The Thing About Wikileaks

Posted: December 9, 2010 in Braak
Tags: ,

Hahah, I don’t know anything about Wikileaks.  I’m not even sure how to parse this, at all.  On the one hand, yeah, I understand the need for a nation to have the ability to keep some of its operations secret.  That makes sense.  But it’s not like what’s turning up on Wikileaks is “Here’s where are special forces all hang out after a hard day of shooting.”  It’s all stuff like, “Yeah, the government has been handing prisoners over to people who we know will torture them.  Also, did you know about the secret war we’ve been waging in Yemen?”

It’s hard to be a “patriot” and defend the government when the government is engaging in a war that I think is wrong on basically every level:  morally wrong in the first place, ideologically untenable in the second, and fundamentally impracticable in the third.

Then, the government’s push to keep the Wikileaks info off the internet — that’s disturbing.  My friend Malia spent a lot of time in China, and if you want to talk about why it is that social reform in China is so problematic, why there’s no mass movement to reject oppression, the answer is that the Chinese government controls all the information.  Even the internet.  So, when the US Government starts pressuring businesses into not hosting Wikileaks on their servers, or not giving them access to their donations…that’s really worrisome.

All liberties, you know, are given up in the name of security.  Every time; it’s impossible, right down to the bottom, to have a law that protects you for which you have not made a sacrifice in liberty.  And so all oppressive laws have always been put in place with popular consent because they have, in some way, been sold as security measures.

Now, Anonymous — a group of hackers, I think, but SECRET hackers, so I don’t know whether or not they look like the hackers in Hackers — is attacking back, briefly shutting down websites for Mastercard, Visa, and PayPal (for their refusal to process donations to wikileaks).  They’re apparently gearing up for an attack on Amazon (so, obviously, buy your Christmas books now).  So far, I don’t think they’ve caused any major disruptions, per se, but it does start to bring up some interesting questions:  namely, is this the first real infowar that’s happening?

I’d always figured that, when major political or social changes happened, most people kind of didn’t notice them.  They look dramatic and catastrophic when you read about them in history books, but for the average person living at the time, just going about their life, it would have been this bit in the news, then that bit, then a year or so later and you look around and realize you’re living in a different world.  How much of the paranoid visions of cyberspace, of commerce transcending political borders, of information as military action that guys like Gibson and Doctorow and Stephenson and Barry are actually happening, right now?

Shit, I don’t know.  In the end, I’m not sure it really matters.  If America splits up into a series of corporate fiefdoms with only a nominal government, all the while its infrastructure is plagued by angry cyber-cowboys, how different is my life going to be?  I still have to eat.  I’m still learning to play the guitar.  If the internet disappears, I can always write on paper, with a pen; it’s not like I haven’t already got plenty.

I do wonder, sometimes, about the idea of privacy.  Obviously, no one wants their privacy invaded.  We guard it, for REASONS, plainly.  But the root of the idea that we’ve got constitutionally-protected privacy is that, should the government ever become unacceptably tyrannical, we’d need to be able to wage secret war on it.  That’s what privacy from a political standpoint is — whenever someone says, “The government is invading my privacy,” what they’re saying is, “The government is interfering with my ability to wage secret war against them if I need to.”  Because all other invasions of privacy are practically irrelevant (with the except of trade secrets, I guess, but those aren’t actually constitutionally protected).

I don’t LIKE the idea of being observed all the time by the government, because then they have more information about me than I do about them.  But obviously, if all of their observations on everyone were public — if everyone were being monitored all the time by EVERYONE…well, it’s creepy.  But is it practically that bad?  I don’t want people being able to watch me on the toilet, but that’s just because I grew up believing that toilet-related activities should be done in private.  If there had never been any privacy in the first place, what WOULD I be ashamed of letting people see?  If everyone were watched by everyone, what shameful thing might I be doing that there weren’t at least a million other people doing, also?

It makes me wonder if the value of privacy is basically just illusory, and we’re only worried about it because when we lose it, it’s lost asymmetrically — we lose privacy to the government when the government spies on us, or to a corporation when they monitor our internet habits in order to make advertisements that better circumvent our decision-making processes; but there’s never a corresponding loss of privacy on behalf of the spy.  The asymmetric loss of privacy creates an unacceptable power dynamic; but a catastrophic, symmetrical loss of privacy?

I’m not completely sure that would be so bad.

  1. Moff says:

    Nitpickily, I don’t think the right to privacy is enshrined in the Constitution? I’m pretty sure it was established by a (relatively recent—i.e., 20th-century) Supreme Court ruling. I could Google it, but anyway.

    Anyway, the concept of personal privacy is fairly new, I think—it started around the 15th or 16th century, maybe? (I believe Bill Bryson has a book out about it.) So obviously, human existence is tenable without it. The Western sociopolitical infrastructure we’re used to, on the other hand…

  2. Anna says:

    Wait, what? I’m confused at your jump from government censorship to personal privacy. Are you saying everything should be public?

    I think your argument is falling upon the thought that a government has the same rights as an individual. A government, just like a corporation, is not an entity. They should not have rights, and should not fall under the idea of personal privacy. The government exists to serve the will and needs of the people, in an idealistic world. It should not exist to serve itself. (As it does not, but.. le sigh.)

  3. Melissa says:

    About privacy: I always think of the brilliant lyrics to the song “The Age of Information” by Momus (a weird song by a weird guy, but the lyrics are really worth reading, and can be found here:

    In particular, I like the lines “In the age of information the only way to hide facts is with interpretations / there is no way to stop the free exchange of idle speculations” and “If you’re an interesting person / Morally good in your acts / You have nothing to fear from facts.”

    Just thought I’d share.

    ALSO, you didn’t write about this in regards to Wikileaks, but what I find kind of interesting about it that is not being discussed much is how, although, certainly, there are things revealed that make the gov’t look bad, but, mostly, if you read them, they make our diplomats look really good. You kinda think as you read them, “Hey, these folks are doing a good job! They’re doing their job professionally and trying to solve problems!”

  4. braak says:

    @Moff: there’s a host of legal precedents having to do with privacy, actually, but I’m specifically thinking of the Constitutional origins as the 4th amendment, which includes the rights of citizens to be secure in persons, papers, houses &c. against unreasonable searches. It’s not a constitutional right to privacy per se, but it does provide pretty strong grounds for legal precedent that makes it illegal to spy on the citizenry.

    @Anna: 1) What, I can’t talk about two things? One of them made me think of the other.

    2) The idea that the government has “rights” is misleading in the first place. The government has a monopoly on the use of force; it doesn’t need rights, it has power. People have “rights”, which are restrictions on the government’s ability to exercise that power. A corporation, in fact, IS a legal entity, and is endowed with particular rights (that is, abrogations regarding the government’s exercise of power), though not necessarily the same rights as citizens. The analogy falls apart there.

    3) I’m not talking about the government’s *right* to privacy, I’m talking about what amounts to the government’s *need* for privacy — that under particular conditions the government — while fulfilling the will of the people — must necessarily keep certain of its activities secret in order to fulfill that will. Of course, that was what I was talking about in the beginning.

    4) The transition comes from, if the government WERE necessarily functionally completely and easily transparent, then the abrogation of the citizen’s right to be secure against unreasonable searches might not necessarily matter.

    @Melissa: I like that Momus song “St. Sebastian.” But this does make me sort of re-think — or else, to think a little more about — that old “I don’t care if the government is spying on me, I’m not doing anything illegal.” The response to which is always “It’s the principle that matters,” but really, why do we have the principle? What’s it for?

    We’re moving towards a state of maximum information distribution, anyway; my speculations are less about, “should the world be like this?” and more about “what will the world be like when it is?”

  5. Melissa says:

    Really, Chris? Why on earth do you know the song “Lucky Like St. Sebastian”? That’s weird! The fact that *I* know Momus is weird.

  6. braak says:

    You have to understand the way that I know about songs: completely randomly, with no particular regard to style, form, content, author, era, or anything else. Basically the same way I collect every other piece of information that I have, which is as though I were a magpie.

    I must have heard it, or a friend of a friend of mine once played it for me, or something. Who knows? But it’s wedged right in there with “Thick as a Brick” and “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” and the Ugress cover of the Spider-Man theme song.

  7. braak says:

    Oh, weird. Because I wanted to hear it, I just blipped Lucky Like St. Sebastian, and damned if the third entry in the search isn’t Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring.

    Is my computer spying on me, somehow?

  8. Melissa says:

    Hahaha. Welcome to the age of information!

  9. braak says:

    I was creeped out at first; then I just listened to both songs, and now I feel better!

  10. Carl says:

    Hmm. As a hypothetical exercise, I suppose I can see your point. In reality, though, I think the loss of privacy is unlikely to ever truly be a two-way street between the individual and the government. Maybe I’m just too thoroughly steeped in Orwellian paranoia and the history of human beings organizing power to believe it can go any other way. Maybe digital information and the interwebs do really change the game. I’m doubtful. I think WikiLeaks is very good news as a momentary peak into what goes on in our name when we’re not looking, but think its value as a marker of sea-change on this matter is greatly overstated. I mean, yeah: obviously a symmetrical loss of privacy is preferable to a asymmetric one in which the government has the power, but it seems to me that both are inferior to the continuation of some fixed standard of protected privacy for the individual, for the very reason you mention up-front in your post: the government can do things that individuals cannot. If a Privacy War, analogous to the Space Race, followed your hypothetical catastrophe, over the long haul, only the government (and certain members of an extremely well-funded oligarchy) would have the means to keep ahead of changes in technology and find ways to *re-establish* those protective walls of privacy. Government can pressure Paypal and Visa to keep their secrets but you really can’t. The website where you buy your Christmas presents collects data, the credit card that you use to make the purchases collects data, the email that you use to track your credit card payments collects data, and the bank that you use through your email to pay the card off collects data. The bank even collects data even if all you’re doing is dealing in cash. You can’t pressure them to do shit. If you don’t like it, I guess you can step away from Western Civilization– hunt possum and live off the land, but you can’t leverage a damn thing. Better for all of us to insist that the law continue individual privacy protections.

  11. southwer says:

    privacy kind of is an illusion – one’s privacy (except for the privacy of our thoughts) is mostly based on the fact that no one cares enough to try to find out your secrets. people get all freaked out by internet privacy but all the electronic age has done has made it a bit easier to find out things. sorry this is so incoherent, I have eleven week old twins.

  12. braak says:

    @Carl: well, the law is nice, but the problem with law is that the government has to enforce them. Consequently, the only way to ensure that the government hasn’t been secretly spying on its citizens is if the government is uniformly transparent–but who’s going to enforce that?

    Maybe it’s just a kind of constant entropy that we can expect from complex systems (I’ve always found these thoughts about Tank Man and Tank Commander interesting and pertinent in that respect).

    On the other hand, as southwer suggests, there’s not much about our lives that’s really private anyway. This is ultimately the old Hacker/Security question: in the race for privacy, is encryption going to beat decryption? Obviously both of these are representative of relative rates of energy expenditure; but processing speed is constantly improving, which means if there’s a hard limit on either en- or decryption, one of these propositions is going to turn out to be meaningless.

  13. Carl says:

    Right, yes: much our perceived privacy is illusory. But there is a significant and none-too-easily dismissed portion of it that certainly isn’t, which rests upon our shared expectation for privacy (which is what is up for grabs here, if I am following). I’m in my apartment alone right now, blinds down, door locked, and I’m enjoying a degree of privacy that I am pretty sure I’d miss if our collective expectation of individual privacy went by the wayside. If there was a government installed 1984-styled camera in the wall near my laptop (you know, to ensure I wasn’t up to anything nefarious like overthrowing the government or, depending on the circumstances, loving the wrong person or writing the wrong things)– even if it was a two-way and I could see the fellow employed to keep an eye on me sitting at his desk at the other end– that seems patently less desirable than the degree of both actual and perceived privacy I currently enjoy. Governments are self-enforcing apparati, but they are not closed-systems immune to pressure and perception. And we’re not really talking about what we can ensure anyhow, we’re talking about what we should expect. What we can ensure will be done and what we should expect will be done are almost always two different things. Seems to me that there’s a huge difference (both in principle and practice) between having an expectation of some kind of mutually acknowledged right to individual privacy (that may or may not be respected by the government for a myriad of legitimate and illegitimate reasons) and having no expectation of that whatsoever. At the very least, the government has to tread far more lightly in the former scenario, and that seems like a good thing given that bureaucracies of all stripes– political, religious, academic, civil– tend to take miles when given inches. Its usually in the organizations interest but not always in the members’.

  14. braak says:

    I was talking about what we can ensure. I am talking about it in the context of what I expect, and what it’s reasonable to expect, but I basically don’t expect anything more than can be reasonably ensured. And, in fact, you’re sure that you would miss the privacy you have if our collective expectation of privacy disappeared–but is that really true? If our collective expectation of privacy disappeared, wouldn’t you not miss it by definition? You’d only miss it if the collective reality disappeared.

    And, anyway, I’m not actually talking about the government monitoring everybody constantly, and you being able to monitor them back through the camera or something. I’m talking about a system…and, let’s be clear, I’m not talking about an actual system that I’m posing as some kind of reasonable alternative to regular government…a system in which all information about everyone is instantly accessible to everyone else.

    The problem of asymmetry that you’re talking about is going to be largely obviated by the scale of the system; it’s only because information is restricted over certain channels that a government can effectively hide its secrets (and, in fact, as the government needs to expand to use more and more channels, it becomes less and less able to hide those secrets to any serious extent). The more extensive this system was, the more futile it would be to try and hide anything in it–sure, the government is, I don’t know, torturing prisoners in Iraq and trying to hide it; but consider that the more information we can expect to have not just about the government’s activities, but also of the activities of every single individual up and down the chain of command, the less likely it becomes that such an event could be concealed for any length of time.

  15. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Privacy matters because it’s a reminder that society is artifice–it’s work. Manners, social interaction, going to work to pay into a social system when you could just grow vegetables, hunt and eek out a basic survival–we make a daily effort and a series of little compromises, everyday, in order to co-exist and gain the existential benefits of working together. Strip away the social construction and you’re left with a creature that would only be concerned with individual, carnal satisfaction at the expense of the herd, likely hindering creativity. Creativity–something that can lead to an inclination towards adaptation–ups the chances an organism will survive, thrive and reproduce.

    This is not to say that every entity is deserving of privacy or able to justify the existence of it in context, like government. As you’ve mentioned, government is meant to exist in order to serve the needs of people, not of itself. Transparency in this case, exposes cogs to the many eyed gaze of The Public, where imperfections and breakdown can be quickly found and fixed. It is a machine designed by people, for people. Humans are machines, too, but we prefer to be more idealistic and believe we are the masters of ourselves, choosing to meet obligations to others, not requiring constant observation and criticism. We’re not cogs–officially, anyway.

    What you do in private, is probably what you’d always rather be doing, if you didn’t have obligations to society. The idea of privacy is an honoring of the higher brain over reptilian motivation. It’s about controlling our own, little worlds and having “decompression” moments, moments of virtual aloneness, on a planet with boundaries and limitations. It’s also about having enough self-control to allow others the same opportunity.

    It is all pretend (barring “privacy” blinds), it is a constructed interaction and social agreement and although it’s not required, it does keep our brains challenged and thinking, while also allowing for moments of relaxation and personal reflection. The idea is of being alone, on a world where it’s unlikely (and undesirable that) you ever would be. This is unlike a world where everyone shares the same motivations with no creative interaction or nuance beyond expression of base motivation–where people “go through the motions” and become units for production.

  16. braak says:

    There are a lot of jumps that you make here that I’m not sure I can get behind. Why is it that if privacy were demolished, then all actions would become personal as opposed to social? Why wouldn’t you just sometimes behave in a social way, and sometimes behave in a way that was personally interesting? Why does your personal action have to be secret? If there was no privacy, wouldn’t your need for personal satisfaction cause you to just stop caring whether or not people saw you doing it? To use the toilet example, for instance: if it was impossible to use the toilet without someone being able to see you, wouldn’t you just stop caring whether or not someone saw you on the toilet? Or would you just not use it anymore?

    When you talk about loss of privacy, are you implying that people will be around all the time? Because that’s not what I was talking about; I’m talking about just that everyone is always observable. You could still turn your phone off, for instance; you’d still have a house that you didn’t have to let people into. How would this interfere with creativity?

  17. V.I.P. Referee says:

    (I was “all over the place”. Typing in the wee hours of morn. And it shows.)

    It’s not that you would stop doing the things in public that you’d do in private, if the “curtain” were pulled, it’s just more likely that you’d question the necessity of everything else. What would be the point of it all? You’d always be distracted by the things that seem more interesting, like, naked people or the log of cookie dough in your freezer that you were planning to eat while watching re-runs of “Mary Tyler Moore”. Because naked people are probably more interesting than tax policy, even if tax policy needs to get done.

    I guess clothes can be pretty interesting, too, but I suspect not as interesting as naked people. We could become de-sensitized to sharing private things in public, but notice how stupid people have become over “reality televison” and celebrity culture, which is, essentially, mock voyeurism. I don’t know.

    Giving value to privacy is a kind of game. It stimulates our desire for communication and creates different arenas, where we expect to be stimulated in different ways. It makes things more complicated, but maybe we need that complication to stimulate creativity. Simplifying things and removing veils isn’t necessarily worse or better a scenario and I’m not religious about the value of privacy (I’m certainly against hiding behind it to justify oppression). It’s just something that stimulates us in a different way than full exposure does. That’s all.

    But I guess an argument can be made for the philosophical inspiration that can come from people being unified by nakedness. Are you just trying to justify a potential “nudie” option at “Superhero Gym”?

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