We have to make a choice: divert more & more energy to avoid & repair leak after leak or come to terms with an open world. #
This is the big ethical and practical choice we need to confront.
Every time we choose to keep even the smallest secrets we sow seeds that’ll grow into deeper obligations and tighter constraints — we’re choosing to have to keep more secrets in the future — because some seemingly innocuous piece of information could raise questions or reveal something we assume people shouldn’t know.
It’s like the principle that one lie inevitable leads to more. Lies and secrecy are both forms of deception: additional, superficial layers of information we’re forced to keep feeding. As if the world isn’t complicated enough already.
Secrets aren’t just passively kept, they’re actively maintained, and maintenance incurs a cost — a cost that’s not getting any cheaper, as Will Wilkinson explained:
Consider what young Bradley Manning is alleged to have accomplished with a USB key on a military network. It was impossible 30 years ago to just waltz out of an office building with hundreds of thousands of sensitive files. The mountain of boxes would have weighed tons. Today, there are millions upon millions of government and corporate employees capable of downloading massive amounts of data onto tiny devices.
One major factor is digitization.
It isn’t just easy to get information out; once it’s out it can go everywhere — within minutes — and keep circulating, virtually forever. Sure, Joe Lieberman successfully got Amazon to remove WikiLeaks from its servers (which is yet another whole issue), but it was up on someone else’s servers in just a few hours (well, only to be taken down yet again, but cables have already been reported and copied and pasted all over the place anyway). [Update: and mirrored… Second Update: Dave Winer suggests BitTorrent is where it could eventually end up, which will be virtually impossible to police.]
The second major factor is the size and complexity of today’s organizations.
Does anyone remember the major report on U.S. intelligence services the Washington Post ran in July?
The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.
When we talk about “the government” or “the state” (in this case the U.S.) trying to keep these secrets we’re actually talking about 46 different organizations. And the computer hardware and software they use has to come from somewhere, so like almost every other organization in the world they deal with outside venders and contractors — about 1931 of them altogether — many of whom require the same security clearance.
Altogether, over 850,000 people have “top secret” security clearance (according to the Post‘s report back in July). As for the clearance required to have had access to these leaked cables — not “top” secret, I suppose — around 3 million people have that.
I’d expect that number to keep going up — especially if they’re trying to keep more secrets more reliably.
The alternative is to lower the threshold: decrease what needs to be secret or increase our tolerance of what can be public (Jeff Jarvis’s latest project).
I imagine there’s some sort of optimum.
If we keep hiring more people to maintain secrets, at some point so many people will have access to those secrets that it won’t even be worth it: might as well then give everyone the same clearance — along with the same corresponding degree of responsibility, ideally.
Maybe that’s an option. But it would mean expanding the state and channelling energy and resources to enforce rules (and endlessly interpret, debate, game and rewrite them) instead of letting citizens choose where to invest their energy and resources in endeavours that solve problems, create value, drive prosperity and improve quality of life.
America would essentially be trading in its famed aspirational attitude for the sake of mere preservation — which seems to me like an even more radical (and far less promising) shift in American values than the push towards transparency.
The third major factor is human nature: we’re endlessly inquisitive.
We have a deep, innate need for information (as well as for being a source of information). We want to know what other people know. We notice patterns and narratives in our world — and we feel uncomfortable when something seems to be missing or distorted.
The internet supercharges these human needs. What might have been a passing curiosity for someone twenty years ago is more feasibly an ongoing obsession for the same person today. These tendencies aren’t going away.
Authorities can channel this energy constructively, working with citizens, or they can continue to unintentionally entice people into games of cat-and-mouse and hide-and-seek. In some ways, efforts to maintain secrecy are counterproductive: if these cables weren’t secret we probably wouldn’t even be talking about them right now.
So the answer, I think, is to lighten up a little. I’m not saying open the floodgates, but the existence and success of WikiLeaks indicates the U.S (and probably the world) is becoming bloated by excesses of secrecy.
Glenn Greenwald put it excellently, building on Matthew Yglesias’s point that “it’s just routine for the work done by public servants and public expense in the name of the public to be kept semi-hidden from the public for decades.” As Richard Posner explained:
Our process of classification is undisciplined, because the incentives of public employees in sensitive positions are distorted from an overall social standpoint. Information in government is power, and public employees, like other employees, like to cover up their mistakes. They are in a better position to do so, they think, because they can classify documents—which are then rarely declassified until long after they have ceased to hold any interest for anyone—so they overclassify.
Posner sensibly suggests that maybe much of the answer is just for diplomats to be more, you know, diplomatic.
Because we should also consider that if Julian Assange can get this information, how much of it can be (or is being) milked by real enemies with a sophisticated expertise, way better resources and far more nefarious aims?
Regardless of how this particular episode is dealt with, it’s happening and it’ll happen again.
Any system that can’t survive the truth is a system that can’t survive. #
Above all, this is about respect for truth. It feels like we’re losing it — or maybe society never really had it.
Either way, I know which side I’m on.
I don’t mean truth as something absolute. I’m not saying, “Lets figure out the Truth and then our system will survive forever.” What I mean is that every idea and piece of info we have now will be subject to falsification eventually and need to be verified regularly. The world changes, our ideas change accordingly.
If an idea or practice or institution can’t survive a little scuffing up by facts and experience then it isn’t something I’d put much faith in.
Of course there are things that don’t change, but somehow our ideas about those things keep changing and turning out wrong and improving over decades and centuries anyway.
Read the engaging list at Edge.org of the wrong ideas that people believed to be true. Consider what happened when people still believed the Sun revolves around the Earth. As their observations got better they found other planets doing all kinds of seemingly strange things. In order to maintain the idea that everything goes around Earth they had to contrive increasingly complicated explanations (there’s a good demonstration of pre-Copernican inquiry into the problem in Agora). By then it would have been simpler to give up the main idea and accept that the Earth revolves around the Sun.
This doesn’t just happen in scientific and religious thinking but in politics and just about anything else we do.
Something we did yesterday might not be the best practice tomorrow. In any given situation we might get a choice between contriving increasingly complicated explanations or simplifying things (this is close to the point Clay Shirky made a little while back): letting our mistakes and emerging opportunities be revealed through abrasion by hard facts so we can cut through the layers of outdated assumptions — habits of mind that were helpful when information was limited but aren’t robust enough to handle very microscopic observations or conciliation with other ideas.
Of course there are risks involved no matter what we decide.
When you distort the truth there’s a risk that one day someone will call you a liar or a fraud and you’ll have to deal with those consequences. When you admit the truth there’s a risk that it won’t matter: let’s face it, people can still call you a liar and a fraud whether you are one or not.
But that points to the pivotal problem here: we live in a world not just of wildly proliferating information but wildly proliferating bullshit.
How do we cope?
Just look at the astonishing range of opinions about WikiLeaks itself: How do we place arguments that WikiLeaks should be listed as a terrorist organization beside arguments that Cablegate actually helps build a case for war? How do we accept that this is a net gain for human rights when human rights groups are against it? How do we reconcile the presumption that WikiLeaks promotes transparency (because it exposes secrets, duh) when smart people argue WikiLeaks will increase secrecy and even Assange himself has said so?
A rational case could be made to argue almost anything. It’s not inconceivable that within a few years there’ll be a Demand Media or Mechanical Turk for editorial analysis — some desperate, anonymous grad student might one day make 1¢/word to quickly churn out an argument that Assange is a hero and then another arguing he’s a villain…
Ultimately all we know for sure is that WikiLeaks is bad for old habits of thought and good for people who like disrupting those habits, regardless of the cost. I’m not quite supporting the latter but I’m sure as hell not going to stick myself with the former.
Because in this atmosphere there’s little we can really trust. Verifiable facts are the best we’ve got.
People are losing trust in government — both prior-to and because of WikiLeaks. People are losing trust in media — which increasingly seems fused with power interests. It’s disorienting. It feels like there’s nothing solid or stable to grab onto. So we need to be skeptical and incisive — and regardless of the havoc caused by WikiLeaks in the short term, we urgently need to improve how we access, filter and verify information.
Maybe “truth” is the wrong word; perhaps “veracity” is better: it’s something we actively pursue and maintain, it’s elusive and unstable, not something permanently given.
WikiLeaks isn’t the answer but it’s at least a clue to where things are going. Respect it for that, at least.
Let us trace information back to the source for ourselves: let citizens participate in legitimate processes of inquiry so individuals and groups don’t feel the need to go rogue like Assange has done — not just to satisfy that human need but to add valuable resources to the challenge of developing better ideas, strategies and institutions in a world awash with information.
Even Sarah Palin ludicrously demanded more transparency from the White House and U.S. intelligence to explain how such an egregious act of transparency could have been allowed. (I’m paraphrasing Daniel Drezner).
So lets all just give our foreheads a good slap and get on with adapting to an open, 21st century world.
Here are links to some of my favourites on the topic so far:
- Dan Gillmor: A few questions about the wikileaks release.
- Will Wilkinson: In defense of WikiLeaks and especially Missing the point of WikiLeaks.
- Glenn Greenwald: The moral standards of WikiLeaks critics.
- Richard Posner: WikiLeaks and the Art of Shutting Up.
- Evgeny Morozov’s assiduous real-time curation.
And note: I hate overuse of the suffix “-gate” but that’s what WikiLeaks named this particular release.