Essays About Secrets

Should Some Secrets Be Exposed?

German translation

Recently, WikiLeaks began publishing over half a million previously secret cables and other documents from the Foreign Ministry of Saudi Arabia. It's a huge trove, and already reporters are writing stories about the highly secretive government.

What Saudi Arabia is experiencing isn't common but part of a growing trend.

Just last week, unknown hackers broke into the network of the cyber-weapons arms manufacturer Hacking Team and published 400 gigabytes of internal data, describing, among other things, its sale of Internet surveillance software to totalitarian regimes around the world.

Last year, hundreds of gigabytes of Sony's sensitive data was published on the Internet, including executive salaries, corporate emails and contract negotiations. The attacker in this case was the government of North Korea, which was punishing Sony for producing a movie that made fun of its leader. In 2010, the U.S. cyberweapons arms manufacturer HBGary Federal was a victim, and its attackers were members of a loose hacker collective called LulzSec.

Edward Snowden stole a still-unknown number of documents from the National Security Agency in 2013 and gave them to reporters to publish. Chelsea Manning stole three-quarters of a million documents from the U.S. State Department and gave them to WikiLeaks to publish. The person who stole the Saudi Arabian documents might also be a whistleblower and insider but is more likely a hacker who wanted to punish the kingdom.

Organizations are increasingly getting hacked, and not by criminals wanting to steal credit card numbers or account information in order to commit fraud, but by people intent on stealing as much data as they can and publishing it. Law professor and privacy expert Peter Swire refers to "the declining half-life of secrets." Secrets are simply harder to keep in the information age. This is bad news for all of us who value our privacy, but there's a hidden benefit when it comes to organizations.

The decline of secrecy means the rise of transparency. Organizational transparency is vital to any open and free society.

Open government laws and freedom of information laws let citizens know what the government is doing, and enable them to carry out their democratic duty to oversee its activities. Corporate disclosure laws perform similar functions in the private sphere. Of course, both corporations and governments have some need for secrecy, but the more they can be open, the more we can knowledgeably decide whether to trust them.

This makes the debate more complicated than simple personal privacy. Publishing someone's private writings and communications is bad, because in a free and diverse society people should have private space to think and act in ways that would embarrass them if public.

But organizations are not people and, while there are legitimate trade secrets, their information should otherwise be transparent. Holding government and corporate private behavior to public scrutiny is good.

Most organizational secrets are only valuable for a short term: negotiations, new product designs, earnings numbers before they're released, patents before filing, and so on.

Forever secrets, like the formula for Coca-Cola, are few and far between. The one exception is embarrassments. If an organization had to assume that anything it did would become public in a few years, people within that organization would behave differently.

The NSA would have had to weigh its collection programs against the possibility of public scrutiny. Sony would have had to think about how it would look to the world if it paid its female executives significantly less than its male executives. HBGary would have thought twice before launching an intimidation campaign against a journalist it didn't like, and Hacking Team wouldn't have lied to the UN about selling surveillance software to Sudan. Even the government of Saudi Arabia would have behaved differently. Such embarrassment might be the first significant downside of hiring a psychopathas CEO.

I don't want to imply that this forced transparency is a good thing, though. The threat of disclosure chills all speech, not just illegal, embarrassing, or objectionable speech. There will be less honest and candid discourse. People in organizations need the freedom to write and say things that they wouldn't want to be made public.

State Department officials need to be able to describe foreign leaders, even if their descriptions are unflattering. Movie executives need to be able to say unkind things about their movie stars. If they can't, their organizations will suffer.

With few exceptions, our secrets are stored on computers and networks vulnerable to hacking. It's much easier to break into networks than it is to secure them, and large organizational networks are very complicated and full of security holes. Bottom line: If someone sufficiently skilled, funded and motivated wants to steal an organization's secrets, they will succeed. This includes hacktivists (HBGary Federal, Hacking Team), foreign governments (Sony), and trusted insiders (State Department and NSA).

It's not likely that your organization's secrets will be posted on the Internet for everyone to see, but it's always a possibility.

Dumping an organization's secret information is going to become increasingly common as individuals realize its effectiveness for whistleblowing and revenge. While some hackers will use journalists to separate the news stories from mere personal information, not all will.

Both governments and corporations need to assume that their secrets are more likely to be exposed, and exposed sooner, than ever. They should do all they can to protect their data and networks, but have to realize that their best defense might be to refrain from doing things that don't look good on the front pages of the world's newspapers.

Categories: Computer and Information Security

Tags: CNN

“Be yourself” is perhaps one of the most popular and well-known slogans. It is also a common piece of advice given in cases when one does not know how to behave, or how to get out of a difficult situation. In other instances, individuals say, “be yourself,” not knowing how to achieve the same for themselves. The reason for this, in my opinion, is that playing roles in public has become a necessary part of modern life. Due to many factors—a feeling of insecurity, humbleness, forced necessity—we often have to behave not as we would like to. Some of us slightly correct our usual behavior to match the current situation and environment; others develop brand new social roles, pretending to be personalities they never were before in reality. This leads to situations in which people, due to personal reasons, hide their original habits or behaviors; and thus, everybody has something that nobody else knows about.

I am no exception to the supposed majority of people who rarely show what they have in their hearts. It is interesting to watch how my friends, family, and coworkers perceive me, and at the same time to know at some points they are rather far from the truth. An example: some of my friends tend to see me as a constantly merry, optimistic person who can always find an exit from any situation. They are right to a significant extent; however, what they most likely do not know about me is that sometimes my optimism and humorous attitude can be a facade hiding stress and unsolved problems, or my inability to make a decision.

What other people also do not know about me is that it can be extremely difficult for me to listen to what other people say in earnest, especially when I already have my own opinion on a particular subject, or when a person says something nonsensical (in my opinion). In such cases, I do my best not to insult those whom I talk to, but in my mind, I want them either to be silent, or to express my own opposing opinion.

Luckily, these are perhaps the most serious misconceptions other people have about me—I do my best to remain myself, as I believe this is the only way one can be happy. But, of course, I have other lesser habits and oddities that I keep in secret. For instance, men are usually not supposed to be prone to shed tears; however, sometimes I feel that I am about to cry—mostly due to the solemnity or sadness of the moment. This happens rather often when watch films or read books. Every time Boromir dies or Rohirrims charge the armies of Mordor (I love “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) I feel my eyes becoming wet. Every time I see news about a man or a woman who risked their lives to save somebody, I quickly check if nobody saw my tears. A return of a panda family to a forest can cause me to shed a tear of happiness as well. I have no idea why it happens, but it is one of my reactions to some beautiful and inspiring moments.

By the way, my wife just loves watching sad movies with me—I think because of the aforementioned reason. It is not so bad, but I would be embarrassed if somebody else learned about this peculiarity of mine.

This is what usually comes to my mind when I think about those sides of my personality that I usually do not show to other people. Maybe I have missed something important—but let secrets remain secrets.

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