Keeping Sensitive Information Out of the Hands of Terrorists Through Self-Restraint
In my forthcoming book (available February 2012), I talk about various mechanisms for societal security: how we as a group protect ourselves from the “dishonest minority” within us. I have four types of societal security systems:
- moral systems—any internal rewards and punishments;
- reputational systems—any informal external rewards and punishments;
- rule-based systems—any formal system of rewards and punishments (mostly punishments); laws, mostly;
- technological systems—everything like walls, door locks, cameras, and so on.
We spend most of our effort in the third and fourth category. I am spending a lot of time researching how the first two categories work.
Given that, I was very interested in seeing an article by Dallas Boyd in Homeland Security Affairs: “Protecting Sensitive Information: The Virtue of Self-Restraint,” where he basically says that people should not publish information that terrorists could use out of moral responsibility (he calls it “civic duty”). Ignore for a moment the debate about whether publishing information that could give the terrorists ideas is actually a bad idea—I think it’s not—what Boyd is proposing is actually very interesting. He specifically says that censorship is bad and won’t work, and wants to see voluntary self-restraint along with public shaming of offenders.
As an alternative to formal restrictions on communication, professional societies and influential figures should promote voluntary self-censorship as a civic duty. As this practice is already accepted among many scientists, it may be transferrable to members of other professions. As part of this effort, formal channels should be established in which citizens can alert the government to vulnerabilities and other sensitive information without exposing it to a wide audience. Concurrent with this campaign should be the stigmatization of those who recklessly disseminate sensitive information. This censure would be aided by the fact that many such people are unattractive figures whose writings betray their intellectual vanity. The public should be quick to furnish the opprobrium that presently escapes these individuals.
I don’t think it will work, and I don’t even think it’s possible in this international day and age, but it’s interesting to read the proposal.