Saturday, August 10, 2013

Privacy, Transparency, Espionage, and Secrecy: The Assange, Manning, and Snowden Incidents / Second Interlude / Liberalism and Transparency

I have already discussed the importance of transparency in providing for what we might call public oversight in a civilization in which polity and society have evolved into separate spheres, but another word must be said on the subject, specifically with regards to liberal political-economics.

Frontispiece to Hobbes' Leviathan /
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
First, a word on liberalism.  Liberalism is a natural outcropping of realist thought, an ideological preference for favoring information derived from sensory observation, a philosophical disposition to believe in moral relativism (the more important the end, the more means become ethically justifiable), and an insistence that the ethical value of outcomes is more important to calculations than means (it isn't how you play the game, it is whether you win or lose - at least if the game is existential). In the Western tradition realism first emerged with the work of Thucydides and Aristotle and remained a critical intellectual current through most of the classical period, falling out of favor during the Medieval era but reemerging with greater vigor than ever before in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, especially thanks to the work Machiavelli and Hobbes and the emergence of modern science. Essential to this second wave of realism is the emergence of methodological individualism, that is to say an insistence that human individuals be understood as the "real" atomistic element of human societies, economies, and polities.  All human groupings are artificial and instrumental, at least to some degree, rather than natural and deterministic.

John Locke / Wikimedia Commons
Liberalism emerges from realism when political thinkers begin to critique realism as oversimplifying human intentions, human nature, and the ability of humans to reconstruct their environment using laws and institutions.  It does so in a number of ways, but a few stand out.  First, while liberalism retains individualism it redoubles it - individualism is not merely a starting point to be taken into account when constructing polities, but also metric to be used to determine whether or not the polity is making ethical choices. Secondly, while liberalism shares realism's abounding fear of anarchy it equally reviles tyranny, therefore it insists on bounding state action by establishing certain individual freedoms as "rights" (though liberals differ on whether these are inalienable or socially constructed) and by insisting the polity be institutionally designed to make it responsive to the wills, not merely the needs, of society.  Finally, and most relevantly here, liberals believe that institutions can be designed which, instead of crushing competition, as many classical realists insist on as part of their effort to avoid the perils of anarchy, instead channel the energies of competition into productive, socially beneficial processes - institutions, therefore, don't just make human society possible, for liberals, but improve the fundamental nature of human beings (at least if they are properly constructed).

[It should be noted that the typical American use of "liberal" and "conservative" is really a misnomer - liberal, as we use it, typically refers to progressive liberals, while conservative refers to conservative liberals, the key difference being that progressive liberals insist that political institutions may be used to correct immoral, inefficient, or ineconomic characteristics of society and economy while conservative liberals distrust political engineering of society and economy and prefer political institutions to reflect the naturally evolving qualities of thereof, what we might call "tradition."]

In order to achieve this liberals insist on the adoption of institutions of competition-within-rules - what we might call bounded competition.  Socially this includes freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of association, and freedom of conscience.  Economically this generally means some form of capitalism - free competition of consumers, free competition of employers, and free competition of markets.  Politically, of course, this refers to variant forms of democracy, usually today democratic-republicanism of either the presidential or parliamentary forms

Competition with rules.  Liberal politics are the politics of a game - a point which makes it hardly surprising that the liberal world is obsessed with sports and games to a degree that no other civilization has approached.  In every sphere liberal polities, economies, and societies allow individuals to make many, many discrete decisions that then affect political, economic, and social outcomes - we vote, we buy, we listen.

But not all decisions by individuals are considered to be of equal quality - liberals do not ignore the Greek and Roman warnings (nor those of the Renaissance and Enlightenment) to fear the mob, the emotional, uninformed, masses.  Rather, liberals insist that rational individuals, to make good choices, need simply good information - a proper education and good information about the relevant factors, issues, and metrics involved in the decision they are about to make.

Professors rarely form mobs (though when they do, woo-boy, look out).

Thus the need for transparency.  If we are to make good decisions we need good information, accurate and timely (years or decades after the fact information becomes mere trivia).  If we want to evaluate decisions of our state and decide, based upon the proper criteria (not do they play the saxophone or would they be a pleasure to fish with) we need the proper data - data on performance, data on the real disposition of domestic and global events.  Otherwise we will respond to bad data with bad decisions.  This, argues liberal theory, is an essential truth, and trust in the state, while necessary, becomes unhealthy if it stretches to such a degree that it obviates oversight of the state.

Put simply, you can have capitalism and democratic-republicanism without transparency but neither will work in its absence.

And this, friends, presents a problem.

To be continued in Part IV / Defining Secrecy and Conceptualizing Associated Problems

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Privacy, Transparency, Espionage, and Secrecy: Assange, Manning, and Snowden Incidents / First Interlude

So far I have scribbled out three brief essays and, as such, we have some working definitions of the private sphere and the public sphere and their characteristics - I just want to pause and sum up, making sure that everything is clear. 


The separation of public and private is not a necessary characteristic of human social life - rather, it is an artifact, an institution developed through legal, political, and philosophical struggle and debate. 

Implication: It is possible, however unlikely, that pressures could emerge, internally, externally, or in some combination, that could degrade this institutional artifice. Given the level of development of contemporary communication and transportation technologies the outcome of this would most likely be totalitarianism.


The rationale that underlies this system is simple: (1) what is held by an individual actor, or a group of actors, who lack the power of compulsion, is both private and entitled, insofar as practical, to privacy; (2) what is held in common by all of society and managed by the polity, which has a monopoly on the use of compulsion (to be used to secure the life, liberty, and property of private actors through rule-making, rule-execution, and rule-adjudication), is public and to be managed, insofar as practical, according to a principle of transparency.  The goal is of course to maximize factional competition while minimizing the negative effects thereof and allowing collective management of commons that otherwise could not be secured.  Overstep cannot be tolerated all benefits will disappear.

Implication: The weakness is that the practical limits are vague and inevitably subjective and dynamic, meaning that the greatest point of instability to the preservation of this system is reflexively linked - the present threat of societal conflict undermining the system must be undermined through the use, as we will see, of domestic espionage, though the capability to engage in domestic espionage, plus the real necessity of non-transparency in some areas means that, as we will see, the polity presents a genuine threat of undermining the system as well.   Put simply, too much transparency and not enough oversight by the polity may result in anarchy, civil violence of a Hobbesian chord.  Too little transparency and too much oversight and the polity becomes tyrannical, threatening authoritarianism or even totalitarianism.  


General Implication: In a civilization, like ours, that depends upon both a robust and competitive civil society and an open, free, popular government the key political institutions that preserve the system also present its greatest internal threat.  

I call this the seed of destruction - and it means we have a few more essays to go.  If you're interested in speculating where I'm going with this consider reading about the Doctrine of the Mean (Greek or Chinese, no matter) and of course check out The Federalist Papers.  Otherwise, sit back, relax, and let's go deeper into the rabbit hole. 

To be continued in Second Interlude / Liberalism

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Privacy, Transparency, Espionage, and Secrecy: Assange, Manning, and Snowden Incidents / Part III / Defining Transparency and Conceptualizing Associated Problems

In defining privacy it was necessary to accept a structural artifice - the division of human existence into two spatially and temporally parallel spheres - one private and one public or, alternatively, society and polity. Similarly, it is necessary to adhere to this dialectic if we are to understand the nature of transparency.

The term "public" can best be understood, for these purposes, as deriving from the Latin populus, literally the people, or poplicus, literally pertaining to the people - both of which are probably related to the term pubes, meaning "adult" (and the root of our term pubic hair - just saying).  In other words, we can understand objects and subjects that are public as being commonly held things - indeed, res publica, root of our word republic, is often translated into commonwealth though it just as easily could translated as public thing - which is what commonwealth means, of course - a commonly held property.  

Thus, whatever is held commonly, with the intent of serving the common good (or at least the general will - which is not necessarily the same thing) may be understood as falling into our conception of the public sphere.  Now, here is where a little specification is necessary - in modern nation-states everything that is public is part of or administered by the state.  

Hold up a second.  This isn't something to be taken for granted.  States are generally understood today as the exclusive sovereign institutions in human society - they of course weren't always so (and frankly, despite the myth of the state, still aren't), but rather where one of an assortment of institutions that had demonstrated varying degrees or characteristics along a spectrum of more-like-a-state or less-like-a-state.  So what constitutes the whole sovereignty package? First and most importantly is the right to use compulsion to achieve political, economic, or social goals - in modern states, where the state claims the exclusive right to legitimately use force for internal adjudicative purposes and external (and sometimes internal) national security purposes this is referred to as the monopoly of force.  

Secondly, states manage "commons," that is to say commonly held property to be used and maintained by the public for the public good or in support of the general will.  Some of these are easily defined - parks, forests, museums, schools, roads, ports, and so on - while other are far more complicated to define - air, water, mineral wealth, electromagnetic bandwidth, and the like - but nonetheless these articles of the commonwealth are, in modern states, clearly under the purview of the state.  Of course there is wild variation in terms as to what is and should be defined as the commonwealth depending upon ideology and culture, but the principle remains fairly universal nonetheless.  

So, really, what is public can be defined as public falls into two different but mutually interactive categories - the state does things, on the one hand, and these things are dependent on mechanisms of compulsion - literally the ability to deprive individuals or groups, in part or in whole, of their life, liberty and/or property - even when they are enforcing voluntary agreements made between actors within society.  On the other hand, states are the trustees of the public wealth - not just the treasury but every single commonly held idea, concept, object, institution, and structure.  As such the state is both a conservator and an administrator.  

This is the crux! The state is a referee; the state is a trustee; the state is a manager; but the state and the persons employed by that state - no matter how fancy their title or ornate their garments - is not an owner not if there is a private sphere.  The concept of dominion, with its implication of subjugation of a people and a territory by a sovereign doesn't make a lick of sense if society exists as a private sphere, if the people are entitled to liberty in the sense of absence of oversight from the polity in any sense!  Privacy is self-ownership, publicity is common-ownership, but neither is state-ownership!

Interlude for the Politically Minded: Why Rousseau?

Now, it should be noted, I have used here a conception of the state/society relationship that is derived from Rousseau's in his Social Contract - one which I find a in some ways an improvement on Hobbes' work in Leviathan and a substantial improvement on Locke's in The Second Treatise.  

The Good Mr. Rousseau (and hat) /
Courtesy ClipArt Etc.
This is not to say that Locke and Hobbes might not be better for modeling different types of states at different moments and in different places in human history.  Rather it is to say that in the contemporary political universe few, if any, states legitimate their existence in terms of the people trade X to a sovereign in exchange for the sovereign providing Y.  Modern constitutions are the product of the political will of the people, filtered though it may be through elected mechanisms (or pseudo-democratic mechanisms in illiberal states), deciding to generate a constitution at such a moment that they determine to, in such a form that they determine to, and further, while they may have complicated mechanisms for doing so, they reserve the right to change their constitution upon the emergence of a substantial change in the general will of the people - there is no need for tyranny to justify revolution, only a change in norms or beliefs, and indeed, there is no need for revolution, only the ballot box.  One may dare to imagine that Rousseau has achieved his goals through the emergence of a Burkean mechanism of expression - but then, that may be stretching things to far.  
But I don't think so.

Defining Transparency 

So far I have spent substantial time on the concept of public and its contemporary co-identification with polity.  But this has only been foundation building - now comes the question of the moment - what is transparency? 

First, Merriam-Webster's definitions of transparent, the adjective which transparency is derived from: 
having the property of transmitting light without appreciable scattering so that bodies lying beyond are seen clearly; pellucid; allowing the passage of a specified form of radiation (as X-rays or ultraviolet light); fine or sheer enough to be seen through; diaphanous; free from pretense or deceit; frank; easily detected or seen through; obvious; readily understood; characterized by visibility or accessibility of information especially concerning business practices
Then we have the definition provided by the anti-corruption nongovernmental organization (NGO) Transparency International
Transparency is about shedding light on rules, plans, processes and actions. It is knowing why, how, what, and how much. Transparency ensures that public officials, civil servants, managers, board members and businessmen act visibly and understandably, and report on their activities. And it means that the general public can hold them to account. It is the surest way of guarding against corruption, and helps increase trust in the people and institutions on which our futures depend.
As a principle, public officials, civil servants, managers and directors of companies and organisations and board trustees have a duty to act visibly, predictably and understandably to promote participation and accountability.
Simply making information available is not sufficient to achieve transparency. Large amounts of raw information in the public domain may breed opacity rather than transparency.
Information should be managed and published so that it is:
Relevant and accessible: Information should be presented in plain and readily comprehensible language and formats appropriate for different stakeholders. It should retain the detail and disaggregation necessary for analysis, evaluation and participation. Information should be made available in ways appropriate to different audiences.
Timely and accurate: Information should be made available in sufficient time to permit analysis, evaluation and engagement by relevant stakeholders. This means that information needs to be provided while planning as well as during and after the implementation of policies and programmes. Information should be managed so that it is up-to-date, accurate, and complete.
transparency comprises not only the disclosure of government information, but also the access, comprehension, and use of this information by the public. Transparency, as such, requires a public that can acquire, understand, and use the information that it receives from the federal government. This concept of transparency, however, is not the only possible designation of the term.
Well, there is a lot to work with here, but as far as I can see there is one clear point for departure - transparency, in a political sense, is a comparatively new term borrowed, as so many concepts in political science and philosophy have been, from our peers in the hard sciences.  There transparency refers to a phenotypical characteristic of an object of study, literally meaning that a material has the characteristic of allowing light to move through it comparatively unimpeded.  This allows for internal characteristics of the object of study to be observed and cataloged without having to be dismantled - clearly a useful trait for the scholar - or for the applied technician tasked with maintaining something - or someone.  Indeed, it is so useful that we actively have pursued technologies that render non-transparent objects functionally transparent, allowing us to avoid more violent methods of inspection, sometimes using non-visible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that aren't blocked by the matter in question, as in the case of X-rays, and sometimes using other techniques, such as sound vibrations in the instance of sonograms.  

Lenses / Courtesy ClipArt Etc. 
In terms of contemporary politics the term is used almost identically, if perhaps metaphorically.  Human beings have, as stated above, generated polities which are both alienated from society and exist purely as instruments for society.  The act of creating a polity through institutions, be they laws or the bodies of human beings empowered to enforce, generate, and adjudicate those laws, is one of engineering.  States are dynamic machines intended to achieve particular outcomes conceptualized by the general will and/or for the common good.  Yet the assumption is that states will never perfectly fulfill this obligation or, leastwise, will be unable to do so ad infinitum.  New interstate and intrastate environmental challenges emerge; new values begin to influence the general will; mistakes in rational analysis and policy generation, administration, and adjudication will occur; immoral and incapable officers of the state will receive office; inefficiencies, inconsistencies, contradictions, loopholes, on and on - in any dynamic instrument the expectation is not that failure might occur but that it will inevitably occur and that, should small failures accumulate then, over time, they might lead to a catastrophic failure.  

This is why we check our oil, why we kick our tires, why have our car inspected - hell, why we wash our windshields - so that we see trouble coming before it becomes catastrophic.  

The Necessity and Limits of Transparency

This is political transparency - it is the condition of being able to observe the functioning, or malfunctioning, of one's state through comparatively simple, regular, and efficient methods so that corruption may be stomped out, factional in-fighting quelled, unnecessary inefficiencies and ineconomies removed, overreaches cut off at the arm, miscarriages of justice righted, and tyrannies prevented.   

Indeed, if we are to claim that the state is the instrument of managing the republic, the commonwealth, the public good, and we are further to claim that our state is a democratic-republic, one in which the people, not merely the officers, by all rights must have a role to play in that management, even if it is limited by practicalities of knowledge and time, then transparency is an expectation both necessary and proper.  How can a public good be managed without the knowledge of the public as to its workings?  

The answer is simple - it cannot, no more than any trustor can be assured that his or her trustee is managing their holdings well and properly if that trustee reveals none of their transactions or holdings or, equally, if they falsify those transactions and holdings.  

And yet, as always seems to be the case, transparency also has its limits, governed not by Platonist ideals but by practical realities.  That which is most crucial mirrors that key limit on privacy already mentioned, generic but true - the need to limit transparency in order to prevent or attenuate existential crisis.  Certain knowledge must be kept secret because, at least in theory, its revelation would empower the potential sources of the existential crisis, be they internal or external.  Imperfect and vague though this may remain at this stage, still a reasonable conceptualization of transparency is now practical:

1. Transparency that is perfect is ideal, however by its very nature allows for the empowerment of threats to individuals, society, and polity (some of which enshrine the elimination of transparency);
2. The elimination of transparency in order to eliminate these threats constitutes a cost disproportionate to the benefits under almost all circumstances;
3. The maintenance of transparency in the face of existential threats, however, also constitutes an unacceptable cost;
4. Therefore the standard should follow the doctrine of the mean: privacy should be held inviolate insofar as it does not allow for the empowerment of existential threats.

We are left with almost exactly the same virtues and failings as previously with privacy, but a framework, at least, is now emerging. 

To be continued in the First Interlude

Monday, August 5, 2013

Privacy, Transparency, Espionage, and Secrecy: Assange, Manning, and Snowden Incidents / Part II / Defining Privacy and Conceptualizing Associated Problems

The Good Justice Louis Brandeis /
Courtesy of Wikipedia

Let's begin at the beginning and the beginning should almost always been, when studying something, its definition - I'll give a few definitions of privacy, at the outset, for comparison.

First, Merriam-Webster's definitions:
the quality or state of being apart from company or observation seclusion; freedom from unauthorized intrusion [one's right to privacy]; archaically, a place of seclusion; secrecy; or a private matter or secret. 
Second, Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics has a brief article by Michael McFarland, a former president of the College of the Holy Cross and a computer scientist with a liberal arts backgrounds on the subject.  Indulge me, if you would, with a length excerpt of President McFarland's piece:
Privacy has many meanings. The most general is freedom from interference or intrusion, the right "to be let alone," a formulation cited by Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren in their groundbreaking 1890 paper on privacy. This recognizes that each person has a sphere of existence and activity that properly belongs to that individual alone, where he or she should be free of constraint, coercion, and even uninvited observation. As we would say today, each of us needs our own "space." Most would recognize the protected sphere to include personal opinions, personal communications, and how one behaves behind closed doors, at least as long as these do not lead to any significant threats to society. Many would also include behavior within the family and other intimate relationships in that sphere.
This broad concept of privacy has been given a more precise definition in the law. Since the Warren-Brandeis article, according to William Prosser, American common law has recognized four types of actions for which one can be sued in civil court for invasion of privacy.
They are, to quote Prosser:
Intrusion upon the plaintiff's seclusion or solitude, or into his private affairs.
Public disclosure of embarrassing private facts about the plaintiff.
Publicity which places the plaintiff in a false light in the public eye.
Appropriation, for the defendant's advantage, of the plaintiff's name or likeness. 
The first category is the broadest and the hardest to interpret. "Intrusion" can mean physical presence, excessive telephone calls, and unauthorized observation, such as peering through windows of someone's home. It also covers cases where an authority forces someone to reveal personal information against that person's will, such as a court's unjustified demand that someone produce a broad array of personal records or an unnecessary requirement that someone take a blood test. 
Another problem is defining what constitutes "private affairs." It is not an invasion of privacy, according to the courts at least, to follow someone on the street or to take a person's photograph in a public place. It would be, however, to do so unbidden in their home or a hospital room. This category of privacy applies only to that part of a person's affairs that are not public and which the person does not wish to make public.
While the first of Prosser's categories can include attempts to influence, control or coerce someone's private affairs, most of the cases covered by this category and all of those covered by the other three involve the collection and/or use of personal information about someone. That is the core meaning of privacy. While some use the term more broadly to refer to any kind of uninvited interference with someone's personal life, privacy in the strict sense means shielding one's personal life from unwanted scrutiny.
Next, I'd like to share the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse's definition:
Your personal information is more than your name, address and Social Security number. It includes your shopping habits, driving record, medical diagnoses, work history, credit score and much more.
The right to privacy refers to having control over this personal information. It is the ability to limit who has this information, how this information is kept and what can be done with it.
Unfortunately, personal privacy is lost, unknowingly forfeited, purchased or stolen every day.  In some instances, we individuals can control how our personal information is used.
Finally, I'm including the Cornell Law's Legal Information Institute's definition:
Distinct from the right of publicity protected by state common or statutory law, a broader right of privacy has been inferred in the Constitution. Although not explicitly stated in the text of the Constitution, in 1890 then to be Justice Louis Brandeis extolled 'a right to be left alone.' This right has developed into a liberty of personal autonomy protected by the 14th amendment. The 1st, 4th, and 5th Amendments also provide some protection of privacy, although in all cases the right is narrowly defined. The Constitutional right of privacy has developed alongside a statutory right of privacy which limits access to personal information. The Federal Trade Commission overwhelmingly enforces this statutory right of privacy, and the rise of privacy policies and privacy statements are evidence of its work. In all of its forms, however, the right of privacy must be balanced against the state's compelling interests. Such compelling interests include the promotion of public morality, protection of the individual's psychological health, and improving the quality of life. 
These are all fantastic definitions, but I want to try to integrate them a bit, maybe shake the sieve for some clarity.
Defining Privacy Practically

Most minimally, and exclusively practically speaking, privacy refers to a condition in which a person, or a group of people, act in accordance with their own will.  Literally the implication is that there are two spheres - the public, being the sphere regulated by the polity and organized according to principles of collective good, general will, and/or coercion. Literally, then, privacy is the expectation that polity and society cohabit but remain distinct - indeed, in the absence of this conceptualization of privacy there can be no conception of civil society.

This practical definition is then sometimes expanded along one or the other, or both, of two dimensions.

The first such practical expansion regards the condition in which and individual or a private group's actions are anonymous or nontransparent - the degree to which private actors may not only act without compulsion from the polity but, further, the degree to which private actors may do so without knowledge of the polity (or even, in some instances, general society). Privacy in this regard is not merely the right to act as one wills, but to act as one wills without oversight.

The second practical expansion is equally dramatic, though in a different manner.  It presumes the existence of property, that is ownership of objects external to an actor by said actor.  Taking for granted that property is a nearly universal human institution (though used and defined in a tremendous number of ways, depending on the society), privacy may also be understood as maintaining that the disposition of property in a state of anonymity or nontransparency to the polity and/or general society.  This may, or may not, include concepts-as-objects, such as communications, ideas, formulas, and so forth, as well as the physical debris of matter formerly part of human actors' bodies (e.g. hair, blood, seminal fluids, DNA, and so on).

The Necessity and Limits of Privacy 

What I have done above is merely to define privacy as a condition and fair enough it might be.  But doing so only leads to another more trying question - do we have a right to privacy and if so, what are its specific limits, bounds, and implications.

This is a tough one - first, it should be said, we can really understand rights in one of two ways - either rights are "endowed" by nature or the divine and are inalienable, that is to say inseparable from our persons, a priori, and absolute in their definitions and distribution or they are socially constructed, the result of conscious human politics and unconsciously developed human culture defining, according to law or tradition, expectations about the relationship between polity and society, one the one hand, and members of society on the other.

 If you abide by the first of these understandings of rights you either believe in rights or you don't and no amount of logic can (or at least should, if you're intellectually consistent) change your mind.  How you came by your understanding of such a conceptualization in the absence of personal revelation is or indoctrination (one of which is, again, intellectually necessary) I can't say, but so it is. On the other hand, if rights are socially constructed then privacy may be understood as one of many concessions that individuals and private groups have gradually and jealously acquired from polities as part of the emergence of a private economy, political individualism, state secularism, and so forth.

Either way, of course, if one is to make the statement that privacy is a right should really be, if one is accurate, individuals and/or groups may expect liberty of action and individuals and/or groups may expect that their actions will not be observed and/or recorded and individuals and/or groups may expect that their property will not be observed and/or recorded.

The right to privacy, then, is conceptualized in the Western world as an expectation of self-restraint on the part of the polity and/or society in general.  Put simply, the right of privacy is really the right to be alienated - alienated from the state and from all or some of society.

If this is generally accepted in the United States, Britain, and most of the modern, liberal world, why the heck would it be a matter of such fierce contention?  Well, the answer is simple.

Rights are statements of ideal conditions - ideally we would be wholly private individuals insofar as we wanted to be, living freely as individually or socially as we respectively desired.  The problem is the real world doesn't allow such a thing.  We live in a world not only of environmental threats, of which there are countless numbers (it is a big universe and we are but mites of dust), but furthermore there are anthropogenic threats, some intrastate, some interstate.  Humans are self-interested and sometimes our interests overlap in mutually non-beneficial, or even harmful, ways and sometimes we are even cruel, evil, willfully dominating and injuring one-another for the sake of it.  As such even the most libertine or anarchist of philosophers concedes that there must be correctional mechanisms - in their eyes ideally ad hoc as compared to the institutionalized forms we use in real polities and societies, but correctional nonetheless, engaging in coercion to prevent some wills from being done.
The Good Mr. Madison / Courtesy ClipArt Etc

This presents its own problem - how are we to know what private actions will or would constitute an adequate threat to the collective good to warrant coercion of liberty?  This is a serious practical question and to be frank there is no simple answer  I am reminded of the good Mr. Madison (as I so often am) when he, in The Federalist Papers (#10, to be precise) attempted to deal with the threats of factions within society to society as a whole (and to any justly established polity for such a society.  Mr. Madison points out that in dealing with the threats of factional actors, and we might just as well project the same rationale to individual actors, there are two means of dealing with the potential for threat that they present.  On the one hand we may try to eliminate the causes of the threats while on the other we may attempt to deal with effects thereof.  Madison, and most of the founders, decried the former as worse than the solution, for it required, in essence, an end to what we have here defined as privacy.  Thus the superiority of democratic-republics, and liberalism in general, to authoritarian and illiberal regimes.

Privacy connotes conflict. Thus either we must eliminate privacy or we must resolve the conflict.  Resolving that eliminating privacy, as a cost, is unacceptable for many reasons, we are left with making the state into a private conflict resolution mechanism. Yet such a mechanism, by its very nature, is ill-disposed to eliminating certain types of conflict - particularly radical, pro-totalitarian, antipolitical, or antisocial conflict.

The only reasonable conceptualization then is something like this:

1. Privacy that is perfect is ideal, however by its very nature allows for the emergence of threats to individuals, society, and polity (some of which enshrine the elimination of privacy);
2. The elimination of privacy in order to eliminate these threats constitutes a cost disproportionate to the benefits under almost all circumstances;
3. The maintenance of privacy in the face of existential threats, however, also constitutes an unacceptable cost;
4. Therefore the standard should follow the doctrine of the mean: privacy should be held inviolate insofar as it does not allow for the emergence of existential threats.

Simple enough - all the world's problems are solved, right?

Except for two huge, gigantic, looming problems - who gets to determine what constitutes an existential threat and whose privacy, and to what degree, is it acceptable to violate in the effort to oppose those threats?

To be continued in Part III / Defining Transparency and Conceptualizing Associated Problems

Friday, August 2, 2013

Privacy, Transparency, Espionage, and Secrecy: Assange, Manning, and Snowden Incidents / Part I / Framing the Problem


We live in an unprecedented time. This is the first and, arguably, most important thing to remember when we begin discussing the the politics of privacy, transparency, classification, human movement, and censorship-for-security.  We, as a nation, as a civilization, and as a species have never been where we are today.


Anatomically modern humans first show up in East Africa around 200,000 BCE.  

Egyptian Agriculture / Courtesy ClipArt ETC
The Neolithic Revolution, which saw the adoption of semi-sedentary and sedentary agriculture, as well as the first fully artificial, defensible, permanent towns, and systems of long-term storage began somewhere around 12,000 BCE. 

Around 10,000 BCE the first bovines were domesticated for virtually all of the same purposes they are used for as today, including draft work. At about the same time the first known temple complex (though given its complexity I am hesitant to say the first) was built at Göbekli Tepe in modern Turkey, near the Syrian border. 

The earliest cities, properly, such as Jericho, Byblos, and Damascus, emerged around 9,000 BCE which is also about the same time that the first oar-driven boats were probably used. 

Around 8,000 BCE in Mesopotamia early civilizations began using tokens to keep records of property and transactions; these tokens were inscribed with symbols that ultimately became the basis of early numbers and scripts. 

While the origins of the wheel, that simple tool which allows human beings to move large objects, or large collections of small objects far faster, further, and safer than without, remain clouded in prehistory evidence exists that wheels were in use in eastern Europe by 4,200 BCE.

The earliest domestication of horses, allowing much longer and faster communication that previously, probably didn't occur till around 3,700 years ago (give or take), though at first probably only as food and pack animals.  Horses became far more useful for rapid transportation and communication upon the development of the chariot, though this probably only occurred around 2000 BCE

The earliest true writing, probably used for keeping records of property and taxes, emerged around 3,300 BCE, probably simultaneously in multiple places and forms (e.g. hieroglyphic scripts in Egypt and proto-alphabetic scripts in Iran). Among the uses of these recording scripts were the first censuses, allowing careful notations of populations under state control, their value to the polity, and their location.  

The earliest known sailing ships, that is to say ships driven by the wind, probably were Egyptian around 3,200 BCE.

The earliest known domestication of camels, allowing for trans-desert trade on a large-scale for the first time, occurred somewhere between 4,000 and 3,000 BCE on the Arabian peninsula.  At approximately the same time dogs (which had probably been domesticated for food, hunting, and security as far back as 35,000 BCE) were probably first used to pull sleds and sledges in northeastern Asia. 

While humans, like most large animals, have used worn paths for transportation since time immemorial the first paved, improved roads we know about emerged around 2,600 BCE, again in Egypt. 

Gutenberg's Press / Courtesy ClipArt, ETC.
In 11th CE century the first movable type printing presses were invented in Song China, improved about two centuries later in Goryeo Korea by making the type metal, and then reaching the West about 1450 with Gutenberg's invention of the screw press. This was critical because, eventually, it allowed for the first true mass communication in human history, encouraging mass literacy at a scale inconceivable beforehand, particularly once the wars of religion and the protestant reformation led to the linkage nationalism, mass literacy, and faith. In the early Enlightenment this technology would begin to achieve its full potential with the emergence of mass-produced newspapers and mass education, a mechanism not only for creating more competitive, effective work forces but also populations that share similar historical perspectives and political-economic values, emerged - particularly once that mass education was made public and achieved the status of political right.

Approximately 1200 CE the first rockets were developed in Song China, originally used for spectacles but soon adapted for military purposes.

Montgolfier's Ballooon / Courtesy ClipArt ETC
In 1784 the first untethered hot air balloons capable of carrying human beings were constructed and used in Annonay, France.

The first railways emerged long before steam, some as early as the 6th Century BCE, becoming increasingly used in Europe throughout the late Medieval and early Modern periods, but they became particularly useful with the emergence of steam engines in the 18th Century and the patenting of the first affordable and durable locomotives in 1811 in the United Kingdom. Not coincidentally the first practical steam ships emerged at about the same time, making river and oceanic travel infinitely more reliable and, ultimately, faster.  

Semaphore telegraphy emerged in Western Europe in the late 18th Century but was quickly replaced by the first modern form of telecommunications - electric telegraphy - beginning the mid-19th Century.  The importance of the telegraph should never be underestimated - suddenly near instantaneous communication was possible over vast distances, assuming the infrastructure was in place - consider that the first trans-oceanic lines were already in place by the late 1860s, though in the 1890s wireless telegraphy had emerged, by and large removing the need for transmission lines.

In 1849 the first successful heavier-than-air fixed wing craft was launched, soon to be followed, in 1852, by the first true airship was launched after a hot air balloon was equipped with a steam engine, allowing for movement against the wind.  These, and all early types of powered flight, including all non-jet or non-rocket-powered flight today, depended upon propeller-drives, essentially an adaptation of naval screws to move through the fluid of atmosphere.    

The earliest telephony systems emerged in the mid to late 19th century with the first awarded patent going to Alexander Graham Bell in 1876. This technology becomes critical as it rapidly expands because it allows non-technicians to communicate rapidly and easily over long distances at comparatively low prices - the telegram was imperiled almost immediately, though the comparative costs of infrastructure and the development of wireless telegraph technology delayed its demise.  In the mid-20th Century telephony became largely digital, removing much of the cost (associated with switchboards and their personnel). 

The first modern automobiles, critical because they were locomotive but did not require tracks, emerged in the 1880s, but they became practical for mass consumption only in the early 20th Century.  

The Wright Biplane / Courtesy ClipArt ETC
In 1903 the Wright Brothers achieved the first powered, fixed-wing aircraft flight in the United States using a wing-warping method of steering.  The first and second world wars of the first half of the twentieth century led to rapid advances in the capabilities of fixed-wing craft, most notably in terms of both steering systems and propulsion.  The most important of these was the development of turbojet, generally shortened to jet, propulsion which allowed for radical increases in maneuverability, acceleration, velocity, and altitude.

While rotorcraft, such as helicopters, had been employed as toys for centuries, particularly in Japan, the first practical application of the principle was not until 1906 in France, though the first sustained flights weren't developed until the 1920s.

Rockets had been used for military purposes for centuries, but in 1926 the first liquid-fueled rocket was launched in the United States.  This, coupled with the emergence of the Second World War, led to enormous interstate investment in rockets, again, generally for military applications, leading in 1943 to deployment by Germany of the first practical rockets, the V-2.  Notably these were guided rockets fundamentally transforming the nature of politics.  During and following the war rocketry was applied to a variety of different delivery ends (surface to air; surface to surface; air to air; air to surface; surface to space; and air to space), allowing for the first supersonic flights to occur. The second half of the 20th century would see the achievement of an enormous range of landmarks - the first artificial satellites, the first animals and humans in space, the first unmanned and manned trips around and to the Moon, and the first unmanned probes to other worlds - notably Venus and Mars, as well as non-landing probes to the outer planets.  The most important of these is the emergence of satellites which allowed for global and instantaneous communications, telemetry, meteorology, and photographic intelligence gathering.

In the mid-1960s, in response to both emergent technologies and the fear that weapons of mass destruction might lead to the collapse of traditional command geographies the United States began research into networked digital computers. This built on earlier, packet-based research done in the civilian world, but radically improved it (demand followed by dollars, one supposes!). Educators and scientists rapidly retasked the networked computer system notion, and following steady standardization the networked communication system generically called the "internet" emerged, radically expanding in terms of quality, quantity, and applications through the 1990s and early 21st Century.


Consider this as well - human beings have had political systems since well into prehistory - we are, as Aristotle quipped, political animals.  As time as progressed those systems have become both more well-defined and jealous.  By well-defined I mean that increasingly, over time, states have ever more clearly delineated their rights, boundaries, members, laws, and institutions.  By jealous I mean they have ever more clearly asserted their right to be the exclusive arbiters of dispute, the holders of what political philosophers and scientists refer to as "monopoly of violence" (violence being, of course, any sort of coercion in terms of life, liberty, and/or property).  These developments have only been possible due to the development of the technologies of mass communication and transportation, the so-called conquest of space and time, that are detailed above.

Yet at the same time the self-same technologies have empowered human individuals to an unequivocal degree.  The average human being has access to vastly more information and behavioral opportunity over time, particularly since the end of the Second World War.  This means the ability of individuals not overtly associated with a polity, particularly if they are gifted researchers, thinkers, artists, strategists, and so forth, to affect other human beings (and the polities they are members of) has increased at exactly the same time that state power has increased.  The old battle of orthodoxy versus counter-orthodoxy, which is so healthy, honestly, has reached a new tenor and scale and, with the emergence of social media and sometimes nuanced, sometimes radically distinct, philosophies of knowledge, ethics, and power amplified things even further.

Humanity is, in other words, at a crux.  Our species, in its current form, has been around for 200,000 years.  We have lived in polities recognizably similar to our own for around 12,000 years - about 5% of that.  We have lived in polities that were modern, meaning they began to have well-defined notions of nationalism, border rigidity, sovereignty, and the monopoly of power, around 500 years ago, if one is being liberal with those terms (counting from the Italian renaissance) or 400 years ago if one is being somewhat parsimonious (beginning with the Peace of Westphalia) - about 1/4 of a percent of our modern species' existence.  Practical motorized transportation and electronic communication only emerged between 200 and 150 years ago - about 1/10th of a percent of our total existence, and what we might call rapid, global, instantaneous communication and (relatively) near instantaneous transportation (any location on earth by rocket in 30 minutes, by military craft in a few hours, by civilian craft in less than a day, in theory) only about 70 to 50 years - about 1/20th of a percent of our total existence.

And, to be very frank, we are still figuring out how to deal with it all.

The flow of information and persons and property and the ability to manage and record that information and those persons and their property has increased at an exponentially increasing rate.  And we are presented with conundrums.  Notably, at minimum, we have tasked our governments with the roles of dispute resolution and protection of, again, our lives, our liberties, and our property.  Yet we have also decided, at least in the free world, that it must do so, insofar as possible, while minimally impacting those things.  This is a (comparatively) simple thing if the ability of society's enemies threaten is limited by space and time rather strictly. However as space and time are conquered and the ability to limit movement of people, property, and information has become increasingly complicated this primary obligation of the state has become increasingly complex.

The question I thus seek to answer is this - how should polity protect society and economy without generating costs and risks that outweigh potential benefits.  This of course may be exploded into a more useful form: can we, and if so how, preserve life and property without eliminating liberty and privacy in a world of high specification of rights, property, and boundaries in which are increasingly porous due to the emergence of space- and time-conquering philosophies and technologies?

I will not produce a valid answer.

That said, I plan to explore the subject systematically in a series of articles.  I intend to describe the emergence and rationale of rights to privacy and liberty, particularly within the American context.  I also intend to describe the emergence of regimes of intelligence, naturalization, and classification within that context (let us call it security of knowledge and movement), contrasting them of course with the need for transparency and the problems of balancing the two. I plan to develop a map of the key "players" in the games of mass communication and transportation, detailing their capabilities, rationales, and so forth, and then critiquing their behaviors and philosophies.  I also plan to look at three key cases which are on contemporary minds and lips - the Assange, Manning, and Snowden Incidents, contrasting both what they did, the philosophical basis of lauding and condemning them, and the implications for future policy and behavioral outcomes.

I might think of more to talk about eventually on the same subject, but we'll see.

The key to this question is this: complexity.  This is a morally and practically complex subject.  That means it is going to be complicated to discuss - fascinating, difficult, sometimes emotional, and always critical.

It should be fun.

To be continued in Part II / Defining Privacy and Conceptualizing Associated Problems