Against the Transparency Movement

In the midst of an unprece­dent­ed event in Amer­i­can elec­toral his­to­ry, in which a hos­tile for­eign pow­er mobi­lized some cred­u­lous writ­ers to help it attack a polit­i­cal par­ty and engi­neer the out­come of a pres­i­den­tial race, I think it’s worth look­ing back on the last six years or so of “move­ment trans­paren­cy,” as spear­head­ed by groups like Wik­ileaks and the jour­nal­ists who’ve embraced leaks-based jour­nal­ism, so see where we are.

In short, what I’ve seen is a sea change in norms about pri­va­cy and news­wor­thi­ness, some­thing that’s cre­at­ed a gap in our bound­aries of what is appro­pri­ate and what is not appro­pri­ate, and as a con­se­quence the demand for trans­paren­cy-ori­ent­ed leaks has vio­lat­ed the pri­va­cy of poten­tial­ly mil­lions of peo­ple, with hor­ri­fy­ing effects. Let’s look at how Wik­ileaks and its allies have gone about its vaunt­ed trans­paren­cy mis­sion to see if we can derive a coher­ent moral phi­los­o­phy behind the leaks and trans­paren­cy move­ment:

  1. The gov­ern­ment review­ing tele­phone meta­da­ta is an intol­er­a­ble rights vio­la­tion, but leak­ing sen­si­tive and legit­i­mate for­eign intel­li­gence oper­a­tions is an appro­pri­ate response;
  2. The war in Iraq is bad; there­fore leak­ing sen­si­tive mil­i­tary and diplo­mat­ic doc­u­ments that put hun­dreds of civil­ians into mor­tal dan­ger and risks dozens of con­flict res­o­lu­tion pro­grams is an appro­pri­ate response;
  3. Strat­for, the for-prof­it con­sul­tan­cy is bad, so there­fore the gov­ern­ment is wrong to pros­e­cute an anony­mous mem­ber who pub­lished hun­dreds of thou­sands of their cred­it card details;
  4. The Democ­rats are bad, there­fore leak­ing their pri­vate emails along with sen­si­tive iden­ti­ty and finan­cial details is an appro­pri­ate response;
  5. Sony is bad for mak­ing a com­e­dy film about North Korea, so there­fore leak­ing the sen­si­tive per­son­al infor­ma­tion about reg­u­lar Sony employ­ees, includ­ing their social secu­ri­ty num­bers and HIPAA infor­ma­tion;
  6. CIA chief John Bren­nan is bad, so attack his fam­i­ly and attempt to humil­i­ate him;
  7. The Turkey rul­ing par­ty AKP is bad, there­fore leak­ing thou­sands of e‑mails to the par­ty from rank and file mem­bers and expos­ing the PII of inno­cent peo­ple and appar­ent­ly every sin­gle adult woman in Turkey is accept­able.

See what’s going on here? The nor­ma­tive change is not toward more per­son­al secu­ri­ty and more insti­tu­tion­al trans­paren­cy. It is using leaks as a puni­tive revenge mech­a­nism against a per­ceived ene­my — not the pur­suit of truth, or even hold­ing the pow­er­ful account­able (if a doc­tor were this cav­a­lier with how her treat­ments affect­ed peo­ple she’d have her license revoked). It is a scat­ter­shot move­ment by a not­ed con­spir­acist who’s sim­ply out to dis­rupt and destroy every­one and every­thing he thinks are “anti-pri­va­cy,” even if he has to destroy thou­sands of lives in the process.

But this move­ment is more than just what Wik­ileaks and their cred­u­lous jour­nal­ist allies are doing. There has been a nor­ma­tive change with­in jour­nal­ism itself (“journo-derp”), which eschews a pre­pon­der­ance of on-the-record evi­dence in favor of con­nect­ing-the-dots with scat­tered pri­ma­ry source doc­u­ments and a whole lot of moral­ism.

But even more sober jour­nal­ists, who do not imag­ine them­selves total­ly-not-KGB-fund­ed IF Stone types, have fall­en into the leaks-as-news busi­ness, with ter­ri­ble con­se­quences for pri­va­cy. One of my biggest gripes with the group­think over Edward Snow­den’s leaks is the sense that a har­ried jour­nal­ist with a dead­line and a word count could pos­si­bly treat a gov­ern­ment or a per­son­’s pri­vate data with more care than an elect­ed offi­cial or a offi­cial gov­ern­ment gov­erned by laws and pro­ce­dures for doing so.

This was fore­most in my mind as the OCCRP released the first tranche of doc­u­ments from its Pana­ma Papers col­lec­tion. The jour­nal­ists involved cer­tain­ly report­ed on their doc­u­ments with much more care than the Wash­ing­ton Post and Guardian did with Edward Snow­den’s doc­u­ment trove, and cer­tain­ly with more delib­er­a­tion than the scram­ble over Wik­ileaks. But even then: how many inno­cent peo­ple, who were not heads of state or pow­er­ful offi­cials, have their pri­vate finan­cial data exposed to an unknown group of peo­ple to peruse?

This is the heart of leaks-based “trans­paren­cy” — it is anti-pri­va­cy, and it sweeps up thou­sands of inno­cent peo­ple in its wake. But alas, so long as there are clicks to be had, scalps to win, and an eager her­mit await­ing his ques­tion­ing in a rape case exploit­ing an anti-west­ern gov­ern­men­t’s embassy priv­i­leges in Lon­don, there aren’t any real struc­tur­al rea­sons for the indus­try to take bet­ter steps to safe­guard inno­cent peo­ple in their mad rush for pil­fered doc­u­ments.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.