Count One for the Techno-Optimists

Today’s front-page story on the New York Times is about the Chinese hacking attempts on the United States.  In a pretty awesome exhibition of the power of free inquiry and technology against secretive governments, they not only name the relevant government unit responsible but actually pinpoint the single building generating the attacks.  Let’s take a moment to think about that – the most powerful authoritarian government in the world is running an absolute top-secret cyberespionage unit with a mandate to wreak havoc on opposing governments and their corporations.  Real skunkworks stuff.  And a private American firm is not only to figure out that these attacks are coming from China, they’re able to actually give the street address of one of the most sensitive strategic military assets of the government.

I’d also compare this to the international visibility into the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran – surprisingly high given the circumstances of each.  Or Google Maps labeling the prison camps of North Korea.   Or the fact that when the government commits an atrocity in Syria, it is known more or less instantly across the world.  It stretches credibility to believe that the United States government could hide something like the Manhattan Project today.  You’d only need one careless soldier to Instagram himself – “U ever heard of Los Alamos?  Nothing but sand, physicists, and green chile burgers LOL” – for the whole thing to come tumbling apart.  The slow death of government security which we see happening all around us certainly validates the techno-utopian belief that technology would kill secrets.

Transparency in government is touted as a virtue by Democrats and Republicans alike, but I think that the battle over Wikileaks and Bradley Manning shows how governments will actually react to the death of secrecy.  Secrecy has long been a prerogative of power, and the powerful react poorly to losing their power.  I believe that over the next years and decades we will see all governments more and more forcefully act to protect their own secrecy in exact proportion to the increasing ridiculousness of the notion of “official secret”.  When it finally becomes too glaringly obvious that there’s nothing left to defend, perhaps that will change but it’s hard to imagine how.  “Transparent government” sounds nice, but an ability to keep secrets is one of the core pre-requisites of policymaking (especially foreign policy) in a modern state.  It’s unclear how diplomacy in any way could function without effective information security.  It will be interesting to see what happens to it, and probably more chaotic than the real techno-optimists like to think.

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