Secrecy and Privacy

Interesting article on the history of, and the relationship between, secrecy and privacy.

As a matter of historical analysis, the relationship between secrecy and privacy can be stated in an axiom: the defense of privacy follows, and never precedes, the emergence of new technologies for the exposure of secrets. In other words, the case for privacy always comes too late. The horse is out of the barn. The post office has opened your mail. Your photograph is on Facebook. Google already knows that, notwithstanding your demographic, you hate kale.

Posted on June 26, 2013 at 12:35 PM6 Comments


Carpe_Noctem June 26, 2013 3:51 PM

“This, then, is the reasoning of the partisans of mystery,” Bentham wrote. “ ‘You are incapable of judging, because you are ignorant; and you shall remain ignorant, that you may be incapable of judging.’ ”

This is what it really boils down to. The public has been deemed too stupid to participate in it’s own governance, and is therefore being excluded. It is quite obvious to me that massively unconstitutional operations have become the status quo for longer than many of us are willing to realize.

Now, the one argument which has been touched upon by you Bruce, but I have yet to hear almost anywhere else, is that this pervasive privacy invading technology is inevitable, and that we are merely seeking to dominate the field before other entrants (such as China, or Russia). In the end though, I think the argument falls flat, for the simple reason that we COULD, if we so chose, spend all the efforts now put towards surveillance, backdoors and secret side-channel attacks, into plugging up those holes in order to create a more secure society.

Here is the rub though, the goal for those in power never was to secure society! We have to stop coming at it from this perspective. Those in power are seeking to amalgamate that power. For example, Sibel Edmonds recent reported that she knew an FBI insider who said his responsibility was to review potential judge appointees, and that he was instructed to remove from the list any judge who was “clean”, because dirty judges could be controlled. Russell Tice recently revealed that he held in his hands in 2004 the papers to tap a handful of numbers of a then potential senator… then one who now resides in the White House!

This massive shift in technology has allowed a shift in the speed in which power seeks to centralize itself. I truly believe this is THE conversation that needs to be had above all others, lest we be doomed to be pondering about “security” while, as a Bush aide put it, the powers will continue to act and we the public (and the security community) “will be left to just study what we [they] do.”

So what can we do? The three branches have effectively melded into one, and never seriously challenge each others powers. Congress is corrupt, and corporations are the peddlers of that corruption. Elections are a corrupt process, and every other process supposedly to be used for redress of grievance is completely ineffective. Petitions? A joke. Protest? Easily dispersed.

The most likely, but still unlikely way forward would be to have a massive shift in congress, throwing out incumbents and putting in place people not afraid of the system. I expect a few more assassinations on American soil…but even if we managed that, by the time it happened, would the Military Industrial Congressional Corporation Complex be too powerful to reign in?

From an objective realistic analysis, things are not looking good. Would really like some comment on this Bruce, if you have the time.

Jack June 26, 2013 6:41 PM

Good article, though I believe it misses the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room.

Which is that among the most noxious errors nations have ever engaged in… the most noxious and the most virulent of these errors has been to hunt down and murder people based on what they have merely said with their mouths.

As unbelievable as that may sound to people who have created a system designed to hunt down people nationally and globally based on what they say… it is true. In fact, at least one religion revolves around a man who was murdered just because of something he said.

It is kind of like a heroin addict deciding it would be a good idea to go and buy a load of needles and syringes. Just to look at. Or why not just open the bank vaults and let people go in just to touch the money. Nobody will steal anything. How about letting your wife take a trip with a handsome, single, heterosexual guy that really has a crush on her?

Because – what every adult person on the planet should well know by now – is that nations have a strong tendency to want to kill people for their beliefs. Which they detect by what they say with their mouths.

We have had millenia of these murders — we had exceptionally horrible cases of these murders in this last century — and these murders continue in many nations on the planet to this very day.

Yet clearly, this is news to the President of the United States and news to his leading intelligence people.

Somewhere in all of this, it is also news to them that the US Constitution actually has some extremely remarkable wording in it pertaining to these very things.

David Moss June 27, 2013 3:55 AM

A tremendous New Yorker article and thank you for bringing it to everyone’s attention.

Notwithstanding which, if “the defense of privacy follows, and never precedes, the emergence of new technologies for the exposure of secrets” is an axiom then it can’t be right or wrong, it’s just a premise, something you assume to get your logical calculus off the ground.

The question is, is it a theorem? Is it true?



In a civilised state governed by laws, strangers can enter into contracts. The two parties to a contract have their own “sovereignty” and it is only thanks to that that the contract can be entered into.

One of the elements of that sovereignty is privacy. Take away the privacy, and you lose the sovereignty and thus the ability to enter into contracts.

That’s a suggested way of getting privacy into the equations of social dynamics early and not, as the New Yorker suggest, always late/too late.

(Hat tip: Roger Scruton, Nonsense on Stilts)

Daniel Fackrell June 27, 2013 9:55 AM

With the direction of technology, it seems likely that the death of privacy is simply a matter of time. More and more data can be gathered, covering many aspects of our public and private lives, and while many object to the change, those objections don’t seem likely to stop the reduction in cost and improvement in data collection methods.

In the short term, I think we’ll be better served to focus on ensuring that we have as much access to data about us as the governments and large corporations of the world. Many of the issues that appear in the news from time to time are the result of secrecy about what is being collected and how it can be used.

Maybe one solution would be a set of open databases containing as much of this information as possible. Maybe even distributed using peer to peer technologies, so no one organization has complete control over it.

I’m still apprehensive, as I don’t feel I know enough about how to live in an open post-privacy world, but at least that’s a subset of my worries about living in the closed post-privacy world we already seem to have.

I should probably take some time to put together a series of posts on this topic, laying the groundwork and drawing the conclusions from that foundation.

Jack June 27, 2013 10:49 AM

Explanation of above post and relevance to article: I do not believe that what one is grasping for is a concept of “privacy” necessarily, but the concept of “the state creating a system to surveil you and other innocent people based on what you say in private in order to persecute you for your religious and political beliefs”.

For a lot of people, I believe, they merely mouth these concerns, as they do not actually really believe anything which is a threat to the domination of the state — and primarily to its’ leaders. They are perfectly content – and even seek – to have some leader or batch of leaders to effectively worship… while saying it is “the other guy”, often their target of persecution, who is alone guilty of this.

This is endemic to nations which have embraced judeo-christian concepts, including nations that have taken Islam or Communism — both systems which come distinctly from judeo-christian systems of belief.

Be it that they seek to have some holy caliphate, monks, popes, presidents, senate… it is not rulership of politics they want, clearly, but rulership of their hearts. And so they have invariably murdered those who have not had it in their heart to consider leaders as anyone above their own selves or worthy of genuine worship.

While it is true, people do love to hear the intimate secrets of others, and this is a “danger” of privacy invasion — the conclusion people should consider making I would maintain is that “it is not the intimate secrets you hold which you are so concerned about others hearing, but rather those things that they could intentionally skew in order to use your words out of context to convict you to state based punishment”.

Conversely, any innocent soul likely longs for a day when people who clearly hold secrets that they would not like to see exposed because of the universal wrongness of those secrets… feels no threat when they see such systems arise because they believe these systems will continue to allow their guise of goodness to persist.

These sorts may say “I have nothing to hide”, which means “I am not a witch, a heretic, a sinner” — but the truth is they are the ones most deeply terrified in their souls of having their true selves exposed. But their public guise is so deep, even they themselves are unaware of the degree of their error.

vas pup June 27, 2013 4:19 PM

“Sibel Edmonds recent reported that she knew an FBI insider who said his responsibility was to review potential judge appointees, and that he was instructed to remove from the list any judge who was “clean”, because dirty judges could be controlled.”
There is no ‘clean’ person – just not properly investigated/scrutinized for now – bitter joke (three felonies a day – you know).
Even for any LEO in most countries following all rules/instructions/regulations (breaking of some them cause breaking the law that have reference inside to those rules) will prevent doing job properly, meaning get expected by superiors results timely. I am talking about even ‘good’ cop/agent now. So, no ‘clean’ person on both sides of the law – just see above bitter joke.

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.