Big Brother’s Big Brother

Here are paragraphs about Wikileaks I just inserted into the chapter of Public Parts that I happen to be writing right now about government. Very much beta. Take a look:

* * *

Wikileaks has pushed the definition and question of transparency to its limit and beyond, releasing hundreds of thousands of leaked documents about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through media organizations including the Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and OWNI, a French site devoted to digital journalism that built a crowdsourcing tool so readers could cull through the docs to find important bits. The U.S. government screeched indignantly about the leaks, calling them illegal and dangerous. But then, the leaks revealed government actions that are or should be illegal. Who holds the higher ground?

The media organizations Wikileaks worked through said they redacted names and published only documents that would not endanger individuals. So they decided, in the end, what would be secret. Whom do we trust more to make that declaration: government, the leaker, Wikileaks, or the press? And does it much matter now that any whistleblower has the power to leak information anonymously via computers that run in countries beyond the arm of the law from other countries? Wikileaks’ Twitter profile lists its location as “everywhere.” Now nothing, not even war, can be carried out in assured secrecy.

The only solution to leaks is then not more secrecy but more transparency. If we trusted government to determine what needed to be secret—if its default were public and it had nothing else to hide but things that would be harmful if public—then leaks would be a clear violation of our norms and of the common good.

One way or another—by force of through sanity—we are at the dawn of the transparent age. But it’s not going to be a pretty or easy transition. For the first facts to be dragged into the sunlight will be the ugly ones that somebody thinks need to be exposed. Only when and if government realizes that its best defense is openness will we see transparency as a good in itself and not just a weapon to expose the bad. Only when governments realize that their citizens can now watch them—better than they can watch their citizens, we hope—will we see transparency bring deterrence to bad actors and bad acts. Then we become Big Brother’s Big Brother. Or we can hope.

  • John W Baxter

    I am anxiously awaiting publication of “Public Parts”. (Not, however, with ‘bated breath–I’d like to be alive when the book emerges.)

  • I like the excerpt, Jeff. A lot. I can hardly wait until the book comes out.

  • I just listened to Leo laPorte’s talk with John Perry Barlow about what the internet is doing to democracy, and how he feels less hopeful than he did fourteen years ago. I am still hoping, and I love it when leaks occur and people find out what’s really happening. But I know that if I were a general, I’d feel otherwise.

    Of course I’d like to stamp out war altogether, so I guess I am biased.

  • Just a quick question – since I don’t know what else is in your upcoming book – is there any other mention of Wikileaks? Just curious, since I know they do more then release U.S. government documents … they do a great deal to promote transparency in the corporate world as well. They have come into the limelight because of the government leaks – but they had been around for awhile before all this – hopefully will be around for even longer – unfortunately they seem to be getting boxed into the ‘government leaks’ site.

    I hope their existence inspires many more sites like them so they do not bear the weight or the responsibility of being the only transparency site.

  • Lars-Goran Hedstrom

    Very well put Jeff! Also can´t hold my horses until Your book is out! Keep up Your Good Work!

  • Jeff,

    I rarely, if ever, agree with you, but this time I’m with you. While I think you may–as you admit–be rather hopeful, I would think that Wikileaks and digital journalism will make governments more honest. At some point, they must realize that it is simply too difficult, if not impossible, to fight against the information ecosystem of the 21st century. Yet, I think the possibility exists, that Wikileaks and others like it, will only make the government more secretive, and more “off the record.” No one knows how it will end, but I can say for myself that I hope your prediction will come true. If not, though, we’ll all be left cursing the darkness.


    Matt Schafer

  • The really good thing that all of us are doing when we expose government propaganda is that we are struggling against social dementia.

    We have found that a diet of leeks is a good thang for mental health.

  • What I like most about this Jeff is that it has the potential to answer my most difficult question about the future. Who or what will be the governor of citizens in a democracy? Our country ran for two centuries with the internal governor of religion holding the masses together. Our culture is based on promise and oath, and without something more powerful than the state, it simply doesn’t work. The idea of “swearing on a Bible” in court is the implied threat of harm beyond the state for not telling the truth. That internal governor is necessary for a free society to run smoothly.

    That has been slipping away over the last few decades, and while I’ve always been a strong proponent of hyperconnectivity and what it promises, I’ve also been concerned about what happens when human nature enters the mix. Forced transparency has the opportunity to help, but it has to be a two-way street. We cannot demand absolute transparency from others and not be prepared to provide it ourselves.

    What will be the cultural governor of tomorrow? Kevin Kelly thinks we’ll adapt, evolve and learn to treat each other better. I’d like to believe that, but history suggests that’ll just never happen. Maybe a form of transparency provides the answer.

    • So it is your contention that it is only fear that that is our “internal governor”. That is, of course, what many religions teach. I think you should realize that religion is a man-made invention and no more, or less, the work of God than any other thing or idea we have created.

      In “Devil’s Advocate” Al Pacino’s character says, “Free will is a bitch and like butterfly wings, once touched, never gets off the ground.”

      I plan to use my free will as wisely as I can. My moral values were not formed by any religion, but by my society. My goal is to be true to those I live with … those I care about … those that depend on me.

      An example is that I grew up in the 50s and 60s steeped in the homophobia of the time. But over the years I’ve come to know and become friends with many gay folks. I have adjusted my morality to believe they deserve the same rights before the law as anyone else.

      After writing this I can’t help wondering if this is exactly what you consider the “slipping away” of religion’s moral authority.

      I could go on but perhaps I’ve set enough.



  • Todd McKinney

    It is surprising to think about this issue in terms of the seemingly heartfelt arguments of those who say that old media business models must be saved because it will be the death of democracy if “real journalists” are not around to keep government honest.

    I would suspect that this kind of information disclosure is far more gruesome and scary for those in government who wish to be dishonest than an army of washington post or NYT reporters would be. As a result, it seems more likely that this type of openness will push such bad actors towards honesty than the existing media establishment does. After all, those highly respected and respectable bastions of journalism can be controlled.

    The internet cannot be so easily controlled, at least not without a significant amount of heavy-handed “intervention”. Too bad for openness that many powerful organizations are threatened by this openness. These organizations may have the inclination, and possibly also the power, to impose regulation that will effectively squash free expression.

    The proposals for new mechanisms to suppress free expression seem to come with a relentless consistency and increasing frequency. It is concerning to me that the latest tactics seem to also now invoke national security (because of the presumably obvious danger of Wikileaks) as the unassailable foundation for suppressing freedom.

  • 1984wasearly


    Good article about the concept of Big Brother as it relates to the U.S. government, but who is Google’s Big Brother? How can the citizens watch Google?

    You are a Google booster, so can you comment on Eric Schmidt’s recent comments on CNN on Streetview, saying essentially to people that if we don’t like it, then we should move.” And this is not his first controversial statement about privacy as he has talked about “walking right up to the creepy line.” I don’t think the citizens of the UK are too happy about their emails and passwords being compromised by Google too.

    I think there are a number of people who say, “What’s the big deal?” The big deal is that Google is practicing a form of incrementalism that is methodically inserting itself into the lives of every citizen in the U.S. to a harmful degree. Their services are so useful that we don’t mind handing away our privacy and freedoms. This is very similiar to trading our freedoms for security. At some point the protection is more oppressive than the threat. What will our Googlized society be like in 5, 10, 20, 50 years from now? Go watch the movie, “Minority Report” and you’ll have a clue. If CEO Creepy is right and they can tell what we are all respectively thinking at some point, then the “Pre-Crime” division as depicted in “Minority Report” will have been realized. Stop crime before it happens. If the Google Government (Obama gets a ton of cash from these guys, as will any next president and congressmen) doesn’t like how you feed your family (remember they will know all of this and be able to create reports by pulling this information about you in one place), discipline your kids, buy media, they will let you know. They will first start out as lifestyle guides and then they will gently suggest you make some changes, until your actions are outlawed and then they will come for you. This may sound like a fairytale today, but make no mistake, it is coming. And all with with the help of a company who’s motto is “Do No Evil.” Our collective mistake is that we believed that they meant that motto for Google, in reality it is a warning to everyone in this country. “Do no evil, or we will know about it and share it with everyone and the authorities. You are powerless to stop us. Just comply and you will be fine.”

    “To Serve Man.” Indeed!

    • Andy Freeman

      > Good article about the concept of Big Brother as it relates to the U.S. government, but who is Google’s Big Brother?

      Google can’t throw you in jail.

      > They will first start out as lifestyle guides and then they will gently suggest you make some changes, until your actions are outlawed and then they will come for you.

      Those are not all the same “they”. Google can’t outlaw anything and can’t “come for you”.

      • 1984wasearly

        My point is that the relationship between Google and Government is getting getting cozy.

        “Yet neither Obama’s anticorporate leanings nor Google’s anti-“politics as usual” culture has stopped the two camps from collaborating closely. Schmidt sits on Obama’s Council of Science and Technology Advisers. Google employees acted as advisers to the Obama transition team — in one case Google executive Sonal Shah actually led a meeting, to the surprise of at least one attendee — and a handful of ex-Googlers have joined the administration in various roles.”

        And that is just one example. The goverment (Obama or others) will want want Google has and will use the technology in ways to reingineer society. “Coming for you” may not always mean jail, but it could mean new ways to administer taxes, healthcare, and policy. Expand your thinking a bit and consider what the implication of an ever more powerful Google with Government as an ally would mean for our society.

      • Andy Freeman

        > “Coming for you” may not always mean jail, but it could mean new ways to administer taxes, healthcare, and policy.

        Hint – taxes, policy, and govt services are the threat of jail.

        Yes, govt likes some of the things that “google” can enable, but that doesn’t shift any of the blame onto google.

        Note that you still insist on placing primary blame on google.

        > Expand your thinking a bit

        It’s poor form to be patronizing while missing a fundamental point.

    • 1984wasearly

      Also Jeff, in a cheeky nod to your book, I think it is now fair to ask, “What wouldn’t Google do?”

    • Andy Freeman

      > I don’t think the citizens of the UK are too happy about their emails and passwords being compromised by Google too.

      Actually, Google didn’t compromise those things. They were compromised by being broadcast in the clear, for receipt by anyone. Google merely admitted to having received them.

      Google commits numerous sins, but crying wolf falsely is counterproductive.

      • 1984wasearly

        So it’s the victim’s fault right Andy? I suppose if I left my car unlocked in the street and a thief stole it, I should be to blame? Or if I accidentally overpay at the drive-thru I should expect the cashier to keep my money? These things may make me careless, but it does not justify the actions of the evil-doers. Make sense?

        You can get nit-picky if you want, but the reality is that Google has too much power and with its close ties to the government (they give them lots and lots of money Andy), they have a the ability to affect my life in ways that I didn’t intend.

        And as far as my being counter-productive, works for me as long as I am countering Google’s productivity because everytime they are productive, we all lose a bit more of our privacy and freedom. If this all is too much for you to ponder, just wait a few years Andy and one day you’ll have an epiphany. But I bet Google will tell you about it before you experience it. Cheers!

      • Andy Freeman

        > suppose if I left my car unlocked in the street and a thief stole it, I should be to blame?

        That’s not what happened. The relevant analogy would be that you handed out $5 bills to anyone who walked by and someone kept one. Remember, they were TRANSMITTING this information. Google merely received it.

        > You can get nit-picky if you want, but the reality is that Google has too much power

        Google doesn’t have any power. Yes, govt will do some things that Google asks, but that’s govt’s decision.

        > (they give them lots and lots of money Andy

        Actually, Google doesn’t give “lots of money”, not compared to the amount of money given by others. Google is in the noise. (The exception being Al Gore, who they made rich.)

        See , and that doesn’t include the “independent expenditures” – Google isn’t even in the top 100.

  • Tex Lovera

    I’d be careful about thinking of Wikileaks as some kind of watchdog/savior. They don’t seem very transparent to me.

  • Ultimately, as technology increasingly connects the world we all live in one gigantic digital room, so the idea of secrecy is all but gone. Hopefully, the long-term good out of military leaks like these will be a better understanding of the horrors of war in general in all respects.

    The only thing we do need to be careful of now too, in today’s digital age, however is the notion of accuracy. When you have tens of thousands of published documents how do you guarantee the validity of them, how do you ensure the full scope of actions leading up to each memo or piece of footage?

    The big challenges of this century will be simplifying and learning how to legitimize information. We’ve got the info now – info about everything anything. The question will be if we learn how to use it.

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  • cm

    This is not the dawn of the transparency age. Far from it! If anything it is the dawn of the age of dis-information.

    Where’s the transparency in how material is chosen to be published? When people cherry pick the facts to back their own agenda then that’s not transparency. Blurring reality by flooding the info-space with cherry picked facts hides the truth.

    Sure, we’ve always had disinformation in the past, but the internet really allows this to be done far more effectively than the past.

  • Rick V.

    I watch what Wikileaks does with a lot of interest and applaud much of what they do. Much of the public handwringing from the government seems perfunctory to me – they have to say something, after all, mostly to deter other leakers.

    But one man’s transparency is potentially another man’s death sentence, and I have no issue with redacting the names of those who might be targeted by killers/extremists in their own countries.

    And since you asked:

    So they decided, in the end, what would be secret. Whom do we trust more to make that declaration: government, the leaker, Wikileaks, or the press?

    If you’re talking about the Guardian, the NYT, I frankly trust the press. I pick answer d.

  • As an American living overseas, I’ve stopped using my US passport and now use my British one (I’m a dual-citizen). Americans are despised the world over and even more so since the Wikileaks latest really showed the depth of lies of the US government and military and the flagrant abuse of human rights (although, I always knew this – I’m not stupid).

    Being American now, can be a danger to your health. The Brits aren’t always a whole lot better but, at least in this case, major political figures including the Prime Minister are calling for investigations. The US government, as usual, is pointing the finger of blame to everyone else but themselves. America really has become the Evil Empire and every day I’m glad I no longer live there.

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  • Great Post Jeff! I’m a tourist on your blog and let me tell you I’m buying a house in town.

    But I would put it in other way. More government transparency and the absent a mediator between the citizen and the public matters (journalism) is an utopia from every time. And I don´t think internet will cancel that bond. I would think more that the relationship between journalism and citizenship has became more symmetrical and everyone can potentially be a journalism. What has deeply changed is that there are (in potential) a multiplicity of big brothers (collective or individual). Or we can hope.

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  • Jeff,

    We shouldn’t kid ourselves that this is the beginning of any kind of change; we are not on a road to transparent government just because Wikileaks got hold of these communications. I’d argue we could only be on a road to transparent government if those in power decided it suited them best and moved in that direction. This has not and will not happen because there is no universal acceptance of what ‘transparency’ means and therefore no clear indication of what benefit those in power would gain from increasing it.

    The only reason this data has been made available is that the US government hasn’t controlled it properly; a decision post 9/11 to improve data sharing across agencies has seen political communications which were originally limited in scope opened to an audience of about 2.5m US government users. As soon as that happens, a leak is inevitable. If these communications had been limited access as they used to be, a leak of this magnitude wouldn’t have happened.

    There’s a lot of data which is still very much controlled and we’ll not see for another 50 years or so. Only that which suits the current government’s agenda will be released; sure, some other stuff will find its way out as it always does, but it’s just as likely to force governments to tighten up controls as it is to increase transparency.


  • Is the information coming from WikiLeaks authoritative? Is some measure of it, in fact, disinformation or misinformation? Is it an authoritative resource, or just a resource like any other?

    If the materials are presumed to be confidential or secret or otherwise classified, there is no method to corroborate legitimacy other than making inferences from documented events. It would, in fact, be an excellent vehicle for manipulating world opinion using an unofficial official channel. Unofficial and presumed authoritative leaks have been a persistent part of press coverage: “Sources close to the Pentagon say ____ “. Who fills in the blanks?

  • Javaun Moradi

    Great piece Jeff. Digital technology as a whole is making it more difficult to keep secrets in *democratic* societies. Beyond wikileaks, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have made information sharing instant.

    Open societies like the U.S. are experiencing growing pains as their skeletons are coming out of the closet. Believe it or not, the U.S. government is making a huge effort to be more transparent and as someone involved in the transparency movement I see it all the time in DC. Every agency has a formal mandate under the Open Directive to release non-sensitive information to the public.

    Transparency may make democratic societies more so, but it’s also driving authoritarian regimes to be more closed. The lesson that China and Iran are seeing is that the internet subverts the state, and as a result they continually implement practical measures to simply wall it off.

    Transparency may lead to more open societies in the long run, but right now, this asymmetry is further polarizing open/closed societies. U.S. leaks lead to criticism in open media environments, and provide ideological fodder for totalitarian regimes.

    I want to echo Leo’s remarks. In the end, open societies may come out the good guys, but in the meantime, Americans abroad are less safe.

  • Javaun Moradi

    I didn’t refresh in time to see Tim Sharpe’s post but I want to agree there as well. The U.S. government accepts the reality of transparency, and they’re going through the binary process of deciding what to lock down and what can be open. We will see a far greater availability of non-sensitive data. But there will be many, many more precautions — both digital security and human processes — to keep information deemed secret a secret.

  • andrewo

    I can’t help but read this with Foucault on the back burner, and this in particular:

    In fact, any panoptic institution, even if it is as rigorously closed as a penitentiary, may without difficulty be subjected to such irregular and constant inspections: and not only by the appointed inspectors, but also by the public… This Panopticon, subtly arranged so that an observer may observe, at a glance, so many different individuals, also enables everyone to come and observe any of the observers. The seeing machine was once a sort of dark room into which individuals spied; it has become a transparent building in which the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole.

  • Stefan Münker

    “..we are at the dawn of the transparent age.”


    What Wikileaks show, is that some secrets couldn’t be kept secret. What it does not show, is that there will be no more secrets.

    What we see is that the frontiers between what’s known for all and what’s known for some are moving. Not, that these frontiers disappear.

    It is a good bet to say that in the digital age we will see more transparency in many ways. And this should be good for any open and democratic society – as well as it will be bad (and that is: good) for any closed and non-democratic society.
    But is a world without secrets what we are heading for? Should we? Is absolute transparency a good in itself and a goal an open society must achieve?

    • andrewo

      ^^ – “this should be good for any open and democratic society – as well as it will be bad (and that is: good) for any closed and non-democratic society.”

      What do you think of this take on transparency? Orwellian, gibberish or something else?

      “I always thought that a transparent society was a totalitarian society,” he added, in a defense of secretive government communications.

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