In defence of government secrecy
In an era when governments, politicians and bankers are widely held in popular contempt, the case has to be made that they have the right, and in some cases the duty, to keep secrets from us
One of the great fantasies of techno-utopians is that the ever-widening access to the internet will make censorship and similar forms of suppression and oppression increasingly difficult and eventually impossible.
Instant access to information and the ability to communicate with like-minded people from around the globe will lessen the ability of the elites that tend to dominate the traditional media and organs of state to control access to information. As utopian visions go, it is not an ignoble one.
But whether people are applauding the Wikileaks revelations, or the email hack at Stratfor, or cooing over Anonymous’ recent threats against Zynga (an online gaming portal), it is worth remembering that a totally un-policed web is a wasteland where power is wielded far less accountably than it ever is from the White House or Downing Street.
The rhetoric of the “Age of Transparency” is that in this brave new world of ours, state secrets are a thing of the past. ‘The people’ have a right to know, and what courageous whistle blowers can’t leak, hackers can steal.
There are two parts to this: first, the notion that governments and private organisations should not be allowed to keep secrets; second, that the power to attack these organisations, both to extract their secrets and for other ideological reasons, rests in the hands of unelected, self-appointed and anonymous ‘hacktivists’.
Of the first part, the problems are various. In the Telegraph, Charles Moore has described how the fear of FoI requests is leading members of the government and civil service to stop committing to paper what once they might have. In times past, this paper record was available to historians as a way of gaining a complete and accurate picture of the past and seeing how decisions evolved.
It also meant that more people within government had the opportunity to see, and thus respond to and improve, policy proposals. The shrill need to see everything now is simply leading to discussions and decisions happening away from the record, beyond the public gaze not just now but forever.
At least the Freedom of Information Act was the product of a democratic government, and a self-imposition on a public body (although some on the left have mooted applying it to private firms). Elsewhere, leaks are published and information stolen by private actors without a mandate, often targeting private organisations whose records are not remotely the business of ‘the people’.
To start there is the damage done by the leaks themselves. While Julian Assange’s release of un-redacted US papers made him a species of saint to elements of the political left and the anti-state brigade, it put the lives of many people who had bravely cooperated with Western agencies against oppressive governments in immediate jeopardy.
People who helped us track down Ba’athist militiamen, Taliban commanders and terrorists were exposed, on the spurious ideological basis that the state had no right to keep their identities secret.
The release of the embassy cables will also have greatly hindered our foreign policy efforts around the world, not just because America lost face, although that undoubtedly happened. Foreign governments who were, or who might have been privately engaging with the West whilst maintaining a belligerent public stance now saw the risk of exposure.
Sensitive details of China’s evolving position on North Korea were brought to light, doubtless to much discomfort on both sides of the Yellow Sea.
An advisor to Netanyahu once told me, in response to a question about the possibility of an anti-Iranian axis between Israel and the Gulf monarchies, “Some things are like mushrooms: they grow best in the dark.” How many shadowy back-channels, once open, have since slammed shut?
Yet much more important than the damage done by individual leaks is the empowerment of unaccountable private actors, who attack governments and private businesses whilst sheltering behind pseudonyms or in favourable jurisdictions on the other side of the globe.
For example, the US can do nothing to touch Assange, whose anti-American ideology undoubtedly motivated him to facilitate a criminal leak and mount an effective attack on its foreign policy. But to really see this trend in action, consider the phenomenon known as “Anonymous”.
Part of the point of Anonymous is that you don’t quite know exactly what they actually are. At the core is clearly a group of ideologically motivated hackers, but surrounding them is a vast cloud of wannabes who just like having V for Vendetta masks as their avatars and posting barely literate, vaguely threatening comments online whilst posing as heralds of the 'haxx0rs'. In all likelihood there are several groups of hackers and individual hackers who adopt the label of this movement-as-meme.
It is in the activities of people calling themselves Anonymous that the real dark side of the internet age can be glimpsed. These hackers have taken to launching “widely publicised and high profile DDoS (distributed denial of service) and website defacement attacks” against companies they dislike. Nor to their activities stop at that.
As I mentioned earlier, they hacked into Stratfor – a private geopolitical intelligence firm – stealing credit card information and email records. Their justification? A crackpot conspiracy theory based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Stratfor’s business model, and the notion that it was producing “bespoke intelligence work” for shadowy 'one-percenters'.
As part of their ‘November 5th Protests’ they have threatened PayPal, Symantec and NBC, and also allegedly breached university archives, “to protest against the rising costs and declining standards of higher education.” Their latest attack has been directed at online games site, Zynga, on the basis that they disapprove of that company firing 1000 staff. They've also threatened Facebook.
Obviously, this should be taken which a pinch of salt. While the DDoS and defacements clearly occur, and the hit on Stratfor was successful, as far as I’m aware Facebook is still standing. Wired.com concluded that their ‘documents’ from Zynga appear to have been written by the hacktivists themselves, while PayPal hasn’t yet found evidence of a breach and security experts doubt the university raids.
Much of Anonymous’ mystique is probably owed to their smoke and mirrors tactics, enhanced by the occasional high-profile success. But they serve as a stark warning as to what the internet could become if we’re not watchful. Like all technologies, it harbours great potential both for good and ill.
The ability to undermine genuinely oppressive regimes and give voices to the censored is great. But the flipside is that small bands of anonymous, technically skilled ideologues could acquire immense power to harass and attack both elected governments and private enterprises with relative impunity.
Zynga’s (entire legal) employment practices and whether universities levy fees are not the business of web-based vigilantes. We need to realise that the concentration of power in unaccountable hands in an online wasteland is wrong (and not just because they’re not always effective). Then we need a joined-up, international strategy on the proper policing of hackers and criminal leakers, especially those who pose a threat to national security.
This will probably upset a certain species of e-libertarian, but even Ayn Rand believed that freedom can only be truly exercised when free from “force, fraud and coercion”. The Anonymous and their kin, in digital form, offer all three.
Finally, we need to start challenging the “me” culture, the growing sense of individual entitlement so strong that state secrets are an affront to it, and which has led to the short-sighted pursuit of immediate access to public records which is killing those records.
In an era when governments, politicians and bankers are widely held in popular contempt, the case has to be made that they have the right, and in some cases the duty, to keep secrets from us.
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