The terrible power of computer espionage in our world of shame

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.


The DNC may or may not have been hacked (I have seen no credible evidence that it was), but the DNC information that entered the public was a leak, not a hack. The emails that showed the DNC's election-rigging entered the public domain through Wikileaks. Julian Assange himself says it came from a DNC leaker, and Craig Murray went public as the courier who carried the information from the leaker (in DC) to Wikileaks. The leaker is strongly suspected to have been DNC staffer Seth Rich, who was murdered in DC shortly after, in an unsolved "robbery" with nothing valuable taken. Please note that Wikileaks offered, and is still offering, a reward for information related to Rich's death.

The DNC emails did contain significant damaging information: they revealed the DNC rigging the US Democratic primary against Sanders (who would have won) and Donna Brazil providing debate questions to Clinton, for which she was fired from her media job. Both of those directly and concretely affected the outcome of the U.S. Presidential election, which is kind of a big deal.

You think we should ignore whistleblowers because they broke the rules getting information into the public domain? The legal system also has the concept of "public interest", which exists as a valid defense for extraordinary actions. Without public interest, there is no option for taking a higher moral position. Sometimes human institutions require extraordinary action. Those few people who are willing to suffer punishment - or even death - for the greater good of their society do their society a great benefit, and the public interest defense exists for exactly that reason.

Note that this is currently a fringe theory. Assange has explicitly denied that he was implying that Rich was the source of the leaks.

And no, I am not saying that we should ignore whistleblowers who break rules to leak. I say we must be very careful if we see selective whistle-blowing with a motive, especially if it is sourced to your foreign enemies.

Hi, Brad. Great article.
Any politician will be accused of stuff and none of us has the resources to, in most cases, determine the reality and impact of the alleged error or wrongdoing. We need "one-click" tools to assess the reality of allegations, their consequences, and the magnitude of those consequences in context.
People also need to be informed of how easy it is to manipulate their feelings and how to recognize the classic propaganda techniques used to do that. Creating a false narrative of moral equivalence or equal future risk should be harder if people are consciously aware of the manipulation efforts.
Part of this particular case is the extent to which the "rules of the game" have changed, Face-saving and confrontation-avoiding private negotiations and discussions are significantly more difficult. David Brin's "transparent society" is headed for us full tilt.
Note: I didn't include my home page because, of course, as an author, my book titles and links are there and so it might be considered a "biz home page" --GDN

I do remove the links people put in to pages that are just for a business if it looks like the only reason they put it there was the hope of clicks. (Some people also hope for SEO points but I put the tag on that causes search engines to disregard links for that, so they are wasting their time.)

But for an author, whose people and pro life are the same, I would not delete it. It's the page people would go to find out about you.

Interesting article Brad, and ironically the boost AI is receiving from the quest for driverless cars may quicken the pace towards the future you outline. Secrets can be uncovered through mass data mining and as our digital footprints grow larger the ability to crosslink profiles becomes easier. Online opinions can be linked to names, then addresses, and then our friends and children identified, we often make this easy by what we or others post on Facebook.

I wonder if AI systems in future could not only be used for data mining, but also be used to identify and target influential leaders on social media. Perhaps automated anonymous email threats or subtle bribes that are carefully customized to each individual that needs to be influenced. We may not know if an attack comes from China, Russia, IS or a Hedge fund. We live in a World where misinformation is becoming a powerful tool of influence. Maybe a cunning and anonymous hedge fund AI system could try and boost positive or negative comments about a particular stock off the back of key opinion makes? Perhaps this influence could be hidden among a few fake news stories. Marketers and advertising agencies already practice many questionable tricks to try and influence public opinion,yet advertisers are only trying to sell products, foreign powers could use similar but far more powerful and brutal systems to spread misinformation. The fast development of AI systems is likely to have far reaching consequences, I wonder if the often feeble human mind is going to be left behind.

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