May 30 2012

The Not-So-Fine Line Between Privacy and Secrecy


As weird as people familiar with my work and the subjects I write about might find this, I only recently acquired a copy of The Transparent Society by David Brin. I have been told many times that most of my views about transparency have been discussed by David, and indeed, I’m laughing my tail off at the sheer number of phrases and examples we share in common, and I’m not even all the way through chapter one yet.

Now, David and I correspond on occasion, ever since I was one of the very few people who responded to a challenge he wrote to find a “Global Warming Skeptic” who is not merely blindly following the conservative playbook. While we agree to disagree on AGW, and probably many other topics as well, when it comes to transparency and it’s inevitability, we are in pretty close agreement, and one of David’s examples in the opening chapter struck me as a very good starting point to explain the difference between privacy and secrecy, and how it is possible to have privacy even in a society in which there are no secrets.

It’s even one I’ve used before myself – a restaurant. So imagine you are sitting at a restaurant filled with numerous tables, with groups sitting at each one. Would you brazenly listen in on the conversation of the table next to you? Would you try to look up that pretty girls skirt sitting two tables over? Would you reach over and simply take the bread basket from the table behind you?  How about moving over to another groups table uninvited?

In the overwhelming majority of cases, the answer is no. Why? It’s a little convention called social invisibility. Even though you can do any and all of these things, you make a conscious choice not to, because if you don’t, the negative consequences to yourself outweigh the potential gains. You are in plain view of everyone else, so if you fail to give them the same courtesy they are giving you by not doing any of those things to you, the entire restaurant full of people could see you, and take any number of actions to show you how displeased they are at you. This could range from embarrassment to eviction from the restaurant depending on your offense. In other words, you are completely accountable for your actions, and as such, make a decision to give everyone else privacy in exchange for them giving it to you. So long as you are not putting yourself on display in a manner that intrudes on their privacy, you have the same freedom to talk about anything you wish with your group, and behave in whatever manner you choose that is not disruptive, and they will pretend you don’t exist and that they cannot hear a word you say.

This little scene plays out millions of times daily all around the world, and it is a simple, almost automatic reaction regardless of culture. We grant those around us privacy in order to receive the same courtesy of privacy back. That privacy comes not because we are hidden but because it is an active process of society. I couldn’t tell you what the table next to me was doing, despite it being in full view, because I actively wasn’t paying attention due to the fact that I didn’t wish to suffer penalties from society for violating social invisibility.

Now, David takes this scenario a step further. Take the same restaurant, but put up silk walls between each table, so that no-one can tell if there is anyone sitting next to them. You don’t know if what you say is being listened to by someone unknown. You don’t know if the person at the table next to you is eating a hamburger, or their fellow diner. Perhaps the person has a pinhole thorough the wall and is staring at you. Maybe they have a microphone and are recording anything you say. You have no idea what, if anything, is going on behind that silk wall. You have real invisibility to anyone, but note the difference. You are hidden away from everyone! You can dance naked on your table, cut your table mates throat, and do anything! There is no accountability to your society, no penalties for any action, utter freedom to do anything you want, right? All those things you wouldn’t do in the previous scenario, you would be far more likely to do in this one, because you could escape being held accountable.

Secrecy is a threat to society precisely because it allows people to escape accountability. It protects dictators from masses of angry protestors, because it keep those protestors from knowing exactly how harmful the dictators’ actions have been. It’s the enabling force behind nearly every single form of authoritarian leadership ever conceived. It shielded Mubarak and Gaddafi for decades, and still protects numerous other “unpopular leaders” in both nations and corporate offices. Once that secrecy is pierced, and what was hidden is revealed, society enforces an accounting.

And that is the point that both David and I try to make constantly. Transparency forces accountability. Secrecy enables an escape from accountability. It really cannot be made any plainer than that.

We are going to become a Transparent Society despite David’s fears that the “elites” will find a method to retain secrets while forcing complete transparency on the rest of society, because the simple truth is that unified effort by all the various competing “power groups” at the level it would actually be required to prevent any group from forcing transparency on another group is so unlikely I would bet on air spontaneously turning into gold first. While I have every confidence that efforts to preserve secrecy on the part of the PTB will be attempted, the Surveillance Arms Race is going to render those efforts pointless in the not very long run. There is no encryption that cannot be cracked; no technological fix that can prevent universal surveillance from becoming a reality; and far too many uses for such ubiquitous monitoring of everywhere that we will find too liberating and convenient to use to make me believe that any of the efforts of “privacy advocates” who can’t tell the difference between “Privacy” and “Secrecy” will have any real effect. Sooner or later, everyone will be as visible to us as those diners at the next table.

And just like that restaurant, we will be every bit as visible to them. And we will ignore that fact, as they ignore us, and we in turn ignore them, and everyone will have all the privacy that they are willing to give. Yes, the “elites” are going to try and keep their secrets, and even succeed for a brief time, but in the end, even they will lose that ability because they will whittle it away in their paranoid need to peek at each other’s secrets for non-mutual advantage and because it is impossible to prevent all progress. And that is where David and I disagree. He fears that it will be possible to create a perfect “one way mirror” while I can see no manner in which it could be achieved.

And that is how, despite all the constant accusations from paranoid conspiracy theorists that I endorse totalitarian government by supporting the rapid proliferation of numerous surveillance systems, I can view transparency as a wholly positive force for improving the lives of billions, and one of the most basic enablers of a truly free society. Accountability is the key, and it can only exist where secrecy does not.

That isn’t to say very bad scenarios in which enormous numbers of people die at the hands of a totalitarian regime supported by one way surveillance systems cannot occur, simply that such scenarios are inherently self limiting and unstable, and will almost certainly proceed to a revolution and the creation of a society in which complete accountability and complete transparency eliminates secrecy and permanently ends any possibility of further authoritarian governance. While such scenarios are extremely undesirable, and should be avoided if at all possible, they are not dead ends, merely hazardous and costly detours.

Because if you truly want privacy, and a free and permissive society, where you can do anything you want so long as it causes no harm to another, nonconsenting, individual, then understanding the difference between privacy and secrecy is essential. It’s what will ensure we avoid the paranoid “Big Brother” detours and chart a much more pleasant course into the future.