in defense of national secrets

The importance of secrets to national defense is paramount because without secrets a nation is unable to defend itself.

Folks who see transnational whitlesblowing, in the form of Wikileaks or Edward Snowden, as a positive check on power are often delusional to the unintended consequences of such leaks and the way such leaks weaken the self defense of a people, even if there is some positive checks on power. But still it’s useful to explore the ways in which such massive dataleaks could theoretically be beneficial, since we can only expect more of them in the future.

The idea, espoused by data leak-supporters, is that if enough data is leaked to check power, a country’s officials will become more honest in their inner dealings, because they wouldn’t know that their secrets are safe if they do otherwise. The dataleaker, or whistleblower, is seen as a hero who takes it upon themselves to decide if/when a massive dataleak is necessary and how it should be done — often at great risk to their own life.

The often partisan agenda of some dataleaking organizations is problematic though, because it creates an assymetry whereby only some powerful actors are checked, leaving the void for potentially even more powerful, more corrupt actors to fill the hole. The defenders of such leaks would argue that this could be accounted for by creating a global marketplace of dataleakers and data-leak consumers.

The idea goes that if enough dataleakers exist, then all powerful actors the world over would be theoretically checked, and since information is power, and because information wants to be free, dataleak-defenders would argue that this would inevitably result in a more honest, less violent world. The dataleak consumers would benefit by using the added information to further check power through tools to fight back.

But there is always a difference of theory and practice. in theory, such a world might benefit from a marketplace, but in practice, anytime there are two opposing forces in battle with one another an arms race manifests. Thus, even if a marketplace were to exist, the powerful secret keepers would not rest on their laurels, but would go to ever greater lengths to protect their secrets. Some secret keepers would inevitably do a better job of this, and this would result in an advantage for those secret keepers.

Dataleak-defenders might argue here that such would just call for more dataleakers to leak on the powerful actors who may have benefited from previous leaks. But the idea that the dataleakers could ultimately win out in an arms race against secret keepers is fallacious though because it discounts the risks involved with secret keeping versus leaking. A secret keeper faces no risks for successfully keeping his/her secrets (other than the risk of being caught), but a leaker faces tremendous costs for leaking information, up to and including the loss of their life.

Since there are far more secret keepers than dataleakers, and because the secret keepers worth exposing tend to also have resources, a leaking marketplace would inevitably benefit those with the most power and ability to hang onto their secrets. The end result would be power concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, who would then go about using their power to further oppress their subjects, and eventually destroy the last among the leakers with overwhelming force. In fact, power may so well be concentrated at this theoretical juncture that leaks would no longer matter much if at all, because there would be nobody willing to actually contest the power.

Now all of this is just theory and unlikely to ever happen, but still it’s worth considering how a arms race would materialize in a leaking marketplace, and how such an arms race would unlikely result in a less corrupt world. Some might argue that the vary act of leaking is justified because it exposes immoral actions, regardless of whether the leaks themselves actually end up doing more harm than good. But this is a dogmatic viewpoint that is unlikely to accomplish anything of real value, other than the temporary knowledge that some people got caught doing some bad things.

But it is often overlooked that corruption is a fundamental reality of nature, and unlikely to ever be destroyed. This is necessarily true because most powerful people are a little corrupt some of the time, and those who are totally honest all of the time are the most unlikely to ever win out at the game of power. None of this is to justify corruption, just for a call to be honest about it. Our methods for managing corruption should be more pragmatic with a long-term, goal oriented approach that is not based on an unrealistic, often myopic vision of information and power coalescing in the hands of the people (won’t ever happen). Leak defenders would do better concentrating their efforts on creating more rules for accountability than going for the kneecaps with very little concern for the greater consequences.

Everyone who believes in the freedoms afforded to us in our imperfect republic would do better to be more critical of the ways in which our republic is currently being harmed by the massive dataleakers, often deluded by their own self-righteousness, corrupt in its own ways. In fact, more accountability for the leakers would be a great place to start.