Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thoughts on Secrecy and Self-Appointed Guardians

Wikileaks and its strangely wraith-like front man, Julian Assange, may be many things, good and bad, but it can be said of them, at least, that they and what they represent should be the objects of serious thought.

Secrecy in government or business, or perhaps in anything, is not prima facie admirable.  Most of us would consider it "good" to be open and honest at almost all times.  The truly good person (it's no doubt been said by someone, sometime) wouldn't fear exposure of any act on their part (there are few, if any, truly good persons, however).  When we are being secretive we are necessarily hiding something from someone, or if not actively doing so we are failing to disclose something.  This seems dishonest in some sense, and the question why we are being secretive naturally arises, and should be addressed.

For me if for nobody else, self-appointed guardians of humanity are not prima facie admirable, either.  Those who consider themselves our saviors, or watch dogs and protectors necessarily believe themselves to be, in some sense, better than the rest of us, or that the rest of us are in some fashion deficient where they are not.  That is why we need saviors, watch dogs and protectors, of course.  They consider themselves nobler or at least more intelligent than those poor souls they are destined to enlighten.  And, of course, they think that there is something or someone from which we must be protected.  They are consumed by the need to find out evil in order to protect us from its horrible consequences.

Regardless, both secrecy and self-appointed guardians can be useful in certain cases.  Only an absolutist would deny this, and the absolutists among us are most be be feared.  Whether they're useful will depend on the circumstances, just as most other things will.  That's not to say that all things are relative (a very annoying phrase employed far too often by people who don't seem to know what it means) but it is to say that consequences are significant, and circumstances effect consequences.

We don't seem to have any evidence indicating as of this time that some discernible, significant harm has directly resulted from the disclosures made by Wikileaks.  As far as I'm aware, it hasn't been maintained that anyone has died or been injured in some fashion as a result of the huge data dumps which have been made, and all that's been admitted to is embarrassment, something which can be becoming in a government official.  We are being exposed to more of the shrill hysterics which seem to typify certain actors on the national and world stage, but this will pass, and they will find something else regarding which they may strike whatever attitudes and adopt whatever postures they deem appropriate.

As far as I know, however, there is no evidence indicating that any significant benefit has resulted, either.  Perhaps I'm too cynical, and I certainly haven't read all that's been disclosed and never will, but I have at least heard of nothing which I find very surprising, let alone shocking.   I find it difficult to believe anyone else would be surprised or shocked by what has been disclosed.

Absent any harm, is there anything for which Wikileaks should be blamed?  Absent any benefit, is there anything for which it should be praised?

If laws have been broken, that's a serious concern, especially given the fact that there seems thus far at least to be no good reason for breaking them (that's where benefit might come in).  Even more concerning to me is the fact that there is no control over our self-appointed guardian in this case or what it may think appropriate to obtain by any means from anyone and hurl at the world at large.  Uncontrolled power in the hands of any person (including government officials) who thinks they are better or know better than anyone else is frightening.

We all have done, said or written things which we regret.  Should these be subject to disclosure in any circumstances?  One would hope not, unless there was good reason to do so.  Who should determine whether that reason exists?  What sources of information should be subject to raiding for purposes of disclosure?  Should Wikileaks or some other zealous protector of the race have the freedom to obtain whatever information from whatever source it desires and disclose what it feels should be disclosed?

I would say not.  We lawyers speak of "fishing expeditions" where efforts are made without a reasonable basis to obtain information in the hope that something damning will appear.  Zealous protectors thrive on fishing expeditions.

Where wrongdoing is exposed as a result of this kind of effort, it makes no sense to claim it shouldn't have been disclosed.  But governments can do to each of us much the same sort of thing Wikileaks is doing to them.  Neither governments nor Wikileaks or any other person or organization should have the unlimited discretion to do so.

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