Transparency demands are transparently opaque

 society, Privacy, stupidity  Comments Off on Transparency demands are transparently opaque
Mar 232023

Radical transparency is in demand; that much is obvious. Anti-vaxxers and the “Fredum” thugs, anti-business anti-government anti-[insert what bugs you here] and conspiracy theorists all demand greater transparency just in case (or because) somebody’s trying to pull one over on us.

     Of course, none of them actually believes the information provided. So there’s that.

Transparency is the new black

     I got to thinking about this again seeing Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene reveal classified information during a public committee meeting. Her unabashed reasoning was that she thought Americans should know [operational boarder information]… On another front, I’ve been seeing a lot of Sarah Kendzior’s book, They Knew (mostly as she promotes it). I believe—as I haven’t read the book—her theme is: you’re not paranoid if they’re really out to get you, and I have the receipts. By her reckoning, there are provable (government) conspiracies in the USA with different, complicit participants in each instance. The conclusion is apparently that (a) “they” knew a tragedy was coming and (b) it was largely to “their” gain and at “your” cost.

     I’m not a fan of either. It goes without saying there will always be groups with privileged information they keep to themselves. In business, it’s called “trade secrets.” Investors hoard and use information for trading advantage and profit. In affairs of state there are countless reasons for keeping things opaque, shall we say. Military and defense activities among an alliance, such as NATO, is a good example. Justice is another.

     There are good reasons for this behaviour, which is perfectly reasonable and normal. Besides, information typically requires context to be meaningful and tracts of it requires skills, training, and comprehension that eludes most of those “doing their own research.”

     (Valuable) Information can resemble a Rorschach blot: (a) sure to be misunderstood; (b) revealing more about its analyst than the underlying subject; and (c) raw material to manufacture disinformation—rarely for a good purpose.

Information transparency is like a Rorschach blot, revealing more about its analyst and the subject.

What good is transparency if what it reveals is at best meaningless and at worst combustible?

Secrecy, Conspiracy, Collusion…

     Information itself and conspiring to hold it from others is not in and of itself untoward. It can be sane and sensible. We can’t all be polymaths and expert at every esoteric area of expertise. (Except, of course, Elon Musk and Donald Trump.) We don’t all have a direct say in how the government operates. We get our say periodically to elect representatives to represent us. We certainly get no say in the human resources and processes by which modern states operate any more than one-share stockholders can demand a say in corporate structure and operations. It has never happened before; it will not happen now, and; it will not happen in the future.

     The division of labour, a foundational Capitalist principle, compels us for efficiency and effectiveness to leave tasks and the necessary carrying out of those tasks, including choices about information (disclosure), to nominated or designated people.

     This bedrock principle upon which the Western, democratic world (and arguably every other part of the world) bases itself and its affairs is dependent on one of two things. In North America anyway, these are rapidly changing.

     The first is trust the second is fear. Fear, in this context, is much to fraught to tackle here, so let’s focus on trust. In a social context this is trust in institutions and the people that populate, particularly lead them. Social trust is in tatters on its way to being shredded.

     For some justifiable reasons, the populous has lost trust in the institutions of government and the representative politicians (of the other tribe). In the USA, the political tribes have fully separated and certainly the Republican party has done everything it can to actively drive mistrust of not only Democrats but government in general.

     Side note: Probably because it spends much more and has accumulated better PR, “business” luxuriates in higher levels of social trust. This is bizarre when a substantive record of how and why trusting “business” has failed the masses. But, whatever.

     Absent trust, credibility is an early relationship casualty so every institutional error is perceived as having ulterior motive. That leads to genuine withholding of information for good reasons. Thus the doom cycle commences and continues.

     Sometimes it behooves leaders of all sorts—business, government, families—to withhold information for the broadest benefit of the whole. Using a tired philosophical saw, yelling “fire” in a crowded auditorium results in pandemonium. People—in herds—responding to information they may not understand or have the tools to effectively address, are known to panic… regularly. The crowd will stampede and many will not make it out.

(This used to be axiomatic: given today’s level of “doing my own research” rejection of authority, who knows how many would rampage—perhaps for altogether different reasons—anticipating more palatable facts to surface.) A leader may not mention the fire, using a ruse or some other oblique rationale for orderly withdrawal. More people are unharmed. Is that so bad?

Transparency on what’s more cancerous than benign: Corruption

     One of those justifiable reasons for trust diminishing I mentioned earlier is the overwhelming evidence of corruption and (their tribe’s, of course) self-dealing. Withholding information, even as a syndicate, should be expected. What may also be expected but is definitely beyond the pale is self-dealing, benefitting unjustly, and harming others—those others who have given their faith to the “good faith” of those empowered. (Let’s also not restrict ourselves to politicians and governments; this applies to businesses and other organizations be they charities or labour unions or…)

     We have stumbled into the area of corruption, not conspiracy or secrecy or withholding information. The legal phrasing generally contains, “…conspiracy to….” The word “to”—not “conspiracy”—is the operative one here. The conspiracy part merely refers to a group; “to” leads to a crime.

     The issue is not conspiring or colluding or anything else until they become instrumental to implementing and executing a crime. At this point the rabble rousing and transparency demanding has a crisis: the choice forces many to create the artifice of crime out of whole cloth.

     When bankers, oil & gassers, other industrialists and oligopolists collude to maximize movement of wealth from the masses to the few, that warrants uprising. When chemical companies conspire to influence regulation or cover-up lethal toxic impacts of their making to avoid culpability, that might warrant pitchforks. When the government and the political leaders (of their tribe) self-deal by pocketing hundreds of thousands or billions of dollars by virtue of their privilege, that warrants blowback.

Competent, employed professionals entrusted with a particular division of labour, making good-faith decisions for the greatest good based on imperfect and shifting information, probably is not. Certainly anyone or any organization holding operational information without a criminal intent has no obligation to disclose all of it just because “one shareholder” wants to see it. Even government bodies.

     If there is a crime at hand, pursue the crime. Prove it. There are rules for information disclosure with provable probability of crime. (Caveat: Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s a crime. Corrollary: Just because you do like something doesn’t mean it it isn’t a crime. You know who I’m talking about.)

     Incidentally, Sarah, none of this suggests or recommends NOT being vigilant about potential crimes—especially coups d’état, which are inarguably social harms… and crime. But yeah, “they” probably or maybe definitely knew! They’re there and you’re not. And Marjorie: some things don’t need to be radically transparent just because you—loosely said—think so.

Get over it.

Personal Information as Money

 ethics, IT Security, Privacy  Comments Off on Personal Information as Money
Aug 192014

I’m a fan of bit torrents. To be clear, I rent movies legally; I do not “share.” Still, bit torrents fascinate me because the peer-to-peer system represents thinking for what could be the next great leap in online privacy protection.
The obvious problem with privacy (online) shows up in one of two types of news items. One: a breach of data on some organization’s servers or lost off someone’s USB drive puts thousands or perhaps millions of people’s private information into the hands of unauthorized and probably unsavoury characters. Two: an organization that has amassed privileged, personal information about customers or citizens for some purpose shows its industriousness and uses its “intelligence” to draw undesired conclusions about and harass those same people. In either case, when such a situation is exposed, people feel justifiably violated… even if there is no real harm done.
As I say, these are obvious challenges to privacy. They are not, however, the real issue. Privacy breaches are a symptom and proxy complaint. What’s happening in both circumstances is a breach of trust. In the first case by criminals (or the government) who have larcenously acquired private property (your information), and in the latter by an institution that said “trust us with your important information,” then misused it without your understanding or approval. Blame gets properly directed toward those that have let us down.
Funny that we don’t turn that blame inward. After all, the root of the problem is that we have trusted some organization to keep safe and use only as prescribed something of value to us: our most personal information. At least that’s what we say while we’re railing on about its loss or misuse. But we did let go of that information in the first place, likely without appreciating the potential impact. And probably for not even fifty pieces of silver. So the real problem is that we have ignorantly given up what is dearest to us to somebody else’s keeping. Worse, we gave it to someone or something that is acquiring similarly valuable information from many others and keeping the whole lot in a single place. That creates a treasure trove of value for a thief and a wicked temptation to any other amoral entity.
Is it really any wonder not that there are privacy breaches at all but rather that there aren’t more?
Whether you are reading this as an individual whose information is so entrusted or as an organizational leader in possession of that information, perhaps you’re thinking about information wrong. Chances are that you imagine all this personal information is ones and zeros. Less of a nerd, perhaps in your imagination it is benign sets of discrete data. In any case, “information” is almost certainly an abstraction. Even when rendered as reams of paper (Who else does that anymore?) it has no substance. That makes it very easy to minimize and marginalize.
Try a little thought experiment with me. Contrast and then equate this personal data with cash. Yes, now your (customers’) information is money! Now it has meaning and substance. Doesn’t that change things a bit?
If it’s your information/cash, don’t you take more care with it? Won’t you be a bit more circumspect about where you pull it out, where you put it, and with whom you entrust it—and why? The problem with information (and where this metaphor breaks down, actually) is that it is not a diminishing asset: when you give it up, you still have it. So, perceptually, there is no fine point on losing possession of it.
On the other hand, if you are entrusted with money (information), you now have a fiduciary responsibility for it. Financial institutions (except certain S+Ls, derivatives houses, and mortgage lenders) tend to take their responsibility for their customers’ money seriously. To start with, their customers take it seriously. Then, of course, so does society in the form of strict regulations and governance.
Moral, legal, and economic incentives seem to have the necessary impact. So you don’t often hear about frivolous or cavalier disregard for how a financial institution tends to and uses its customers’ money. And, we don’t hear about too many thefts arising from the interception of bits and bytes that represent real money. When there is such a theft, there are again many incentives to pursue and recover the money, and prejudicially prosecute the crime.
Only a fool expects complete safety and everyone wants some control and means to exert control to get (what’s left of) their money back from those to whom they have entrusted it. The entire system of “tangible” fiat money makes everyone care more about the exchange.
We could do a lot worse than think about our allegedly valuable personal information with the same concern that we give dirty old cash.

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