"Privacy is dead. Get over it."
So spake Sun Microsystems former CEO Scott McNealy nine years ago, singing the praises of a national ID and implanted smart chips in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Today, the phrase is more often associated with social media than national security, but the two are closely intertwined.
The United States Government's WikiLeaks problem calls to mind what we, America's youth, have seen over the past several years with the rise of a dramatically more open information culture. Ease of access, data storage density, near-lightspeed transmission and gaping-wide bandwidth come wrapped up with inevitable tradeoffs. Worse, our information is being handled by an array of immensely complicated black boxes; we have no ability to see what's actually done with it.
Almost every instance of consuming information now constitutes a perfect copy. You receive a copy of Facebook every time you visit it, or when anyone sends you any text, photo, or audio in any way. Besides, when any given copy is just a disc scratch or 'Delete' tap away from oblivion, data security depends on replication. Information used to tend to just sit there; now, it has a natural tendency to replicate. Maintaining privacy (or keeping state secrets) is like trying to contain a virus; it's often doable and often advisable, but sometimes feels like we've brought fly-swatters to fight microbes.
The proliferation of copies is actually not new. The light bathing the cuneiform on a clay tablet is continuously making untold gazillions of optical "copies" of the information contained on its surface. But we are only able to intercept these copies with our eyes at certain angles at close range; we cannot easily manipulate or capture them for re-storage and they are all soon destroyed by scattering on a nearby surface or the atmosphere. Moving information systems into controllable man-made systems has changed that.
We are simply getting way too good at capturing, storing and transmitting information to go back to our old ways. The only way I can imagine us really returning to a system where the privacy of secrets is ensured is to sandbox all humanity in a Matrix-like virtual machine where we can rewrite the rules. Mind you, that's the most practical solution I see, and it would be next to impossible.
So, the cat is out of the bag. But that hardly means all hope is lost. I think we can nudge our fall toward openness such that, on balance, it does orders of magnitude more good than harm.
Living in an uncertain world, we need never concern ourselves with what is possible, but only with the degree to which things are probable. We can make the nastier uses of information expensive or difficult. We need not (indeed, absolutely should not!) scream everything to the world; we just can no longer stake our livelihood on so much information's security or obscurity to such a degree.
Wikileaks Editor in Chief Julian Assange wants the United States Government, and authorities everywhere, to respond to a leaky information culture by locking down, reflexively strangling its own cognitive capacities—because he knows it is in vain, and only the free and open will be left standing. It only barely matters whether he's a "good guy" or a "bad guy"; he's right. (Correct, anyway.)
This problem will not be solved by taking him out, nor WikiLeaks, nor Bradley Manning, nor the next hundred information terrorists. Rather, we must dramatically bolster our tolerance. We're all deeply flawed; the law ought to accept that, we ought to accept that about each other, and we ought to admit it about ourselves. Ultimately, with time and education, I think we'll find that the vast majority of the world has the capacity to be perfectly caring, compassionate, and understanding. As for the rest, well, they're running out of room to hide.
Then again, in the words of Jack Handey: "I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world, because they'd never expect it."