sick it is, then

I’m pleased to announce that Technology Review magazine has published my letter to the editor. In edited form, under the title “Leaking Secrets”, it appears thus on page 7 of their August 2011 issue:

I found your editorial and review on WikiLeaks (“Is WikiLeaks a Good Thing?” and “Transparency and Secrets,” March/April 2011) thought-provoking. I think of a saying in psychology: You’re only as sick as your secrets. The words “privacy” and “secrecy” are often used interchangeably, but they are actually distinct concepts. Privacy is a matter of mutual respect, while secrecy is more conspiratorial: keeping something hidden in the anticipation that others will try to discover it. The very proliferation of leaks means there are far too many secrets being kept. In a free society, official secrets should be at an absolute minimum. How can people make informed choices when information is being hidden from them? I’m glad that WikiLeaks exists, and I hope it’s a Hydra that never runs out of heads.

If you’ve ever wondered how much material gets edited out of a letter to the editor of a major publication, here’s a glimpse. I’ll copy the full text of my e-mail message to Jason Pontin, editor of Technology Review. (The magazine did contact me to check whether I was OK with their edited version, and offered to let me change it, as long as I kept the word-count the same. I was fine with it as they’d done it.)

Hello Mr. Pontin. I’m responding to your March/April issue and here it is May, but your invitation to write has no stated time limit.

I found your editorial and feature on WikiLeaks very interesting and thought-provoking. I think of a saying they have in psychology: You’re only as sick as your secrets. One of my own thoughts is that often the words privacy and secrecy are used interchangeably, when they are actually distinct concepts. Privacy, according to my Webster’s, is “freedom from unauthorized intrusion,” while secrecy is “the condition of being hidden or concealed.” (There is a list of synonyms under the entry for secret, and private is not one.) While I have a duty to respect my neighbor’s privacy, I have no such duty to help him keep his secrets. I have a duty not to open his mail, but not to help him conceal a crime he’s committed, say. Privacy is a matter of mutual respect, while secrecy is more conspiratorial; it is the keeping of something hidden in the anticipation that others will try to discover it. How successful you are is up to you and fortune.

The issue of secrecy and governments moves the question to another level. Jane Jacobs, in her book Systems of Survival, distinguishes two “moral syndromes” that have always existed between those involved in commerce (the “Commercial Syndrome”) and those involved in government (the “Guardian Syndrome”, named after the Guardian class of Plato’s Republic). Today we would call them the private sector and the public sector. Jacobs developed a list of 15 moral rules that govern each of these syndromes, and these rules are entirely opposite to each other. For example, two of the rules in the Commercial Syndrome are “Shun force” and “Be honest”. That is, these are moral rules that are followed by good businessmen. By contrast, two rules in the Guardian Syndrome are “Shun trading” and “Deceive for the sake of the task”. These rules would be observed by, say, good soldiers.

The book is devoted to why these two different moral regimes exist, and why they both seem to be essential to human society. But Jacobs takes some time to show also the toxic effects when the two regimes contaminate each other—when businesses start using deception and force, and when governments try to produce things and make money. My thought is that while secrecy is a normal and necessary part of military culture, it has a much smaller place in the rest of any government that is intended to be democratic and accountable. The progressive militarization of the U.S. government, as measured by, say, budget expenditures or the number of personnel, has led to an increasing culture of secrecy and obscurantism. More and more of the business of government is conducted under the cloak of secrecy for the ostensible purpose of “national security.”

The intrusion of the state into more and more parts of society, such as in the bailouts and purchases of commercial enterprises, leads to the further pervasion of Guardian Syndrome rules into all walks of life. The whole problem is that from the Guardian perspective, secrets are moral.

The very proliferation of leaks means there are far too many secrets being kept. In a free society, official secrets should be at an absolute minimum. For how can people make informed choices when information is being hidden from them from their supposed peers, the ones they have temporarily entrusted with the levers of power?

I suppose what I’m saying is: by all means, let’s respect each other’s privacy, but if you want to keep secrets, you’re on your own. Your best defense is to have as few of them as possible. For my part, I’m glad that WikiLeaks exists, and I hope it’s a Hydra that never runs out of heads.

Keep those thoughtful editorials coming.

Paul Vitols

As you can no doubt tell, this topic is one that lies close to my heart. The operation of an ever greater proportion of the state’s business behind the cloak of secrecy, including, increasingly, policing and justice, is a sign of encroaching tyranny. Only an educated, vigilant, and active public can stop its course—and such a public does not now exist.

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