What if there are no secrets?

Is no secret safe?

That’s the moral to the Wikileaks war log story: you never know what might be leaked. Of course, that itself is nothing new: Whenever we reveal information to even one person, we risk it being spread. The ethic of confidentiality (and privacy) rests with the recipient of that information.

So what’s new now? There are more means to get information since it is pooled and digital. There are more means to share information; Daniel Ellsberg had to go through media to spread his Pentagon Papers while Wikileak chose to go through media so they could add value (perspective and attention) but didn’t have to. And there are new means to stay anonymous in the process.

I’m writing a book arguing that we are becoming more public and that’s good — and that institutions (government, companies) have no choice but to live up to our new standards of transparency and openness. But I am also examining when transparency goes too far.

Is the Wikileaks story an example of crossing a line? First, we have to ask where the line should be. I think it has to move so that our default, especially in government, is transparency. Rather than asking what should be made public we should ask why something should be kept private. Imagine if all government information and actions were public except matters of security and personal and private identification. There will be pressure to head there.

I make the mistake of thinking that we’ll navigate toward openness via rational and critical discussion. But we’ll more likely move the line because of purposeful subversion of the line like Wikileaks’. The line will be moved by force.

Now that they’ve made the war log public, it makes us examine the impact.

We need to ask whether the knowledge that anything written down could be made public will cause less to be written — and we lose information in the long run. That is my concern about efforts to make *all* government communication, including person-to-person email, permanent and public. I imagine that people will stop saying important things in email and instead pick up the phone and we lose the record.

We need to ask whether an ethic of transparency can be expected when leakers can be anonymous and their leaks swift.

We need to ask whether the government would have been better off making more public so that the leaker’s selective publication does not solely set the agenda and the government is stuck reacting.

In the war logs, we are learning things we should know. It’s the leakers — Wikileaks and its three media outlets — who are deciding what not to make public (with some consultation, post-leak, from government) and what should be open. So government loses the ability to decide secrets. Now leakers do. Which side do we trust to decide?

The sane response to leaks, I think, is to open up as much as possible. Then there’s nothing to leak except the things that shouldn’t be leaked. If we had the faith that we knew more, there’d be fewer leaks, fewer reasons to.

I don’t think this is an inexorable process of opening everything, of making no secret safe. As much as I advocate transparency, I don’t advocate that. But when you don’t know how many secrets there are, when there are too many secrets, then everything can be a leak — in Afghanistan or in the Gulf of Mexico. Unless government and business take on a credible and complete ethic of transparency, they will hand over the job of transparency to leakers and no secret is safe.

ANOTHER THOUGHT: This story is a step to the end of access journalism. (NO, it won’t end. Whenever people like me declare the death of something, disbelieve and discount it; we’re just saying we’re heading away from something).

But Wikileaks didn’t need, doesn’t want, won’t ever get official, journalistic, beat access. The derailing of a general in Rolling Stone didn’t come from a beat reporter who cared about access anymore. ProPublica’s work isn’t built on access.

When I talk about how little is spent on investigative reporting in America — as a proportion of total editorial spending across all media, it’s minuscule … microscopic — editors remind me that my calculation doesn’t include beats and beats are the heart of reporting. True and not true. It’s true to the extent that we want ongoing coverage and want it performed by people who build up experience if not expertise in the subject. It’s not true to the extent that reporters who depend on access from the subjects won’t ruin the relationship by breaking the subject’s secrets or the access (and the reporter’s supposed value) ends. (This is why reporters aren’t supposed to blog their opinions about their beats, according to fresh orthodoxy: They would lose access.)

In access journalism, leaks come from the subject. In unaffiliated journalism, leaks come in spite of the subject. As more reporting is done through mechanisms like Wikileaks and ProPublica and bloggers and advocates, I think we’ll see more breaking of secrets, which reinforces my point above: the best way to fight leaks is transparency (not black-out paint).

The Pentagon learned that lesson just a bit when it realized that giving more access would mean more control. Thus the embedding program in Iraq and Afghanistan. But news organizations can’t afford to have reporters embedded in the war zone. Coverage was too dependent on relationships. That honeymoon is ended.

The coverage of this war revealed much of what we know from the war logs. Alex Thomson says, though, that the logs validated what we know. They added facts we couldn’t get with access.

As news organizations shrink, we’ll be able to afford less access journalism — fewer beat reporters building relationships with their subjects — and more reporting — and subversion — from people who have a viewpoint and an agenda. The tone and means of journalism changes. It becomes more uncomfortable. But then, isn’t journalism supposed to be uncomfortable?

: MORE: Many notes from Jay Rosen here: “I don’t have the answer; I don’t even know if I have framed the right problem.”

Jay talks about stateless journalism. Dave Winer says the blogosphere is that. I don’t think the issue is that journalism is stateless but instead that journalism is becoming independent of organizations (pace Clay Shirky). Journalism lacks affiliation. Anybody can feed WIkileaks; Wikileaks can feed anybody. The organizational — nevermind state — point of control disappears. Journalism is everywhere and its up to the public to decide what news is.

Though from another perspective, stateless does matter as we’re seeing more of it across many sectors of society. Our enemy in this war is stateless. Businesses are stateless. Journalism now becomes stateless. I believe the tools of publicness — that is, the internet’s — enable us to organize new societies around states.

: MORE: Andrew Potter breaks down the discussion into four questions.

  • gregorylent

    an ostrich with its head in the sand thinks he is keeping a secret … yogis have always know anything about or within any mind, anywhere … this is the ability of a developed mind (lots of literature on this)

    … technology is just making it more obvious

  • http://martijnlinssen.com Martijn Linssen

    Good question Jeff

    There’s adifference between secrets and cover-ups I think. The only reason those “secrets” could be covered up was he fact that means of communication could be controlled or were almost absent

    There’s privacy and secrecy, and these are two entirely different matters. I don’t have to tell my bed-time secrets because those are private, but if I’m cheating and don’t tell my wife then that’s not privacy, it’s covering up something

    Noblesse s’oblige, but so do secrets: “secrets s’obligent” could reveal why Obama is sticking to the crazy foreign policy of his predecessors

    I say no to secrets unless…

  • http://twitter.com/davidhrbrn davidhrbrn

    Hey Jeff!

    In my opinion, transparency can be also a mean of control. Both for the puplic and the state.
    But you´re right in saying that this is a crucial process. It is not only about the safety of people (like the whistleblowers on wikileaks) but also about trust and reputation. All three of them cannot be purchased with money. So transparency can also be very ruinous.
    The trouble is: who should decide where to draw the line?

  • http://zze.st Maxim

    There was a very interesting interview with WikiLeaks creator recently @ TED http://youtube.com/watch?v=HNOnvp5t7Do
    You might want to watch if you haven’t already.

    Imho, WikiLeaks is very close but still on the right side of the line. War is sponsored by taxes and affects real human lives like nothing else. So, why should be kept in secret?

  • http://thornet.wordpress.com Michelle

    The only secret that can’t be leaked is the one you never tell.

  • http://thewavingcat.com Peter

    Jeff, the point you are making is, of course, an important and valid one. But I don’t think that the need of large-scale bureaucracies (like corporations or the military) allows for less stuff to be written down. It’s an inherent need for documentation that will always have them write down all this stuff, the internal documentation relies on it too strongly.

    So I guess there is still hope for leaks of unethical behavior even in the long run.

    There is, of course, another way to prevent leaks of unethical behavior: Not to behave in an unethical way. But maybe that’s too much to ask ;)

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  • http://www.wiredvanity.com/ Igor

    The only thing that has changed in the information war is the way that information is being extracted, not the fact that information can be extracted.

  • http://ShaverAssociates.net RobShaver

    The other option is obfuscation; write more to bury the truth. Beat around the bush. Be vague. That’s what the tobacco industry did and is what happened around “global warming”. My reaction to this tactic is just what was wanted … I don’t believe anybody any more about anything. I even question my direct experience.

  • http://www.ukfree.tv Briantist

    Perhaps if all the media organizations (in the US and UK at least) had not succumbed to the idea of “embedding” themselves, this information would not have been a secret in the first place.

  • http://direwolff.posterous.com direwolff

    Jeff,

    In making your final argument:

    “I don’t think this is an inexorable process of opening everything, of making no secret safe. As much as I advocate transparency, I don’t advocate that. But when you don’t know how many secrets there are, when there are too many secrets, then everything can be a leak — in Afghanistan or in the Gulf of Mexico. Unless government and business take on a credible and complete ethic of transparency, they will hand over the job of transparency to leakers and no secret is safe.”

    I’m struck that there’s a fine line here called “trust”, and it’s not likely to be easily achieved regardless of what gov’t does. Look, who’s to decide which secrets should remain secrets? It’s happening now, you might feel that too much is being made secret but that notwithstanding, someone has made that judgment. Will you really *ever* trust gov’t and business’ take on transparency? I think of it a bit like loud people, when you remove the loudest fm the group you find out that someone else was also loud, just not as loud as the person you just expelled. Same w/secrets, everyone wants to know everything even if after knowing it they regret the disclosure. As soon as a new bar is set for what should remain secret, someone will leak it and half the people will wonder why it was ever a secret and the other half will be really pissed that the leak took place and feel that it jeopardized our national security.

    This is probably a good topic to have a lot of discussion around because I feel that your initial premise is a tad naive in that it pretends that we will all agree on when something s/b a secret…w/o knowing what that something is (since it’s a secret ;). Having said all of this, I don’t disagree that the current level of secrecy has set dangerous precedents around the world and we’re not safer for them.

    Also, we don’t live in a world w/o enemies. Mind you, I’m no warmonger (quite the opposite actually), but I’m struck by how we find a balance between disclosure to those who foot the bill for all of these activities, and those seek to destroy our way of life (which could use some changing anyway ;). One of the Wikileaks disclosures today was about a Reaper drone (66 ft wingspan…yikes!) and they lost temporary control over and then had to crash into a mountain. On the surface, not a big deal, but in the context of war, is it wise to let current and potential enemies know that our weapons have significant weaknesses that can be exploited? Discuss amongst yourselves… :)

  • http://djbentley.net Daniel Bentley

    The danger with an organisation like Wikileaks is they’re clearly not data neutral. They can choose what to leak and what to hold back to suit their needs.

    I wouldn’t, for example, expect Assange to leak about dodgy dealings within the Swedish Pirate Party when he might be wholly willing to take down a mainstream party.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Yes; is anyone data neutral?

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  • Marc B.

    One method of dealing with real or perceived threats to secrecy could be to avoid records of activity. The Bush administration did that to a previously unknown degree. Before Bush, the White House had records of pretty much every activity. The Nixon files are published.

    Bush (and even more so Cheney) did not create records that might damage them. He did not read papers, files and reports, but received oral briefings. Cheney went in person to the Pentagon and to Langley and sat down with the actual working level guys there. There is no record of what they spoke and certainly not if and how he influenced their work.

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  • http://metaversalmining.com Ian Falconer

    Is this not simply a case of establishing the boundaries between TBL’s open database government/society, and the final admission that journalism is splitting into two with one half becoming non-authoritative data jockeys collecting and curating and the other half abandoning the truth fetish to become knowledgeable and justifiably opinionated influencers ?

  • Pat in Falls Church

    I’m not an historian, but this has got me asking, what if there had been much more transparency in the past?

    Suppose there was instant reporting of the My Lai massacre? Or accurate reporting of the police reaction to many of the 60’s civil rights marches? Or Lincoln’s brutal repression of civil liberties in Baltimore at the start of the Civil War? Would that have changed history? I think so. Would it have been all for the good, that is debatable.

    War is ugly, and innocent folks get killed by all sides. Would better coverage, of the Afghan war, ‘Nam war, Civil war, helped us win? Or would it just inflame passions and shed heat but no light?

  • http://www.juicycouture-outlet.org/ juicycouture

    Hey Jeff!

    In my opinion, transparency can be also a mean of control. Both for the puplic and the state!
    Suppose there was instant reporting of the My Lai massacre? Or accurate reporting of the police reaction to many of the 60’s civil rights marches? Or Lincoln’s brutal repression of civil liberties in Baltimore at the start of the Civil War? Would that have changed history? I think so. Would it have been all for the good, that is debatable.

  • http://www.insideview.ie Bernie Goldbach

    Even with a document dump like Wiki Leaks, you can never be sure you have the whole story.

    I used to handle very sensitive material inside the Pentagon and I remember signing confidentiality statements for three different governments while working with an arms inspection group in Europe in the late 80s. In many of those documents, the operative material (i.e., the clearances to proceed) was initialed on post-it notes or on lightweight tissue paper below the main documents. Even with e-mails, the go-aheads were often initialed without any kind of electronic trails. In Ireland, some ministers run around with rogue Blackberries, meaning their calendars and electronic communications won’t be archived for any purpose.

    It will take years–perhaps two generations–for historians to accurately assess who knew what and who was the primary source for launching a war campaign or for turning policy. It will take that long to correlate high-quality primary material. And even then, some of the perishable Post-it notes and faded pencil-whipped initials will distort the truth.

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