Is Secrecy Dead?

By Jerry Cates, et al. First published on 29 October 2016, this article was last expanded on 20 November 2016. © Govinthenews Vol. 7:10(5).

This article, which is in process, explores recent fluctuations in the worldwide concepts of governmental and personal privacy & secrecy. Records, observations, and reports on the perturbations involved have chronicled what, today, appears to herald a genuine, wide-ranging paradigm shift in the way we perceive those concepts. That shift is variously described as the “End of Secrecy” and the “Age of Transparency.”

As Ann Florini put it in her 1998 paper, secrecy and transparency are opposites; one means deliberately hiding one’s actions, the other means deliberately revealing them. Where secrecy comes to an end, conscious deception stops. Where transparency reigns, not only is openness championed, it is carried out with unbridled enthusiasm.

Though both terms are easily defined and widely used, one of them, specifically transparency, is often observed in both genuine and feigned forms. In 2009, shortly after being sworn in as President of the United States, Barack Obama published a memorandum mandating transparency in the operations of the U.S. Government. He has since claimed, while pointing to the existence of that memorandum, that his is the most transparent administration in American history. However, a mountain of evidence exists to suggest that the exact opposite is true.

The evidence contradicting Obama’s claims of transparency has surfaced on various fronts. The most damaging, however, came to light through the machinations of two symbiotic and highly effective counter-secrecy movements. One encourages and exploits deliberate leaks of government secrets by U.S. officials operating on the inside. The other feeds on cyber-theft exposures of U.S. government secrets by computer hacks operating on the outside.

Neither of these movements appears to be losing steam; indeed, both appear healthier today than ever before. This should not come as a shock, despite near-unanimity in earlier times by Americans that governmental secrecy is essential to protecting it and them. As Lebovic points out in his 2016 paper, secrecy has not long been a part of American government. Whenever it has blossomed in the past wise voices soon pointed out that it could as easily be used for evil as for good.

As long as most Americans believe that governmental secrecy is primarily beneficial, they support it, but when secrecy is shown to be harmful, they turn against it and champion its abolition. The author believes we are heading in that direction. Today many Americans are convinced that — in the main — leaks of government secrets that expose unlawful, extra-constitutional activities by individuals and agencies in the U.S. government help more than harm efforts to keep our ship of State aright.

So, it is not surprising to find that these movements seem today to be on accelerating trajectories. Yet, Florini opined in 1998 that “no matter how small or farseeing surveillance devices become, secrets will remain plentiful, protected by technological forces that can obscure as easily as they can unveil.”

Over the intervening 18 years, the world has seen one aspect of what Florini predicted take place in spades. Surveillance devices have indeed grown smaller and more farseeing. So have storage capacities for such devices. One result is a reduction in the time required to disseminate personal information worldwide. Another is an increase in the ability of those who wish to do so to search for, acquire, and catalog targeted critical personal, corporate, and governmental information.

We’ve recently witnessed, for example, the extraordinary way secrets in each of these categories, once thought locked in impenetrable vaults, and seemingly protected by some of the world’s most sophisticated technological forces, have become public knowledge, against the will of their creators and protectors. In light of this, it seems doubtful Florini would make so sweeping a statement, regarding the enduring security of secrets of any kind, today.

One could posit that Florini was speaking only of temporary security for secrets that are held for only a certain period of time. It seems safe to say that nothing can guarantee that any of today’s secrets will remain so forever. Yet, those creating and protecting temporary secrets still need to concern themselves with the fact that, once brought to light, history will deal with them one way or another.

How wise it is to mortgage that future fate is open to question. Though the same essential question has nagged leaders and officials throughout history, today the temporal distance between creation and exposure has shrunken dramatically. It is one thing to keep secrets secret for 50-75 years, quite another to anticipate an exposure horizon that extends forward only a few days, months, or years into the future.

Transparency by Default

Evidence is mounting that in many venues where secrecy has been the norm, openness is fast becoming commonplace, either deliberately or by default. Why this is so is not difficult to explain.

Information collection, dissemination, and access has exploded, worldwide. This explosion, a product of the Information Technology revolution, has the effect of so equalizing — at least on the level of access — all those with computers and Internet connections as to nullify most of the advantages that ordinary secrecy, and the now mostly passé concept of exclusivity, once provided.

In the past, governments, corporations, banks, institutions of higher learning, and a host of other organizations have had what amounted to a monopoly on certain kinds of information. They either provided access to that information on a restricted or quid pro quo basis, or for a fee. Today each of those entities is finding it more and more difficult to maintain its particular information monopoly. It can be argued that the day is not far off when such monopolies will be dissolved completely, perhaps forever.

Case in Point: Empowering the Autodidact

The Information Technology revolution has empowered the autodidact as never before in history. Everyone has a wealth of information, freely available, at their fingertips. Such individuals, particularly those endowed with an extra portion of initiative, drive, and determination, are now able to learn and apply — all by themselves — the vagaries of a wide range of arcane fields of scientific learning. Not long ago, those vagaries (i.e., secrets) were previously reserved only for matriculated students occupying the hallowed classrooms and labs of such storied institutions as Harvard, Stanford, Yale, or Oxford.

Autodidacts, i.e., people who are able to educate themselves in the arts and sciences without need of a teacher, abound. They have always constituted a significant portion of the human race, but until recently they’ve been given short shrift by an education industry that dispenses learning piecemeal and for a price. Today the price of learning is encapsulated in an astounding array of electronic storage, networking, and display devices that constantly grow cheaper and more powerful by the moment.

Emancipated Minds…

The emancipation of the mind is taking off in a movement that cannot be stifled. Ignorance is no longer an excuse so long as search engines are able to bring us answers to every question we ask.

This explains why bright young men and women, not only from the upper crust of society but from poverty-ridden urban neighborhoods and isolated, rural farms and villages throughout the world, today are able to teach themselves how to think and do things of earthshaking importance.

A result of this is what may be called the globalizing effect of the information explosion. Out of this arisen a kind of ‘transnational’ or ‘global’ civil society. Much has been written and theorized about the impact such societies have on world governance (see Davies, 2008), especially in light of the rise of international non-governmental organizations seeking to exploit them. Many see the latter as politicized subversions of the information explosion, subversions that generally wane for want of organized support. By comparison, the real, supportable, and more likely sustainable movement involved here is, at its core, an apolitical amalgam of individuals operating alone or in a loose collaborative arrangement.

Those associated with that collaborative arrangement not only soak up and apply knowledge from the broad fields of science and engineering, but from the narrower field of information technology itself. And it is here that the death of secrecy has produced particularly astounding results.

Information Discovery and Transmission

Today the tentacles of information transmission and discovery — tentacles that grow longer, stronger, and more sophisticated by the hour — are becoming more and more effective at ferreting out information of every stripe and color, anywhere, at any time, and from anywhere, at any time. In the process, those tentacles are managing to expose even the most tip-top of secrets — secrets closely held by governments, corporations, banks, brokerage firms, you name it — to public scrutiny.

The new world these two facts herald defies ordinary comprehension. Never before have we faced such a conundrum. The consequences are earth-shaking today, and will be even more earth-shattering in the future. Major changes in the way humanity and the organs through which we interface are taking place at this very moment, and even greater changes are on the horizon.

Most of us are poorly prepared to deal with those changes in a logical, rational way. Yet, by now we should at least have an inkling of how we will do so. Both the demise of secrecy and the ascendency of transparency have been predicted by a number of authoritative analysts for several decades.

It is clearly time to pull our heads out of the sand.

The History of Secrecy and Its Future in the Here & Now…

Secrecy is a time-honored concept with roots as deep as civilized humanity itself. To Sun Tzu, recognized as one of the greatest military tacticians of all time, secrecy was the linchpin of successful warfare:

“O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible, and hence we can hold the enemy’s fate in our hands.” Sun Tzu (544-496 BCE), The Art of War

More recently, Max Weber, writing in the early part of the last century, called secrecy a ubiquitous facet of modern bureaucracy:

“Every bureaucracy strives to increase the superiority of its position by keeping its knowledge and intentions secret. Bureaucratic administration always seeks to evade the light of the public as best it can, because in so doing it shields its knowledge and conduct from criticism… The pure interest of a bureaucracy in power, however, stretches far beyond those areas where purely professional interests might justify the demand for secrecy. The concept of the “official secret” is the specific invention of bureaucracy, and nothing is so fanatically defended by the bureaucracy as this attitude, which cannot really be justified beyond these specifically qualified areas. In facing a legislature, the bureaucracy, motivated by a pure lust for power, will battle every attempt of the legislature to gain information by means of its own experts or from interest groups. The so-called power of legislative oversight is but one means by which a legislature can seek such information. But bureaucracy inherently welcomes a poorly informed and hence a powerless legislature—at least in so far as ignorance somehow coincides with a bureaucracy’s own interests.” Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, ch ix, pt 2, pp. 730-31 (1918) (S.H. transl.)

What do secrecy’s loss — assuming secrecy is truly dying — and transparency’s gain — assuming transparency is, even if only by default, becoming a genuine reality — portend for today’s societies, governments, corporations, and all other forms of human intercourse? Perhaps most important, can or should it be stopped?

The tension between secrecy and transparency was on glaring display on 28 October, 2016. Only 10 days before America would finish casting votes for a new U.S. President, FBI Director James Comey announced that the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails and her private email server would be reopened. Later it was revealed that over 10,000 previously undiscovered emails related to that investigation had been found on Clinton Advisor Houma Abedin’s laptop computer, a device she shared with her husband, Anthony Weiner, who was being investigated for sexting with an underage woman. Those emails are widely suspected to contain revelations concerning what Hillary Clinton knew or did not know about a number of disputed events that took place during and after her tenure as U.S. Secretary of State.

Though Clinton and her staff took extraordinary steps to keep all her private and official communications out of the public eye, cybertracks were uncovered by investigators, enabling them to ferret out and recover many of the communications she thought had been irretrievably destroyed. Worse (or better yet, depending on your point of view), hackers from various sources — who invaded her server and the email accounts of some of her key staff members — managed to copy the emails they found there. These copies they provided to WikiLeaks, an organization run by Julian Assange that he operates for the express purpose of exposing government secrets of unusual importance.

Assange is a voice for transparency. To transparency geeks that makes him a hero. To those whose secrets he exposes, he is a criminal.

Ironically, many of the emails exposed by WikiLeaks originated with or were sent to John Podesta. Podesta, Bill Clinton’s past Chief of Staff, is the Chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Among many other things, his exposed emails reveal candid feelings about the Clintons and others, feelings he prefers to keep hidden. His emails also expose how he and others, in and out of government, took steps to conceal what appear to be criminal activities. Yet 12 years ago Podesta and Judd Legum co-authored a paper entitled “The Secret History of Secrecy,” in which Podesta and Legum argue forcefully against governmental secrecy.

That argument made excellent sense until Podesta’s own governmental secrets were exposed, secrets that show how invested Podesta and the Clintons were and are in keeping secrets and deceiving others.

The Big Question…

Cyber security firms, and the cyber security experts they employ, are in great demand today. Yet even those working in the field of cyber security admit they are losing the war. The odds seem to favor transparency over security in the future, with little or no defense available to counter the acts of those who truly want to steal your, my, and our secrets.

Assuming that secrecy is dead, and transparency is not just alive, but an inescapable reality, how should rational humans react? That is the question of the moment. We don’t expect to provide a fully definitive answer here, but we will try to point in the right direction.

To do so we will enlist the assistance of some of the best and brightest minds in the Information Technology world. Fortunately, that isn’t hard to do, as many of those in possession of such minds are willing to collaborate on this article, and others have already written excellent papers on just this topic. We will soon be publishing reviews of those papers, along with our comments on them.

Stay tuned…


  1. Curtin, Diedre. 2011. Keeping Government Secrecy Safe: Beyond Whack-A-Mole. European University Institute, Florence.
  2. Davies, Thomas. 2008. The Rise and Fall of Transnational Civil Society: The Evolution of International Non-Governmental Organizations since 1839. City University, London.
  3. Florini, Ann. 1998. The End of Secrecy. Foreign Policy 111, pp. 50-63
  4. Horton, Scott. 2009. Weber—‘Official Secrets’ and Bureaucratic Warfare. Harper’s Magazine.
  5. Jarvis, Jeff. 2013. Welcome to the End of Secrecy. The Guardian.
  6. Kasper, Beth. 2001. The End of Secrecy? Military Competitiveness in the Age of Transparency. Occasional Paper No. 23; Center for Strategy and Technology, Air War College, Air University, Maxwell AFB.
  7. Lebovic, Sam. 2016. The Surprisingly Short History of American Secrecy. American Historical Association.
  8. MacMillan, Margaret. 2011. A Short History of Secrecy. Foreign Policy.
  9. Obama, Barack. 2009. Transparency and Open Government. The White House.
  10. Podesta, John, and Judd Legum. 2004. The Secret History of Secrecy. Salon.
  11. Sifry, Micah. 2011. In the Age of WikiLeaks, the End of Secrecy?
    For a healthy democracy, transparency is the best medicine. The Nation.
  12. Simmel, Georg. 1906. The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 11, Issue 4, pp. 441-498.
  13. Vermeir, Koen, and Dániel Margócsy. 2012. States of secrecy: an introduction. British Society for the History of Science.

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