Last week was an exciting one for government transparency advocates. Monday a memo outlining some of the legal justification and limits to the US government’s power to assassinate American citizens was leaked. The next day the United States Federal Reserve admitted it had been hacked by hacktivist group Anonymous. The hack made public the names, email addresses and passwords of more than 4,000 U.S. bankers.
These are just the latest shots fired in the ongoing war between advocates of government transparency and the various government agencies, including those dealing with banking and national security, that want to keep information out of the hands of citizens.
But I think it’s a war the secret-keepers are destined to lose. Transparency versus secrecy boils down to an arms race, each side trying to trip up and out-innovate the other, and the government has several distinct disadvantages.
Whistle blowers present the first and most persistent challenge to government secrecy. From the targeted killings memo to the tipster who left a DVD of photographs from Abu Ghraib on an officer’s bed, there will always be people who are willing to risk their reputation, employment or even their freedom to act according to their consciences.
The second major challenge to secrecy is the government’s own basic incompetence. Take the case of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. Even after the military knew that the Red Cross was aware of the beatings, humiliation and shootings, it took three months and a whistleblower giving a military investigator photos to launch an investigation.
This incompetence at secret-keeping is also on constant display when it comes to politicians’ personal lives. Anthony Weiner’s undoing was the rookie mistake of Tweeting a photo of his penis instead of DMing (direct messaging) it.
Hackers continually prove themselves cleverer than bureaucrats. The US government had been working with HBGary Federal, a U.S. security firm that promised to help identify hacktivists. That is until CEO Aaron Barr made the mistake of promising to reveal the names of some of Anonymous’s leaders to the Financial Times. So they hacked his company’s computer system, accessed over 70,000 emails, and made them publicly searchable. Barr resigned after reputation-tarnishing details about some of his company’s unsavory tactics came to light.
The third challenge is that open-government advocates consider themselves to be on a moral crusade. And if there’s ever a formidable foe, it’s a true believer. Members of Anonymous described their attack as part of what they’re calling Operation Last Resort. The activists timed their attack to coincide with the deadline the House Oversight Committee gave the US Attorney General Eric Holder to answer questions about the prosecution of the late Aaron Swartz. The brilliant developer and open-internet advocate committed suicide while facing up to 35 years in prison for making academic journals publicly available. The stated purpose of Operation Last Resort is to reform the kinds of computer crime laws that can land open-internet advocates in prison for decades.
Even though the government is continually losing the war against transparency, that doesn’t mean they’re not fighting. Unfortunately, they’re using some heavy-handed tactics, to say the least. The unreasonably zealous prosecution of Aaron Swartz is unfortunately just one example of government using the threat of incarceration to silence information-sharing activists. U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, the Wikileaks source, said that he has been subject to abuse, including nudity, isolation and sleep deprivation during his incarceration – “mistreatment” that has provoked criticism even from within the government. “What is being done to Bradley Manning is ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid on the part of the Department of Defense,” said P.J. Crowley, assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, before resigning over the remark.
Twitter is subpoenaed constantly to reveal identifying information about Tweeters the government suspects of being associated with Wikileaks, violating their Fourth Amendment protections.
Despite all these attempts at suppression, there will come a day when transparency won’t be optional anymore. There are too many conscience-stricken whistleblowers, too many adept, motivated hackers and too many incompetent, bungling bureaucrats for government secrecy to continue indefinitely. It’s unfortunate that individuals acting according to their consciences do a better job at respecting Fourth Amendment protections than the government officials who have sworn to uphold the Constitution.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire