Transparency, secrecy, and privacy

Views about when transparency is appropriate vs. inappropriate and necessary vs. optional diverge greatly in the U.S. and elsewhere. Many people seem to fail to distinguish between secrecy and privacy. I think this has to do with a habit of making little or no distinction between the collective and the individual. In the U.S. context, I’m tempted to blame this largely on the invention of “corporate personhood,” a concept that seems to have entered the legal realm in the late 19th century in cases such as San Mateo County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1882), Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886), and Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad Co. v. Beckwith (1889).

I’ll sketch a few thoughts on transparency, secrecy, and privacy here, and perhaps someone can correct me on any points of misapprehension that I may have.

First, I think that secrecy entails an intent to deceive to gain an undeserved benefit or to avoid a deserved injury. That is, it is an exertion of power over the rights and liberties of others. Privacy involves keeping harmless personal acts out of public view for any number of reasons that don’t involve injurious deception or selfish ambition.

Second, secrecy and transparency both carry advantages and disadvantages in interpersonal and intergroup relations.

Secrecy has the short-term advantage of allowing those who use it to gain leverage through deception. The disadvantage is that it provokes and perpetually increases distrust and enmity from those who lose leverage.

Transparency has the short-term disadvantage of making those who use it vulnerable to manipulation and fraud at the hands of the secretive. Transparency has the long-term advantage of fostering trust and cooperation.

Secrecy’s strength develops quickly but is brittle. When secretive groups form, they typically end up exploiting non-members. But secretive groups are inevitably destroyed by their secrecy. Lies have to be covered by other lies, and deception transforms eventually from a useful tool into a crippling web of contradictions and tensions that cannot be undone through any means other than destruction.

It should be obvious that this has nothing in common with privacy, and there is no reason to think that private individuals are destroyed by their privacy.

I don’t want to know more about you than is appropriate for the nature of our relationship and the level of trust developed between us through interaction. If you and I are strangers or are only acquainted remotely, then I only need to know about those actions of yours that affect me. It is your right to decide whether to inform me of any of your other actions. I have no right to demand knowledge of the things you do that have no effect on me, and vice versa.

But if I start hiding from you my activities that do affect you, perhaps without your perceiving the effects for a period, than I lose my right to expect privacy in that area, and you have a right to monitor my actions in that area.

The fundamental principle is that I have power over no one’s rights and liberties, and no one over mine.

But it should also be clear that a person only has privacy in regard to his or her actions as an individual. A person acting in a capacity as agent or representative of an organization has no right to privacy. Everyone’s actions on behalf of institutions are monitored by those institutions. But as I said, legal fictions aside, institutions are not persons and have no right to privacy. By definition, the acts of institutions affect more than one person and thus must be either transparent or secretive; they cannot be private.

I’ll close with three quotes. First, Daniel Webster:

“This era is distinguished by free representative governments, by entire religious liberty, by improved systems of national intercourse, by a newly awakened and unconquerable spirit of free inquiry, and by a diffusion of knowledge through the community. [We are] inseparably connected, fast bound up, in fortune and by fate, with these great interests. If they fall, we fall with them; if they stand, it will be because we have maintained them. Let us contemplate, then, this connection, which binds the prosperity of others to our own; and let us manfully discharge all the duties which it imposes.”

Second, Jeremy Bentham:

“Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of a regular government.”

Finally, Abraham Lincoln:

“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

2 responses to “Transparency, secrecy, and privacy

  1. Hi Jeremy, your paragraph that starts as follows “I don’t want to know more about you than is appropriate for the nature of our relationship…” Mirrors my thoughts on the issue. I’ve been thinking long and reading about the issue of secrecy. The particular area of application/thought about this for me currently is personal/love relationships. I understand that the right to privary is held as important in many countries. But this right to privacy can be used by spouses/partners to keep harmful secrets from one partner such as your partner secretly having an affair or unprotected sex with a third party and then continuing to having unprotected with the partner thereby infecting the partner with a chronic virus such as HIV if contracted from the third party. It is reasonable to expect that the innocent would have taken precautionary measures to prevent themselves from being infected had they known that the partner has been having sexual relations with another party. This to me seems really unfair. My question then is: If a partner uses certain means such as technology or private investigator to monitor the activities of their partner with the purpose of preventing the above scenario, would that be illegal in the US?

    • Hi, Bheki. I would say that the scenario you presented is not an issue of privacy but one of secrecy. Sexual infidelity in an intimate relationship is unacceptable and indefensible. A partner in such a relationship absolutely has a right to know about the sexual activities of the other partner. However, I don’t think that other people have any right to demand disclosure about those activities. For example, if my friend Roger cheats on his wife Linda, I would say that Linda has every right to know about it, but I don’t have the same right to know about it. If Roger wants to tell me about it (for example, to ask for advice), that’s fine. But if he doesn’t want to tell me about it, that’s also fine. I can’t demand to know about it because the nature of my relationship with Roger is not sexual, so I have no basis to demand information about his sex life. If Roger hides his affair from his wife, it is a case of exercising secrecy; if he hides the affair from me, it is merely a case of exercising privacy. That is what I mean by the nature of a relationship (between individuals or groups) determining the quantity and quality of information that should be exchanged or available.

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