My Privacy, Your Secrecy

In the years to come, it’s possible that historians will place the battle over privacy alongside the universal suffrage and civil rights movements as one of the core social conflicts in recent history.

On one side of the issue is a definition of privacy closely linked to individual freedom and the right to protect oneself from scrutiny by the state. Fundamentally, it can be expressed as follows: “As long as no one gets hurt, what I think, say or do is nobody’s business but my own.” Essentially, it posits that you don’t have the right to know certain things about me and vice versa.

At the other end of the continuum is the contention that people have no expectation of privacy in public places. And the digital world is a very public place.

To make matters worse, many state and non-state actors deny that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. While they have no qualms about using the vastly more powerful surveillance capabilities that modern technology affords them, when the same tools are applied to their own secrets they call it calumny, espionage and even treason.

There are two things wrong with this argument for privacy: The first is that it imagines, paradoxically, that a legal privacy framework will be enforceable without transparency. Second, it imagines that society actually wants privacy for everyone.

Let’s take these points in turn.

Those who conceive of the battle over privacy as a Manichean struggle between individual privacy and universal surveillance are missing a fundamental fact. We are becoming a society without walls. With few exceptions, electronic data has become cheaply, nearly infinitely copyable. Steps can be taken to make it more difficult to do, but it only needs to be copied once.

The immediate problem we face, however, is unequal access to data.

If recent experience has taught us anything, it is this: Anyone in control of the flow of information inevitably leverages that control to view and manipulate the data crossing their wires.

Google is perhaps the most obvious example of this. Their stock in trade is the fact that they can see virtually everything you do and say on the Net. They use that insight to send you advertisements as well as to refine their services, giving them still greater abilities where behavioural analysis is concerned. To their credit, they credibly argue that their data mining is mostly automated. In other words, no human actually sees what you’re up to, and the computer algorithms that do watch you don’t judge you in any way. They have gone to court and even walked away from entire markets rather than divulge information about specific individuals to governments.

This is almost certainly due to the influence of founder Sergei Brin, who spent his early childhood growing up in the surveillance society that was the Soviet Union. One can only shudder when considering what will happen to personal privacy when, inevitably, he and co-founder Larry Page (also a strong defender of civil liberties) hand over the reins to their vastly powerful data store.

Google’s restraint is, however, the exception rather than the rule. Other commercial data mining operations –Facebook, for example– are not nearly as reluctant to trade in personal information. With sufficient effort, you can find out vastly more about any individual with an active online life than they would willingly divulge to you face to face.

Among the most powerful data mining operations in the world is the US intelligence establishment. The National Security Agency almost certainly monitors all information crossing US communications networks, and a great many more besides. The fact that, to date, they have contented themselves with mere eavesdropping is cold comfort.

Modern computing capabilities are such that, with sufficient resources, organisations could quite literally store details about every email, telephone conversation, text message, Facebook update and social network linkage for every single citizen on the Net. And to the extent that they can, they do.

But technology is (more or less) an equal opportunity tool. Author Bruce Sterling, in a superb essay on the WikiLeaks debacle, observes that there’s really not a lot of daylight between the spooks at the NSA and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange:

“The geeks who man the NSA don’t look much like Julian Assange, because they have college degrees, shorter haircuts, better health insurance and far fewer stamps in their passports. But the sources of their power are pretty much identical to his. They use computers and they get their mitts on info that doesn’t much wanna be free.”

And here we arrive at the second major flaw in treating privacy as just another article in a notional Bill of Rights: As much as we might value our own privacy, we don’t value that of others.

My privacy is your secrecy.

We respect a private person; we get suspicious if they’re secretive. We’re all big fans of transparency until it affects our own ability to get things done. We’ll say the most scandalous things about others, right up to the moment when we realise they might hear. When someone else, however, repeats those same scurrilous details in public, we are delighted. As long as they don’t implicate us, that is.

The immense relief you feel when someone stands up at a gathering and says the uncomfortable thing you’ve been thinking evaporates when they turn to you and say, “And I know you’ll agree with me on this.”

Viewed in this light, there’s nothing surprising at all about the US Department of State sponsoring an Open Internet policy and at the same time calling for the extra-legal suppression of the release of their own cables. That the vast majority of these missives are little more than embarrassing is barely germane. The fact is, someone’s told tales out of school, so they can’t be friends any more. There’s hardly a person in the world who would act differently.

That’s going to change.

In an interview with New York Magazine, Author William Gibson argues that technology, not culture, is in the driver’s seat now. Technology “is not only what we do, it’s literally who we are as a species. We’ve become something other than what our ancestors were.

It’s closer to the truth to say that technology and culture are inextricably entwined. In any case, the plain fact is that secrets, as we in the West know them, are dead. If you record your thoughts or actions –and in this increasingly digital world, you inevitably do– they will be copied. And if they are copied once, they can be copied infinitely. The only limitation on this is human interest.

This is going to force some very uncomfortable compromises. Scientist and author David Brin has taken the rather unpopular stance that the answer to this unprecedented assault on privacy is more openness, not less:

“Instead of trying to blind the mighty –a futile goal, if ever there was one– we have emphasized the power of openness, giving free citizens knowledge and unprecedented ability to hold elites accountable. Every day, we prove it works, rambunctiously demanding to know, rather than trying to stop others from knowing.”

In essence, Brin is arguing for a return to village life, but for everyone, not just individuals. Companies, governments, organisations of all kinds who trade in data, should become subject to precisely the same scrutiny they impose on everyone else.

Secrecy, in other words, will be replaced by confidentiality, an unwritten social contract not to penalise people for exposing their own human foibles, provided they don’t harm others.

It’s a nice idea, and if Vanuatu society’s ability to make scandal and impropriety public without (necessarily) using it as a scourge is any indication, it could even be made to work. But it works in Vanuatu because there’s no alternative. The moment someone has the ability to evade the watchful eyes of the community, you can bet your boots they’ll do so.

Constant scrutiny is at the core of this dynamic.

The way the Internet is shaped these days, individual privacy is vastly disadvantaged relative to state and corporate secrecy. This imbalance will only be perpetuated unless the physical networks through which our data runs are restructured. As things stand right now, virtually all of our communications pass through an increasingly limited number of physical cables, websites and service providers.

If we learn nothing else from the repressive measures imposed on free speech on the Internet, it is that ownership of the means of transmission matters more than anything else. If a government or corporation has enough leverage over a significant portion of the communications network, they can define exactly how it behaves.

In a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, New York University professor Clay Shirky recounts how attempts by the Philippine Congress to co-opt the 2001 impeachment of then-President Joseph Estrada were subverted by a spontaneously organised protest, largely catalysed by a text message saying, “Go 2 EDSA. Wear blk.” (EDSA is Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, a major intersection in Manila.) Within two days, over a million black-shirted people had congregated.

The government was caught flat-footed and fell as a result.

He then describes how attempts by the Iranian Green Movement to replicate this kind of effect were quickly trumped by the government’s ability to monitor mobile and Internet traffic and to reduce it to a trickle at critical junctures. This aided them significantly in the subsequent crackdown and wholesale imprisonment of dissident activists.

The victory came at significant cost to the credibility of the state, but in the short term, the state prevailed.

The tension between privacy and secrecy is becoming increasingly lop-sided. The only comfort we can take is that even if the physical networks are increasingly centralised and therefore pulling in the direction of secrecy, the communications protocols that run across these wires are still what we call end-to-end. In other words, they allow us (or rather, our computers, smart phones, etc.) to speak directly to each other.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the ability to communicate one-to-one militates strongly in favour of openness. Because we are the ones choosing to communicate, the network transmits only what we freely share. Above all else, we love to share what we know about others. Now, this phenomenon needs to be leavened by an awareness that the rest of the online world is within earshot. If we say something sufficiently embarrassing, be it about ourselves or someone else, the world will quickly know we said it.

Following the massive breach of diplomatic secrecy perpetrated by WikiLeaks, international relations have already seen a fundamental change in perspective. The banner of Transparency has been lowered from the ramparts. Many state and non-state actors are moving quickly to reshape the world into something they are more comfortable with, one in which a culture of secrecy prevails once more.

Odds are, they will eventually lose this ground. Just as resistance to market forces has ultimately proven futile in the global economy, those who fight openness with increasingly centralised control are working at a disadvantage to those who are willing to be more opportunistic, flexible and accepting of the opportunities that better access to information give them.

The battle –and make no mistake, this is a battle– is far from over. I sympathise with Bruce Sterling when he expresses a rather melancholic, depressed response to this first open conflict between secrecy and the transparency of the network:

“[Assange is] a different, modern type of serious troublemaker. He’s certainly not a “terrorist,” because nobody is scared and no one got injured. He’s not a “spy,” because nobody spies by revealing the doings of a government to its own civil population. He is orthogonal. He’s asymmetrical. He panics people in power and he makes them look stupid. And I feel sorry for them. But sorrier for the rest of us.”

There is a new, defining conflict in the world. Technology’s assault on secrecy will succeed just as surely as it has on our privacy. There are only two ways to come to terms with Wikileaks and its successors: Repression or negotiation. Repression is not a long-term viable option, because the costs are always greater than the benefits for the majority. A totalitarian crackdown lasting generations is possible, but unlikely. And with anything less than that, there will inevitably be a correction in the direction of openness.

Negotiation requires a state of uncomfortable, shifting compromise in which we establish new cultural tabus based on each party’s knowledge of the other. It’s almost Victorian in its essence: We retain a pretence of propriety and respect; I don’t reveal your more awkward secrets so that you won’t reveal mine.

This is an awkward and innately unfair scenario, because disparities in wealth (i.e. knowledge) will almost certainly bring about the same injustices as we see in unbridled capitalism. Only concerted social opprobrium will keep bad actors at bay.

Societies will certainly go through convulsions coming to terms with this new détente. But we will inevitably do so. Like it or not, technology makes us what we are.

No matter what the outcome, I worry about the cost.