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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Who Gets to Keep Secrets?


Here is my reply to Daniel Hillis' question on EDGE. Do not quote without permission.

Secrecy is the forbidden fruit: you want to know more even at the risk of loosing the heavenly security of the Garden of Eden. Speech is power: some information is so potent that it could be dangerous. God created the universe with speech and he put the forbidden tree to remind to his creatures that they could not get the overall picture, that some files remained classified.

In classical mythology, those who steal secrets from God are damned heroes, like Prometheus, who stole the secret of fire from Zeus. Being human is a damned heroic destiny: we are scavengers, scraping off layers of lies and prohibitions to reach bitter truths.

Truth is not just an epistemic commodity: it is a human value. It mixes the needs of sincerity, accuracy and honesty that are essential to trust each other, to feel that we belong to the same species, that we are playing the same game.

But secrecy is not a sacred value: it is perceived as an abuse of power. It may have rational motivations, it may be indispensable in order to keep order and peace, but the secret-keeper never has the part of the hero, apart from extreme cases when lying is a way of saving people against an oppressive power that wants to brutally extort information to act in an evil way.

State secrecy is not a clear principle: no constitutions in the Western world endorse State secrecy as a legal or moral principle. It is an old privilege of sovereigns that has taken different shapes in the political history. It goes from the British Majesties' privilege of the Habeas Corpus, which overrules local authorities, to the Macchiavellian precepts to the Prince, who must classify some information in order to succeed in governing the people. What is called Raison d'Etat, is the privilege of the sovereign to act "out of law" for the State's interests. That is why it is so difficult these days to see State secrecy as legitimate, and to see those who violate it as traitors.

In our times, the first time United States advocated exclusion of evidence in a trial based only on affidavit was in 1953, in the United States vs. Reynolds case which involved the crash of a military plane whose mission had to be kept secret.

That is to say: it is difficult to have a spontaneous sympathy for the secrets' holders, and the damned heroes à la Julian Assange have all their chance to gain popular consensus.

Also, we come out from a decade in which truth-wars have been at the centre of the most difficult political choices, such as the Iraq invasion. For those who have studied the whole story, the balance between secrecy and security was really odd: the report from the British Intelligence on which Colin Powell based his speech at the UN, contained a major plagiarism from the journal Middle Eastern Studies. The following British report had been "sexed up" in order to affirm that an Iraq nuclear attack was possible in 45 minutes.

But what are the truths we value in the information society? Now that the Information Age is leaving its place to the Reputation Age, we want certified truths, attested by authoritative sources: we want the seal of quality that warrants us on where the truth come from, who is the authority endorsing it. Plain, factive truths, like plain facts, don't exist anymore: we trust a chain of production of truths, with its labels and legitimacies. The naked "truth" that leaks from unknown sources is unreadable, it is a noisy voice that we do not know what to do with. Yet, the Wikileaks scandal comes from the fact that many newspapers have given credit to the source, thus showing that they endorse this chain of production. They have provided the reputation these naked truths needed.

We have to understand better how these chains of reputation of information are constructed and endorsed. We have to take the epistemic responsibility of asking ourselves why we trust news or an information provider. And perhaps, with the power of collaborative work on the Web, we can contribute in giving the appropriate labels to the information we are able to control, thus contributing to the damned human enterprise of unveiling the forbidden truths.