Government Secrecy and the Generation Gap
Big-government secrets require a lot of secret-keepers. As of October 2012, almost 5m people in the US have security clearances, with 1.4m at the top-secret level or higher, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Most of these people do not have access to as much information as Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor turned leaker, or even Chelsea Manning, the former US army soldier previously known as Bradley who was convicted for giving material to WikiLeaks. But a lot of them do — and that may prove the Achilles heel of government. Keeping secrets is an act of loyalty as much as anything else, and that sort of loyalty is becoming harder to find in the younger generations. If the NSA and other intelligence bodies are going to survive in their present form, they are going to have to figure out how to reduce the number of secrets.
As the writer Charles Stross has explained, the old way of keeping intelligence secrets was to make it part of a life-long culture. The intelligence world would recruit people early in their careers and give them jobs for life. It was a private club, one filled with code words and secret knowledge.
You can see part of this in Mr Snowden’s leaked documents. The NSA has its own lingo — the documents are riddled with codename — its own conferences, its own awards and recognitions. An intelligence career meant that you had access to a new world, one to which “normal” people on the outside were completely oblivious. Membership of the private club meant people were loyal to their organisations, which were in turn loyal back to them.
Those days are gone. Yes, there are still the codenames and the secret knowledge, but a lot of the loyalty is gone. Many jobs in intelligence are now outsourced, and there is no job-for-life culture in the corporate world any more. Workforces are flexible, jobs are interchangeable and people are expendable.
Sure, it is possible to build a career in the classified world of government contracting, but there are no guarantees. Younger people grew up knowing this: there are no employment guarantees anywhere. They see it in their friends. They see it all around them.
Many will also believe in openness, especially the hacker types the NSA needs to recruit. They believe that information wants to be free, and that security comes from public knowledge and debate. Yes, there are important reasons why some intelligence secrets need to be secret, and the NSA culture reinforces secrecy daily. But this is a crowd that is used to radical openness. They have been writing about themselves on the internet for years. They have said very personal things on Twitter; they have had embarrassing photographs of themselves posted on Facebook. They have been dumped by a lover in public. They have overshared in the most compromising ways — and they have got through it. It is a tougher sell convincing this crowd that government secrecy trumps the public’s right to know.
Psychologically, it is hard to be a whistleblower. There is an enormous amount of pressure to be loyal to our peer group: to conform to their beliefs, and not to let them down. Loyalty is a natural human trait; it is one of the social mechanisms we use to thrive in our complex social world. This is why good people sometimes do bad things at work.
When someone becomes a whistleblower, he or she is deliberately eschewing that loyalty. In essence, they are deciding that allegiance to society at large trumps that to peers at work. That is the difficult part. They know their work buddies by name, but “society at large” is amorphous and anonymous. Believing that your bosses ultimately do not care about you makes that switch easier.
Whistleblowing is the civil disobedience of the information age. It is a way that someone without power can make a difference. And in the information age — the fact that everything is stored on computers and potentially accessible with a few keystrokes and mouse clicks — whistleblowing is easier than ever.
Mr Snowden is 30 years old; Manning 25. They are members of the generation we taught not to expect anything long-term from their employers. As such, employers should not expect anything long-term from them. It is still hard to be a whistleblower, but for this generation it is a whole lot easier.
A lot has been written about the problem of over-classification in US government. It has long been thought of as anti-democratic and a barrier to government oversight. Now we know that it is also a security risk. Organizations such as the NSA need to change their culture of secrecy, and concentrate their security efforts on what truly needs to remain secret. Their default practice of classifying everything is not going to work any more.
Hey, NSA, you’ve got a problem.
This essay previously appeared in the Financial Times.
EDITED TO ADD (9/14): Blog comments on this essay are particularly interesting.