Last year, President Obama accepted an award for government transparency. Meanwhile, his administration spent $10 billion classifying official secrets. It responds to fewer Freedom of Information Act requests, it routinely circumvents juridical appeals by invoking a “state secrets privilege,” and it has prosecuted more whistleblowers than any other administration in U.S. history.
Not surprisingly, then, Obama chose to receive his transparency award in secret. “Our understanding going into the meeting was that it would have a pool photographer and a print reporter,” said Gary Bass, then executive director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization. “He was so on point, so on target in the conversation with us, it is baffling why he would not want that message to be more broadly heard.” Six months later, administration officials briefed reporters on Obama’s “Open Government Partnership” by speaking off the record and without attribution. The irony was once again registered, at which point another official — also speaking off the record and without attribution — resolved it by explaining the meeting as a public-relations gambit.
At least he was honest. The Open Government Partnership is, like much of the so-called transparency movement, a sham and a pseudo-reform divested of definite political ends.
Enthusiasts for “radical transparency” — the escalating revelation of information by technological means, theoretically growing alongside wikis, Twitter, bittorrent, and so on— range from Julian Assange to President Obama to tech-industry cheerleader Jeff Jarvis, which suggests something about the ambiguity of its goals. Some may demand all government secrets, others simply “responsive” agency web pages, but all develop their progressive reputations in a language of politically neutral transparency, echoing the progressives’ desire to achieve effective government by simply letting in the sunshine.
The ideological incoherence of the transparency movement no more discredits its stated ideals than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars discredit better-conceived efforts to support democracy. The hype for “revolutions” in communications and information technology is meaningless blather, though, without a corresponding political ideology to steer it. It’s necessary to acknowledge how easily the demand for transparency is frustrated and subverted. The omnipresent ideal of transparency in government rests heavily on the virtuous data dump; the display of lots of information online has itself come to symbolize transparent, healthy democracy. But when a state disgorges useless and disorganized information, it swamps our capacity to make sense of it and becomes obfuscatory. And worse, such generous state oversharing makes it easy for states and social-media corporations to turn the tables and rationalize their relentless invasion of our privacy as a similar respect for transparency.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg touts his company’s “radical transparency” and likes to condemn users with multiple online profiles as lacking integrity; even when the Federal Trade Commission accused Facebook of “unfair and deceptive practices” with respect to users’ privacy, that didn’t stop him from asserting that “Facebook has always been committed to being transparent about the information you have stored with us.” It’s not surprising that market-driven actors such as Facebook would latch on to the virtuous rhetoric of the transparency movement, preaching “radical transparency” and selling it as honesty while exposing users to data mining. Facebook is anything but transparent; its engulfment in fresh scandal for pushing changes in its privacy settings too far for the comfort of its users is now a news cycle staple.
Facebook performs transparency as a sort of Kabuki theater: paying elaborate homage to transparency masks that this transparency is for users, but not for the company. To have multiple profiles would not just be “dishonest,” it would hinder the company’s collection of data — that precious commodity sold to advertisers and the foundation of its business model. So being honest with Facebook is like being a good survey subject in a Pew Poll, although the survey, as it turns out, covers large swathes of your personal life. And when it covers your politics, your family life, and your travel plans, it begins to look creepily like for-profit surveillance. There’s something similar going on in government, and it hides behind a slough of meaningless programs sold in a similar fashion.
President Obama’s Open Government Plan, for example, is a study in the hollowness of what might be called performative transparency. The Open Government Plan is, as the name suggests, a classic reformist endeavor to “open up government.” Each federal agency is required to maintain an “Open Government Webpage” dedicated to transparency — and to release lots and lots of data via data.gov, which was launched in 2009 to enable “the public to participate in government by providing downloadable federal datasets to build applications, conduct analyses, and perform research.” It takes the view that putting something — anything, really — online is equivalent to full public disclosure. So while even the CIA has a transparency page now (!), it’s not exactly throwing sunlight on what’s happening at the agency today. The page invites us to pore over “USSR General Staff Academy Lessons: Supplementary Material for Lesson No. 1,” a translation of a Russian training manual from 1982. Or perhaps you’d like to curl up with the 1983 remarks of CIA director William Casey upon being honored at Westminster College? If you’re a historian studying the Warsaw Pact, it’s the site for you. Otherwise, the information is not especially useful.
In fact, the vast majority of government information that data.gov has posted is of low value and a bit difficult, in its abundance, for human beings to process. It’s hardly a problem to have a machine churn this stuff out, but its critical processing by citizens (central to democracy, one would think) becomes impossible. It’s good to have access to the MyPyramid Food Raw Data set as well as information ranging from earthquake listings to unemployment figures to the locations and characteristics of world copper smelters, but these do not exactly constitute a paradigm shift in citizen access to government doings. What is presented as an “opening up” is merely the digital rearrangement of known facts. When data.gov began with about 50 sets of pretty unimportant data, Ellen Miller of the online Sunlight Foundation waved off any suggestion that the project was a sort of red herring. “It bothers me less that there are 50 feeds available today because it represents this enormous change in attitude about what public means. It means it’s online. It means it’s available. I think it’s a dramatic breakthrough in the role of government.”
But this is less a new role than a new interface. Though the tech world is quick to praise these initiatives at big events like the PDF conference — an annual gathering of politically oriented techies that in 2010 featured talks on such subjects as “Media Revolutions,” “Freedom to Connect,” “The Internet Is My Religion,” and “Democracy in the Age of Zipcar” — they don’t encourage agencies to suddenly put their actual secrets in the public sphere. Instead, the techno-transparency narrative thrills such conference goers by putting them in the driver’s seat of liberal progress. Without their data-sorting apps, how will we save democracy?
After the U.K. instituted a similar program, data.gov.uk, data expert Paul Clarke wrote a year later that “we were told that tools would emerge to make general understanding easier, that amateur auditors would audit from their armchairs and indeed there has been some progress in this area. But there hasn’t been a dramatic unveiling of hitherto concealed horrors, just some visualizations and a tendency to focus on quirky details that make interesting stories — with no substantive follow-up.” Providing reformatted, agency-selected information does not amount to a new flow of secrets into the public domain; it’s merely a new means by which government agencies can paint visions of transparency while distracting advocates from the real business they conduct. The CIA may have a web page, but it seems unlikely they’ll be posting an interactive map of black sites anytime soon.
What brought about this massive regime of secrecy that the new transparency schemes have been designed to disguise or excuse? The state-secrets privilege, the dominant legal enabler of U.S. government concealment, emerged from the flames of a military disaster that occurred in 1948. When a Boeing Superfortress plane stopped working at 18,500 feet, its cargo of military technology, Air Force personnel, and civilian observers ploughed into the ground at Waycross, Georgia, killing nine of the passengers. The widows of the three dead civilians sued the U.S. for negligence, and when the plaintiffs requested a copy of the Air Force’s disaster inquiry, federal officials informed them that the aircraft had been “engaged in a highly secret mission” and no evidence could be revealed. And in 1953 a U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that the government could legally withhold evidence for national-security purposes.
Under the terms of United States v. Reynolds, what counted as “national security” was up to the holder of the information to decide. Even judges couldn’t demand the right to review. Given the all-encompassing paranoia of the Cold War, every feature of American life could be construed to appear as though it related to national security, and was thus classifiable. But when, in 1996, the Clinton administration declassified all Air Force accident reports through 1955, bringing the original 1948 report to light, the document confirmed the worst fears of Reynolds’s dissenters. The mission had in fact been a mundane test flight, not a hero’s mission of secret import. Even more damning, the aircraft was unsafe for flight, with missing equipment, insufficient maintenance, and irregular and unbriefed personnel. The document, in other words, proved what one dissenting judge had warned about, that “it is but a small step to assert a privilege against any disclosure of records merely because they might prove embarrassing.”
What the Cold War’s pervasive paranoia meant in practical terms was the sequestering of enormous amounts of data relating to how our government actually operates in the world. Federal functionaries locked up great stacks of files in the bureaucratic crypts of the Pentagon. True to the mishap that midwifed the modern secrecy doctrine, Watergate, and its many kindred — the CIA black operations uncovered by the Senate’s Church committee in 1976, the Iran-Contra scandal, the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, just to name just some of the best-known episodes — indicated that the impulse to cover up the routine workings of the federal bureaucracy served to cover over ineptitude and criminality in equal measure.
And like all things pertaining to Cold War intrigue, the new secrecy regime kicked up fearsome quantities of blowback — most notoriously, during the Nixon era, when capacious amounts of federal manpower and resources were committed to domestic surveillance. Just as intelligence agencies collected reams of data on the Communist menace, a network of official voyeurs peered into the most mundane aspects of citizens’ daily life. Operatives at virtually every level of the new security state filed away drug-addiction histories, addresses, and financial documents — even grade-school reports — of ordinary people.
Perhaps chastened by his own self-surveillance bungle, Nixon himself, in a 1974 speech on “the American right of privacy,” noted that “government bureaucracies seem to thrive on collecting additional information.” What’s more, he warned, “it is clear, as one government study has concluded, that ‘it is becoming much easier for recordkeeping systems to affect people than for people to affect recordkeeping systems.’ ”
But rather than keep fewer records, agencies increasingly used newly invented databanks, the better to build a virtual you. Their computers could pluck out any detail of your life and add it to the government’s central, databanked composite. As a result, Americans were left trying to figure out just who the government thought they were, and thus the first lineaments of the transparency movement stirred to life. It didn’t seek to roll back data collection either; instead it sought new legislation to force government disclosure — i.e., greater transparency of the state rather than protection of individual privacy. The government would keep collecting information, but citizens could see what and why. The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 offered legal tools for processing disclosure requests, and the Privacy Act of 1974 gave citizens greater access to the data collected about them. But in 1997, when Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jesse Helms co-sponsored the Government Secrecy Act, arguing that fewer documents should be classified and that more documents be declassified automatically over time, the bill died unmourned in committee.
In 1922, godfather of technocracy Walter Lippmann declared that “the public is interested in law, not in the laws; in the method of law, not in the substance.” In today’s new information regime, you might say that the public is interested in disclosure, not what gets disclosed. Or in historian Christopher Lasch’s disapproving summary, “the public’s interest in government is strictly procedural.” Americans enjoy a variety of “transparency” mechanisms permitting them to request information, even when the actual information released remains wholly dictated by the government.
Trade journal Information Week shared this sample of Obama’s wide-open government in action, a kind of miniature comic-opera of nondisclosure-disclosure:
The National Reconnaissance Office is building a next-generation network called Ardent Gunslinger and carrying out a space network architecture project called Puppet Master, according to a redacted version of the secretive spy satellite agency’s fiscal 2011 budget request that was recently published by the Federation of American Scientists, a government transparency group.
The budget document details numerous projects, though many of them have a majority of their project descriptions redacted. For example, almost all of the six pages on space communications are blacked out, save for a few innocuous sections that say things like “conduct analysis of vulnerabilities and capabilities of future communications tor [sic] both space and terrestrial applications.”
Got that? After a decade or more of sanctimonious official rhetoric about transparency’s virtues, a federal sky-spying agency can fulfill a FOIA request with totally redacted documents. How spymasters came to christen their pet projects “Ardent Gunslinger” and “Puppet Master” will have to remain speculative fodder for armchair Freudians. But more fundamentally, the scope of government impunity has increased under the current transparency dispensation.
Julian Assange had a rather different sort of transparency in mind when he facilitated the leaking of thousands of documents via his online data clearinghouse WikiLeaks. Nonetheless, his case has now been taken up by a collection of digital government advocates — liberal and libertarian — who hail WikiLeaks as a watershed in their webby vision of the same digital-disclosure revolution advocated by Obama. Micah Sifry’s book WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency is representative. Sifry, CEO of Personal Democracy Forum, argues that,
WikiLeaks is just one piece of a much larger continuum of changes in how the people and the powerful relate to each other in this new time — changes that are fundamentally healthy for the growth and strength of an open society. Secrecy and the hoarding of information are ending; openness and the sharing of information are coming.
Sound the bugles! For Sifry and his Government 2.0 ilk, the WikiLeaks saga is a Howard Zinn–style story of the people versus the powerful. But online, the people need no longer bother with precarious alliances, cross-class solidarity, counterrevolutionary tendencies and the like. Instead, the people can spontaneously rise up on a wave of technological determinism and liberate government files marked with that obsolete warning, “Top Secret.”
Sifry, together with many “digital democracy” enthusiasts, believes we inhabit a new world where data is transparency is good government; in fact it’s “we-government.” It’s an inspiring vision, one that says, “Don’t give up on your government yet; there’s an app for that!” In describing the surge in online activism inspired by the Howard Dean campaign, he writes, “Transparency was the fuel; connectivity was the engine; a sense of oneself as a more effective participant in the democratic process (personal democracy, if you will) was the journey. What was emerging was a greatly expanded notion of the role of citizen not just as a passive consumer of political information and occasional voter, but as an active player … participating in problem solving.”
Of course, plenty of non-passive citizens populated our republic long before the advent of Web 2.0 — be they activists, journalists, reformers, or town-meeting members. It may be easier to galvanize such people thanks to the vast array of platforms and apps at their disposal, but the web has not summoned them into existence. But, by linking web participation with the creation of the involved citizen, Sifry gives the tool deterministic power. The basic syllogism goes something like this: If technology makes engaged citizens, then more technology is good — and since technology is always growing, the iGeist is carrying us toward a perfectly open, transparent government, with an enthusiastic citizenry forever hacking digital walls to keep the sunlight pouring in.
This version of the engaged citizen works like an efficient algorithm, extracting, disseminating, and organizing piles of data. But data and empowerment are two different things. Simply having data doesn’t make one an active and informed user of it. In the words of Christopher Lasch, “information, usually seen as the precondition of debate, is better understood as its byproduct. When we get into arguments that focus and fully engage our attention, we become avid seekers of relevant information. Otherwise we take in information passively — if we take it in at all.”
This is precisely why data dumps are often paralyzing rather than productive. WikiLeaks is a sight better than Personal Democracy Forum (the very idea of which is hard to conceive; since a functioning democracy requires a public sphere, one can’t franchise the idea out to individual proprietors the way one might license a chain of fast-food restaurants). But they both rely on a common epistemology, which, if adopted, would forever put the sort of fact-seeking Lasch describes beyond our reach.
Instead of criticizing government actions on moral grounds, digital-transparency organizations have focused on value-neutral process: a bipartisan spectator sport involving the mannered drama of leaked data and online spreadsheets. Hewing to the ideal of transparency requires no greater engagement with government secrecy than polishing the display window, and hoping that, in time, agencies will shuffle the right bit of information into the forefront.
If “transparency is the new objectivity,” as Sifry insists, then we’ve discarded politics for procedure. If we think the necessary debates will just automatically follow from arbitrary data releases, we’ll never initiate the critical investigations that could actually prompt relevant disclosures or develop a focus to make use of the dumped info before more piles on top of us.
Sifry and his colleagues often seem like an interest group without an interest. As critic Evgeny Morozov has pointed out, the new world of Internet activism has spawned nothing if not its own set of newly empowered and well-compensated consultants. But what are they driving us toward, and why have they proved so seductive?
A glance back to the late 1990s helps explain the deeper roots of the transparency movement, when transparency and the Internet were emerging as twinned concepts, reinforcing each other and redefining public expectations about broader access to information. Law professor Alasdair Roberts pointed out in Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age that “the ‘Internet bubble’ was as evident in discussions about public access to information as it was in the stock market. Technological evangelists foresaw a world in which ‘anyone with a modem can gather nearly as much intelligence as the CIA.’ ”
On one level technological transparency made perfect sense. Legitimate fears that democracy was buckling under the weight of state secrecy could be addressed not by the systematic dismantling of the state-secret apparatus but by opening a series of technological windows into it. Support for this sort of transparency was wonderfully bipartisan, endorsed with equal fervor among the cultural libertarians of the Wired set and the congressional class of Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution.
The techno-libertarian faith effectively repealed the skepticism of technology beyond human comprehension and control engendered by the Cold War when critics like Jacques Ellul warned of the creeping ability of computers to spy and store secrets away from the public. During the Cold War’s endgame, Morozov argues, the West’s romance with the allegedly democratizing power of the web arose from its conviction that information technologies — photocopied samizdat, Radio Free Europe, the VCR — were instrumental in unraveling the Eastern Bloc. And sure enough, this belief persists: A Wired UK article by Peter Kirwan, “From Samizdat to Twitter: How Technology Is Making Censorship Irrelevant,” parrots that precise line of causation. But Morozov, a native of Belarus (Europe’s “last dictatorship”) and a veteran of that nation’s democracy movement, points out that “simply opening up the information gates would not erode modern authoritarian regimes, in part because they have learned to function in an environment marked by the abundance of information.” He makes the indispensable point that authoritarian regimes had built an obsessive cult of information gathering long before Wired founder Louis Rosetto came on the scene. For in our haste to ascribe regime-smashing power to the digital revolution, we become more likely to overlook how it also makes us more transparent.
Belief in the inherent progressivism of the Internet and digital activism obscures the way transparency actually exaggerates those asymmetries of power that Sifry so earnestly believes will be reversed. Put another way, technology rarely helps unearth government secrets, but it can unearth ours for government. Sifry quotes Julian Assange, circa 2011, arguing that “transparency should be proportional to the power that one has.” But web technologies have rendered the defenseless citizen far more transparent than any well-fortified government agency or corporation. Institutions use their existing power to better exploit the affordances of new technologies; they don’t level the playing field, let alone turn the tables.
The prophets of digital disclosure, in other words, have the central political calculus precisely wrong: As we get more transparent, we become less, not more, powerful as individuals. The larger irony is that prosecuting the government to reveal its secrets may now threaten the privacy of other individuals rather than corruption within the state itself. The British periodical Computer Weekly pointed out that the U.K. government had collected so much information about individuals that the projected release of government data under the official “transparency agenda” risked exposing them. Kieron O’Hara, author of the Cabinet-commissioned report Transparent Government, Not Transparent Citizens notes that legalistic definitions of privacy “have proved inadequate to provide a clear framework for analysis of privacy issues, especially in the context of jigsaw identification using recently developed de-anonymization techniques.” Anyone with sophisticated computer skills, that is , could put the personal information of the British citizenry — and, one can be confident, the American, German, or Brazilian citizenry — together like a puzzle.
When Facebook reprocesses our personal information, the data miners are generally only trying to sell us weirdly specific products or target ads. But when the government is concerned, the stakes are different. In 2005, several telecommunications companies were caught supplying personal information to the National Security Agency, demonstrating the dangers of corporate data accumulation. What if the NSA decides it wants full personality profiles of everyone who “attended” #OccupyWallStreet on Facebook? It would be a matter of keystrokes to supply entire “social graphs” for each of them.
The Obama administration has also sought to prevent lawsuits against the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping, no less, by invoking the state secrets doctrine; we are infinitely transparent, while the government is enshrouded, and the complicit corporations too. It’s for national security. Try filing a FOIA request.