Unauthorized Disclosures in the Networked Age

Over the last few weeks, I've been reflecting on the latest round of scandals emanating from Washington D.C. For those of you who have been living under a rock on the dark side of the moon, here's a synopsis:

  • The IRS has been targeting organizations that have specific political orientations.
  • The NSA was caught with it's hands in multiple cookie jars, multiple times
    • Intercepting metadata on communications in the United States without legal oversight.
    • Collecting data from individuals Internet activities with the assistance of major Internet infrastructure and content providers.
    • Potentially Listening in to domestic phone calls without warrants (although the congress-critter who leaked that little gem is now back-peddling on the allegation. However, the NUCLEON project that is mentioned in the CNet link is almost as interesting.

However, when we look further back, we have lots of things that were meant to be buried and never noticed:

  • A certain big agriculture company received a bit of a gift from friendly senators and congress-critters.
  • We surrendered (or had surrendered on our behalf) a few of our Constitutional guarantees in the name of security.
  • The movie industry has tried, again, and again to try and put the Internet djinn back in the bottle rather than actually adapt to it and move on (maybe they should read this).
  • A US soldier leaked a few cables to Wikileaks.

The list is actually quite long and getting longer. And, obviously, it is not just a US phenomena. As many have said, it is becoming harder to keep secrets. On balance, this may be a good thing. Large projects (either corporate or public sector) involve lots of people. And today, more so than in the past, many of those individuals are not directly employed by the entities trying to keep a lid on things. The NSA leaks of last week were exposed by civilian contractor with a beltway bandit. His personal beliefs (we still allow those, by the way, at least for now, we do) were of the libertarian bent. The various bills noted above (some passed, unfortunately, others were stopped) were noticed by an activist and interested community, that is enabled by rapid dissemination of information, targeted at those who may find it interesting.

Unlike past times, an interesting nugget of data doesn't need to pass a high interest threshold (news editor, etc.) to become public knowledge. Anyone can make information public to interested groups. Once it's out there, a much larger community can easily look at it, evaluate it, and discuss it. Furthermore, it can act on that information (swamp the switchboard and e-mail servers of the US Congress, for example).

No longer is there an easy choke point for the government, or corporations to choke the flow of embarrassing information. This is a good thing. There is no way, yet, to sue (or arrest) The Internet. Individuals who expose the information may face repercussions, but if they are motivated by their ideology (which has always been a driver for secrecy violations, by the way), they may be willing to take the personal hit for the greater good.

The flip side of this is that there is no way to stop information that is actually harmful (e.g. some of the information in the diplomatic cables leaks noted above may have been hazardous to some of the sources mentioned). This is certainly a concern, and something that needs to be addressed. However, existing tools to control and limit this kind of risk are very open to abuse by those who would be embarrassed by a disclosure that actually carries no substantial risk of injury or damage.

We, globally, and certainly in the US, have become too comfortable with secrecy, decisions that are made on our behalf in the name of security that, in fact, reduce our real security as human beings (natural rights). What's more, in the name of secrecy, we haven't even been involved in the debate leading to these decisions. They are made in our best interests, without consultation.

The events of this last week, and more broadly, over the last number of years should put the keepers of the secrets on notice that their job will be much harder than before. All it takes is one person to crack the door, and it's gone.

Maybe this realization will force a re-think about how we deal with these issues. What must be considered secret? Why must it be considered secret? If it is really for the common good, then there won't be much motivation to disclose. However, if you would be embarrassed, castigated, or indicted, to be associated with a secret, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place? If you are going to restrict people's liberties, maybe you need to consult with them first, informed consent is a wonderful thing.

What am I saying, that is too radical a thought, no one would ever actually make that determination on their own.

Two parting thoughts, both from men I respect (emphasis is mine):

let us save what remains: not by vaults and locks which fence them from the public eye and use in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such a multiplication of copies, as shall place them beyond the reach of accident. --- Thomas Jefferson

The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding. --- Louis D. Brandeis

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