The Seal of Secrecy

Of late there has been a great deal of talk about privacy, specifically a human’s right to privacy, due to the recent revelations by Edward Snowden the former CIA computer specialist who “blew the whistle” on the questionable surveillance techniques employed by his government and various other companies to spy on our communications and possibly our every move. Combined with the worrying and still relatively recent findings in the Leveson Inquiry, the frankly disturbing evidence uncovered by Operation Yewtree, the whole WikiLeaks/Julian Assange furore and even last week’s episode of Sherlock, the notion of privacy has come under close scrutiny. What is privacy? Where is the line between privacy and secrecy? Are either necessary? Are both sacrosanct or mere illusions? In short I don’t have the answer to any of these questions but they have certainly been on my mind of late.

In general I am not a particularly secretive person. If someone asks me about something I deem personal or private I will normally explain fully as I’m not the biggest fan of lying. I DO however keep a lot of things to myself that people will not know about and therefore not ask me about so I don’t have to lie or avoid the subject. On my own terms I suppose that is how I would define secrecy: Lying about something or going to lengths so no one would find out about it. Whereas privacy, I feel, is more to do with what is only of interest to myself and my feelings/personal changes or interests. Yet here is the problem; Human beings are naturally voyeuristic and anyone’s personal life is seen as interesting, hence our love of soap operas and “emotional” dramas on stage, screen and literature. Secrecy denotes something worthy of suspicion, that the reason for someone’s secrecy is necessarily pernicious. Lying, we are told from birth, is a very bad thing and you must never lie, therefore anyone who does lie is branded as such and vilified. Great or small, little boy who stole the chocolate bar or tax dodging multinational corporation.

A common phrase often used with regards to Privacy is “mind your own business”. Re-read that phrase. Your own ‘business’. I think this comes to the root of the current issues our global civilisation is having with privacy and secrecy: They are both good business.

We live in a self-proclaimed information age. A time where every thought that enters our head is tapped into 140 characters on Twitter, a 6 second video on Vine or a passive aggressive Facebook status. I’m doing it now writing this post. We delight in putting up every movement and announce every success or failure for the entire world to see everyday. A larger tax dodging company (naming no names, there are too many) will deal in information, the very information we are providing so that they might better target their demographic, their audience, their business. This proves to be lucrative so they desire more of this information and, according to Whistleblowers, this is purchasable for the right price from the right people. Better business. It is at this point they forget information travels both ways and with the modern wonder of the internet and other technologies we can have this ‘Private’ information of said company given to us revealing the rather underhanded business tactics. This then becomes our business. The irony being we have complained of our privacy being invaded whilst invading what the large company calls their private business. The ‘Business’ of privacy has become ever more apparent in light of the Leveson Inquiry that explained how the deepest, most personal and tragic events of a families life can be – quite literally – hacked into by a newspaper for their own gain, to sell their product. To gain business. National Security is at the forefront of this argument. Any government body’s business is our safety, and therefore our business is their’s. Surely? Yet they are invading our privacy in the hope of finding secrets so we, again, heed the whistleblower who invades the ‘Privacy’ of a national governing body’s Intelligence/Security company and then takes their business and makes it ours. Coincidentally creating business for himself.

I think you’d agree its a mess these days defining our boundaries of privacy and secrecy. In the case of Millie Dowler and her family the line was clear and definitely crossed, it was an intrusion into a family’s most personal and tragic time that was quite literally “nobody’s business”. Equally the findings of Operation Yewtree muddy the water, if such an invasion into a victim’s privacy had gone on earlier would these dreadful events have come to light earlier and the culprits been brought to justice whilst still alive? Surely not, because that would be an invasion of privacy of the most harrowing kind to the victims. The revelation by Snowden that we are being continually watched at all times is unsettling to say the least but that phrase that is often trotted out in defence of this surveillance is almost convincing: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.” But that negates the notion of privacy in and of itself. Just because I have nothing to hide doesn’t mean I want strangers and people of questionable authority looking at everything I do.

I have nothing to hide but would still like to keep things hidden. I email a friend of mine about recent communications with an ex-girlfriend and how badly it effects me. That’s a private matter yet I’ve just put it on the internet for you all to read. I’m telling you this in an effort to present transparency but that is a private matter and the contents of our conversations in email, by text or in person are none of anybody’s business. That is unless, one day I become famous and a biographer wants to know all the grisly details. (They’re not that grisly). Ultimately everything we do is somebody’s business, as the final episode of Sherlock showed. There is something to be gained by someone from any little thing we do even if it is just for a voyeuristic little thrill or several million pounds in a gained audience share. Someone once said: “Knowledge is power” and that much is true. The more you know the stronger you are. There seems to be an implicit contract amongst people now in regards to social networking; the more you share, the more others will share and the more you will know, i.e. The greater power you will have. We all complain about the attention grabbing Tweet or Facebook update: “Shit day at the office”, “I just wish some people were more aware”, “Fine! I’ll do it myself” or the much maligned ‘Selfie’ photo but we enter into the same contract of divulging similar, if more abstract, personal information by using social media in the first place. Every social networking site asks nee DEMANDS a considerable amount of ‘private’ information even if its just your email/phone number/location. We are letting go of a great deal of privacy at any given moment. We all sign an agreement when signing up to a lot of sites that states “information may be passed onto third parties”, youtube videos and facebook pictures are used on a daily basis in the news. We have, with full awareness, given up a LOT of privacy.

I am not for a moment saying this justifies the machiavellian intrusions upon our privacy by corporations or governing bodies but I am saying it has become a vicious circle. They hack us, we hack them. They order transparency for our own safety from us, we demand transparency for our own safety from them. And we both complain about the results.

There is a screenplay writer (who I am not a fan of) called Damon Lindelof. He wrote Lost, Cowboys & Aliens, Star Trek: Into Darkness and Prometheus, he also wrote the final third of World War Z. What all these stories have in common was the necessity for secrecy surrounding their plots. The plots themselves relied on a twisty-turny narrative that normally revolved around a ‘Secret’ of some kind. What Lindelof does well is intrigue, we love a mystery us Humans. What he does very poorly is deliver on those secrets. Lost was roundly lambasted for its rubbish delivery on the genuinely excellent mystery set up, Cowboys & Aliens relied on amnesia and mysterious women to tell a story we all knew anyway, you were frankly an imbecile if you didn’t know Into Darkness was a Wrath of Kahn remake before even setting foot in the cinema and Prometheus was one of the most dogshit awful screenplays I’ve had the misfortune to see. BUT it proves a mystery, i.e. a secret, is good business. Even if we know its a lie. Same thing with Dan Brown, we are willing to ignore what a shoddy piece of literature the Da Vinci Code was in our desire to know ‘The Truth’ of a supposedly ‘real’ conspiracy.

The title of this post is from a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche: “There is nothing we like to communicate to others as much as the seal of secrecy together with what lies under it.” Our notions of secrecy/privacy seem to be crumbling with every advance in technology yet we cling to them doggedly because we need them. Snowden gave a speech that was broadcast on Channel 4 on Christmas Day as an alternative to the Queen’s own where he said a similar thing: We need privacy. We are who we are because of our most private moments. What both secrecy and privacy boil down to is Trust. Do we trust one another enough today? Are we evolving beyond that need for privacy and individualism with our newly adopted “hive-mind”?

That’s an argument for another time.

In honesty I don’t know where I stand on this subject at the moment. Humans bare their souls all the time be it through conversation, online or through our various works of art, literature, film, etc. We want to know what other people are up to a lot of the time for various selfish or altruistic reasons but are equally offended by the notion that others want to know the same of us. George Orwell painted a disturbing picture of where this might lead us in the future or is this modern desire for transparency, a new need for absolute truth, leading us to a more inclusive and open, empathetic society? I don’t know. All I will say is that the business of minding your own – for good or ill – now requires, may even demand, you mind other people’s.

Parenthetical Aside: I was deciding between this becoming a poem or a post but the generous David Hartley forced my hand by featuring this blog in his own. Therefore I required something to be put up on the site ASAP. Thanks David.

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