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
Joshua Foust is a writer and analyst who studies foreign policy.