Secrecy is the mother of vice.
I believe that is a quote from Roman times, but I have been unable to find the original author. I believe it to be utterly true. As a TCK and as a serial ex-pat, I have seen and observed secrecy in its myriad forms in many countries all over the world, and have come to believe, in the core of my being, that secrecy is overall an extremely bad thing. Particularly when it comes to governments and large corporations.
Having been in the military, I do not dispute for an instant the requirements for operational secrecy. I feel that that is a different matter.
What I am talking about in this article is the systemic secrecy that seems to pervade governments and large businesses all over the world. Now, of course, the people that maintain the secrecy like to dress it up by saying that it is in the interests of ”national security” or “proprietary business information”. These are blatant manipulations and utterly ridiculous a large proportion of the time.
I am completely convinced, especially in the wake of the 9/ 11 attack, that governments have seized upon “national security” as an excellent excuse to be able to hide almost any of their actions.
There are, admittedly, a few reasons for governments to exist. To look after people who truly are unable to look out for themselves, provide some sort of framework for a military and emergency services, and a system for meting out justice to people who break the rules in egregious ways (rape, child abuse, kidnapping, human trafficking, blackmail, domestic violence etc.).
What I have seen instead, in many countries all over the world, is that government looks upon itself as its own reason for existence. And secrecy helps that. If they had transparency, then they would have to explain what they were doing and be accountable for it. In some of the Asian countries where I currently spend a lot of time, secrecy is endemic. And for a very simple reason. It is because they don’t want anybody to know what they are really doing. They want the power (and the money). They certainly don’t want to be accountable. Transparency is anathema to their modus operandi. If they ended up having to be transparent about what they did, they would crucify themselves. How can graft and corruption run rampant if you have transparency? Furthermore, in two of the countries in Asia I am thinking about, they have enacted laws that allow any party being questioned, in anyway harshly, to “legally” charge the person doing the questioning with libel or slander. Can you imagine what effect that has on questioning authority? Wow! Great way to protect your own cesspit.
Yes, secrecy is bad.
I would also point out, that secrecy is different than privacy. Everybody (as a private individual) does in fact have a right to privacy. I will note that governments are trying to do away with that right under the guise of “national security” by requiring that technology companies provide backdoors to secure messaging facilities. It is incredibly moronic it is that governments want to do this. The political class is so ignorant about anything except politics, deals, corruption, serving their own ends, etc., that they have no tool box to work with the very real issues that trouble today’s world. They don’t understand science, they certainly don’t understand IT technology or encryption, and they seem to have a feeble understanding of the world as whole. As such, they really don’t have any right speaking out on these matters at all. And the next paragraph expands on why I believe this.
When governments and corporations make a lot of noise about secrecy, they are making a totally fallacious assumption [as indeed do all the media]. I.e. they are positing that they themselves are actually trustworthy. And of course, they are not trustworthy in any way, to be brutally frank. I don’t think that they can be trusted to make judgements about anything important, nor are they competent about keeping things safe.
I should note however, that governments, and people of the political class who actively serve in government should NOT have that same right of privacy, at least not in anything that pertains to the office they hold. And, they should, when serving, understand that they need to abrogate some personal privacy so that there can never be any question that their personal lives are affecting their public service.
When I decided to write this article, I did some research on the Internet about secrecy. I did run across a couple of transcripts on debates about the subject. And I must say that both the pro and the con representatives made very good points. However, it was apparent that the persons who were pro secrecy for governments, having served in government themselves, again made the same baseless assumption. That is, that governments can or should be trusted. And unfortunately, I believe that not to be the case. In any country, quite frankly.
I do believe that there are some countries that can be trusted to a certain extent more than others, for example, some of the Scandinavian countries, but they are in a definite minority. I would like to say that you can trust governments like Singapore and Hong Kong, but even there I believe that that their right to be trusted is marginal at best. Hong Kong because it is essentially being guided by the Chinese government these days. I don’t think I need to say anything more about that, do I? And Singapore, in my opinion, is not so much a government as an extremely large corporation that is owned by the Yew dynasty and their cronies. Not to say that Singapore is a bad place to be. It isn’t. I love it. But it is one of those places that I would much rather visit than live in permanently. They like to control their country. And secrecy is a prime way of doing this. They do in fact try to push the idea of being a transparent government, but they are susceptible to the same weaknesses that all other governments have. In the end, they are basically looking out for the interests of the people at the top of government. As such, they have a tendency to stamp on transparency whenever it is not to their advantage.
And, after years of creating a culture of being secret, secrecy becomes the default behavior. Even when it isn’t needed. They are so fucking scared of their secrets, they can no longer determine what should legitimately be a secret, and what should be transparent. So when in doubt, hide it. And cover it in the veil of “national security”.
And yes, I know that I seem to be for the most part striking out at government on this issue. However, every point I have made, applies equally well to large corporations. I do understand that in some cases, there are operational issues within a company that, from an aspect of proprietary processes, do need to be kept secret. The Coke formula, for example. That makes perfect sense.
But on other issues, as a consumer, it is often difficult to understand why companies simply will not respond to me when I ask a question. I have dealt with several large corporations across Asia over the last 10 or 15 years. Two airlines, a couple of Asian multi-nationals, and several large telecommunications companies. I agree that this is anecdotal evidence. But in time after time of dealing with these companies, trying to get answers for why something is being done, it is utterly clear to me that all of these corporations I am thinking about, have a company culture and policy which, either written or unwritten, states that, “you do not tell anybody outside the company anything whatsoever about why we, the company do something … or don’t do something”.
My rebuttal to these companies is that if you really want your customers to trust you, be transparent with them. I can say that as a consumer of products at several levels, both as an individual buying a phone from Samsung, or a dealing with large firms selling say, for example, air conditioners for a large hotel, I am far more willing to forgive and be reasonable with my vendor when they are honest and transparent about what their problems are with me. But overwhelmingly, these corporations do nothing more except try to block consumers from having any real information whatsoever about why they are doing something. And unfortunately, when somebody tries to do that to me, my immediate assumption is they are trying to hide something that is bad. And rarely am I wrong.
When one is discussing secrecy, one must also discuss censorship. These two concepts are inextricably intertwined. I believe that once you start being secretive, the concept of censorship will follow close on its heels. Without going into onerous detail, censorship is controlling information flow. I feel it is slightly different than secrecy. I guess I would view it this way; secrecy is outright hiding information, and if possible, not even allowing it to be known that there is information being hidden. Censorship is selective editing of what information is available or allowed to be available.
Without too much elaboration, look at China. And I very much fear that the Western world is headed that same way. I think governments, who are, after all, full of people of the political class, are absolutely terrified by the Internet and what it means. The political class as a whole has a tendency to be fairly ignorant of technology and how it works. But they know about communication. On the one hand, I think they love social media (look at Trump) because it gives them a wonderful way to issue one way soundbites to millions of people at the same time without really having to deal with replies. On the other hand, they are shit scared of not being able to control what the population thinks. Again, look at China. They are trying to keep the lid on over a billion people. And one of their prime methods is absolute iron control over information, not to mention propaganda up the wazoo. Need I say more?
The very fact that governments and their ilk want to be secretive highlights the hypocrisy of their position. They want us to trust them that they know best and are looking out for us. But in return, their position is that they do not trust us at all.
So, what can we do as individuals? To be honest … I don’t know. Fight the secrecy every time you run across it? Demand transparency? I do these things but I feel like a voice crying alone in the wilderness. But, it is the only thing I can think of to do. And I will keep doing it. Maybe if enough people keep screaming about it, in the long run, there may be some improvement.
I really would appreciate some feedback on this article. Or some comments.
I will close this article with two other quotes on secrecy that I find to be absolutely SPOT ON.
“A culture of secrecy is like the bad stench created by cat pee—it is very difficult to get rid of.”
― Pierre de Vos
“Secrecy is the keystone to all tyranny. Not force, but secrecy and censorship. When any government, or church, for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, "This you may not read, this you must not know.", the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man who has been hoodwinked in this fashion; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, whose mind is free. No, not the rack nor the atomic bomb, not anything. You can't conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.”
― Robert A. Heinlein