s something to be thankful for, at least.