Is Secrecy Impossible With The Internet?

Sat, 7 Jan 2017

Occasionally, entire print runs of publications, often thousands of copies, are recalled from bookstores before the public can get their hands on them. Sometimes the publishers do the recall after an eleventh hour threat of legal action by a party citing potential injury from alleged libelous or illegal content. Occasionally a government agency prevents publication, claiming some breach of secrecy or espionage laws. A famous example of this was the case in England in the 1980's of the book Spycatcher by former MI5 secret service officer Peter Wright.

The book contained many embarrassing revelations about Wright's time as a secret agent. It led to the book and reviews of it being banned in England. Ironically, it was sold freely in Scotland because Scotland has a separate legal system and is not subject to English law. It was also legally available in many other countries including the United States, Canada, and Australia. Anyone who wanted to get a copy, even in England, was able to do so without too much difficulty. While the book's revelations were embarrassing to the British government, the fiasco surrounding the futile attempts to gag it were even more so. The public was less interested in the book's content than in the government's panic response to it. The legal attempts to ban it created huge publicity and helped the book sell millions of copies worldwide. Today this is called the Streisand Effect.

The ultimate failure to prevent the contents of Spycatcher from becoming public highlights the global and slippery nature of information. Once it exists in any form, it's like the water in a rusty tank: some will eventually leak.

Today, because of the Internet, keeping information secret is nearly impossible. Publications by WikiLeaks of confidential documents makes front pages worldwide but this furor diverts attention from two very important things. The first is that the Internet has fundamentally changed the paradigm in which information exists. The second is that governments and other organizations around the world were caught off-guard, yet only have themselves to blame. Anyone with minor technical knowledge of the Internet would have known for years that whistleblower sites were inevitable and unstoppable, and that WikiLeaks is just the tip of the iceberg. Attempting to stop them by intimidating those involved or sabotaging their fundraising is like trying to stop an overflowing dam with a few buckets.

There was an empty seat at the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony because the winner was unable to collect his award. Liu Xiaobo is serving an eleven year sentence in a Chinese jail for publishing a single document that his government didn't like.

Organizations, state or private, need to accept that any of their communications could become public at any time. The more compromising those communications are, the more likely it is to happen.

Whistleblowers do democracy a service by exposing the illegal activities of large corporations, state agencies and other organizations. It's hardly good for democracy that some group covertly employ foul means to achieve their ends. Up until disclosures from Wikileaks and Snowden, the public was mostly unaware of the less savory measures used; now and in the future, we'll know most of the murky details. Some might prefer not to know, but it's too late: The horse has bolted.