The Spy Machine and Absolutes


Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is known for having strong opinions about things, e.g.:

Wikileaks Founder: Facebook is the most appalling spy machine that has ever been invented

Here we have the world’s most comprehensive database about people, their relationships, their names, their addresses, their locations, their communications with each other, and their relatives, all sitting within the United States, all accessible to US Intelligence.”

I don’t think that’s just hyperbole. Putting aside the question of whether the US government has unhindered or even special express access to the Facebook database, such a collection of data is a tremendous intelligence tool and is bound to be used as such. Before Facebook, Google was the most appalling spy machine ever built. A decade or so ago, AOL was. Before that it was email. A century ago, it might well have been claimed that the telephone directory was.

Assange is something of an absolutist when it comes to transparency. The defining principal behind Wikileaks is that any information that has been deemed restricted and that can be published…should be published. Assange is the universal, indiscriminate whistle-blower. In his view, government (and particularly intelligence agencies) represent a class of universal, indiscriminate exploiters of information.

For those of us who aren’t transparency absolutists, the world looks a little murkier. I agree with Assange that exposing corruption to the light of day is a good and necessary thing. I also agree that the government’s rather covetous attitude towards our rapidly diminishing private information is a cause for concern–if not alarm.

When I look at Facebook, I see a lot of things, but I don’t know that a “spy machine” is  among them. Nor can a look at Wikileaks and see an unmitigated good. (I don’t doubt that Wikileaks is powerful, however, and likely to become more so.)

I can see the appeal of the absolutist mindset. Everything is so tidy; there are no difficult choices to make. The government should never conceal any information, and any that is concealed should be revealed. Any government interest in personal information is, by definition, not legitimate and to be opposed. And, of course, any large collection of personal information is nothing more than an opportunity for exploitation.

Those ideas are close enough to the truth to be appealing, but far enough from it to be dangerous. The reality is that every decision to disclose or withhold information involves a trade-off of risks and benefits. There is frequently ambiguity around who owns any given piece of information, who is entitled to know it, and who benefits either from its concealment or disclosure.

The absolutist approach leads ultimately not to transparency but to a kind of information anarchy. The element of trust is what’s missing both from closed organizations and societies and from the worldview of the transparency absolutists. Real transparency is all about leveraging  the power of openness and authenticity within a complex and often ambiguous framework that we know as “the real world.” A transparent society or organization is self-aware, self-directed, and self-optimizing in a way that a low-trust society or organization never could be.

UPDATE: As noted in the comments, Will Brown has posted a lengthy response to this piece at his blog in which he raises some very interesting points. This passage in particular caught my attention:

Just in passing (and I am far from the first to make this observation), I notice Herr Assange – and Wikileaks more generally – seem to have the decidedly Circumstantialist policy of not revealing the secrets of those who have the reputation of actually killing those who do so. {cough}Putin{cough}

We’ve done some earlier pieces on whistle-blowers who are clearly putting their lives on the line in the cause of transparency. One is taking on Putin; another has survived two attempts on his life. I think it’s fair to ask whether Assange has been freer about revealing information that puts the lives of others at risk than he has about revealing information that puts his own life at risk. If so, in my estimation, he doesn’t cut quite as dashing a figure as his supporters would have us believe.


  1. 2011-05-22 14:32:14

    What goes around, comes around.

  2. 2011-05-09 09:02:29

    Assistant Village Idiot, Perfect quote...but when I think about it it makes absolutely no sense.

  3. 2011-05-07 19:25:47

    Agh, the Churchill quote is missing. My bad. "In wartime, the truth is so precious that it must be surrounded by a bodyguard of lies."

  4. 2011-05-07 19:24:34

    Assange means other people. Absolutists always do. RedNeck - only partly agree. I believe that information must come back to the people eventually, but - fraught with potential for abuse as it is - people entrusted by us with keeping us safe should have some discretion how that happens.

    Winston Churchill. Don't know that I agree with that either, but it sums up the balancing point well. I also don't see that "openness" makes us automatically become a high-trust society. I think we tried that with general relationships in the the 60's, with fairly disastrous results. We're not really wired to hear the truth.

  5. 2011-05-07 14:47:20

    I would like to say thank you very much for that work you have made in writing this post. I am hoping the same perfect work by you down the road too.

  6. 2011-05-07 13:51:10

    All of my facebook “friends” are people from my distant past that I have no other current connection with, or people I’m barely acquainted with and never share any sort of confidential communication. I don’t think there is anything very important to know about me that can be gleaned from any of it. Maybe i’m unique in that regard, but I’d bet not. Most people I know use facebook as their blog, and their posts are silly, boring, and most likely ignored by everyone. I do know of an idiot or two, not realizing that everything they put on Twitter is broadcast to the world, said something about themselves they later wished they had kept secret. But that was there own doing, not anything about Twitter or facebook.

  7. 2011-05-07 13:37:03

    Absolutist when it comes to transparency . . . as long as the info isn't about him.

  8. 2011-05-07 13:02:47

    Somebody should mention to Mr. Assange that the Onion isn't meant to be a reliable source:,19753/

  9. [...] IS FACEBOOK an appalling spy machine? [...]

  10. 2011-05-07 12:36:01

    Facebook is only as accurate as the information you put in it.

  11. 2011-05-05 09:44:14

    RedNeck -- Good points. Per the update, what Wikileaks will and won't release says something about how pure their dedication to "absolute transparency" really is.

  12. 2011-05-05 05:28:26

    In one of Phil's more trepadatious moments, no doubt, I came home to read an e-mail directing my notice of this posting. A chord was struck. Long story short: a) I have an opinion regarding Mr. Assange. b) Facebook is to spying what alphabet soup is to language. c) Absolutists aren't. d) Real transparency requires secrecy. Thanks Phil.

  13. 2011-05-04 13:51:56

    FINALLY!!! I would like to add a new filter to your absolutist definition (if you will allow me). "We the people...", unless I am mistaken the Government is us and we are the Government? If we agree on that point then all activity to cover-up something, in my opinion, is corrupt. The relationship between Government and voters is not Parent and Child. We CAN handle the truth. All that seems to have happened (up to the birth of Wikileaks) is that Government could hide information simply by not talking about it (and or baring its people from doing the same). That is hard to do in a world of light speed internet and Wikileaks exploits that. NOW if the security of an individual is at sake then that is not corrupt to hide information BUT when embarrassing gaffs made by politicians behind closed doors are release...who is to blame? When the corrupt practices of a large (government like) organization is released...Bravo! The extra filter I would add is absolutism can be pure or corrupted itself and I hope Assange and his crew are also thinking through the leaks they will release.

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