I have some dark secrets. Some I am not proud of, some that are fine by me but I know would be better kept private. So do you. So does everybody. And the more complex your life, the more “big” things you have done in the world, the bigger your mistakes and other secrets are. It is true for all of us. This is one of the reasons the world needs privacy to work.
The 2016 US election hack makes clear the big challenge. In a world where everybody has secret flaws, the person who can point the flashlight at their enemies, and not themselves or their friends, has a truly powerful weapon. Now that we conduct our entire lives on computers, those who can penetrate them can learn those secrets.
We’re not good at being intellectual about this. When one house has a big pile of dirty laundry in front, we know intellectually that all the other houses almost surely have a similar pile in the basement. But the smell of the exposed one is clear, and it’s bad, and we can’t keep our minds on that fact. So we can be manipulated, even though we know we are being manipulated.
In this election, we got to see exposed various flaws at the Democratic National Committee. The flaws were real (though on the scale of such things, not overwhelming.) Our gut reaction, though, is to feel, “it doesn’t matter how we learned this, it’s still bad and not to be ignored.” We feel this even though we know the information was gathered illegally, then disclosed to manipulate us. That’s because generally we do and should love whistleblowers. They are usually brave heroes. But what we learn that the whistleblower revealed the secrets not for the public good, not to expose a wrong, but instead cherry-picked what to expose to manipulate us, we must do something else we normally taught is wrong and “shoot the messenger.”
The legal system figured this out long ago. It has detailed rules about how evidence can be collected and used. If those rules are violated, the system attempts to disregard the evidence in its deliberations. Everything that came from the improper evidence is to be unseen, disregarded. People we know for certain who are murderers and rapists are set free because there was something untoward about how we learned it.
The public is incapable of the logical dispassion demanded in the courts. If this can never be fixed, we are in for trouble. There will always be secrets. And now there will always be people with the tools to get at all but the most highly protected ones and selectively disclose them.
Some people believe we can get used to a more fully transparent world, and have no secrets. If we can do that, this weapon is diminished. They hope that if we all see how many secrets others have, we won’t be so ashamed of ours. I am highly doubtful. People will keep secrets. The powerful will be better at protecting them, but the even more powerful will be better at extracting them. The secrets will not be just shameful things but actually illegal things. We live in a world of so many laws that we are all breaking them regularly.
I am not sure I see a way out. This is not simply about Clinton. While everybody is bothered by fake news, this is news which is true, but not the whole truth and not misleading.
In the past I have written about extending the concept of “privilege” to information on our computers. Perhaps this form of invasion of privacy could be viewed the same way socially. That breaking into your computer to disclose your secrets would be like beating up somebody’s priest or lawyer to extract those secrets. If a news story started with, “we bugged his lawyer’s office and heard him confess this crime to his lawyer” we might still be bothered but see it in a different light, and be more bothered by those using the information.