Secrecy is power over others

[Think of this post as something like a public draft, fittingly enough. I’m looking for feedback. Poke holes. Make it (or make me make it) better.]

Secrecy is power over others. Seems like a pretty obvious statement right? Obviously when you keep something a secret you are the one choosing whether someone else can know that thing. In some cases that isn’t a huge deal (eg: I didn’t tell anyone else that I ate the last two oranges just now) but in other cases it is a horrible act of malice (let your brain run wild for a second on this one).

Luckily, our society is starting to become more accustomed to not protecting everything as a secret. There are better places and worse places, but it seems to me that the anti-secret (or pro-knowledge) crowd is gaining support.

But it hasn’t always been that way, of course.

Not that long ago, it was common practice for cancer sufferers to not know they had cancer. Their doctors would know and sometimes part of their family would (eg: parents or kids, depending on which one was “vulnerable”), but they would die of cancer never knowing they had cancer. In fact, from a quick web search, it seems that is still not an uncommon thing in Japan. [edit: Thanks to Janne’s comment regarding the extra information on Japanese cancer patients choices. Some actually preemptively say they would not wish to know.]

Not that long ago it was impossible for a citizen in the USA to request information about actions the government is taking. Now we have FOIA (which is still pretty limited and there are still far too many governmental secrets, I argue all of them).

What is behind all secrecy? The notion that one person/group can know something while another person/group is too dumb/smart/vulnerable/bad/good/whatever to know it.

One group is unilaterally creating a caste system. The other (non-knowers) have no agency in this choice and have no recourse other than begging the knowers. The knowers wield power over the non-knowers in many unfathomable ways, ways not yet even known when the knowers decided to create the non-knowers.

If you are a person in the group of non-knowers, it is easy for you to feel alone and as an outcast. Someone has decided that you, personally you, are not worthy of some bit of information, no matter how inconsequential it is (and the more inconsequential it is the worse the feeling). And when that information is about you, or your place in life, you are justified in feeling that you are worthless because you aren’t even worth as much as your own information.

Now, the question becomes, what do you as a knower or a person in a position who can delineate people as knowers vs non-knowers do? Do you share with everyone all you know or do you keep some things completely to yourself and other things somewhere in between (even through enforceable means such as NDAs, contracts/licenses, and the like)?

Does it matter depending on the information you possess? You will undoubtedly argue yes, of course it does. I did initially.

But should that be the answer?

Let’s start to dissect the usual excuses.

1.Just because something is normally treated as a secret doesn’t mean it should continue to be a secret. See the poor souls who died of cancer and at the same time completely confused and alone. “What we’ve always done” is never an acceptable excuse. Everything is open for reassessment.

2.Just because one group thinks the information can be misinterpreted by a “less informed” or “not as smart” person doesn’t mean it should continue as a secret. This is my biggest critique of the mentality I see in many researchers, even those who are pro “open”. They continue to sometimes be paternalistic and pretentious. This mentality should be corrected as early in a person’s life as possible.

2a.Some “open” licenses even codify this. The Open Government License from the UK says one must “ensure that you do not mislead others or misrepresent the Information or its source”. That sure is burdensome. Ensuring? I need to make sure that everyone who reads my work based on your data understands me correctly? As Mike Linksvayer has said about the OGL, it is quite problematic.

3.We are starting to see that business secrets are more costly than beneficial and this will only accelerate in the future due to the mode of production asymptotically approaching 100% digital. Thus, if this is the excuse, it should be justified (and not just in a anyway that is refuted before or after this bullet).

3a.Some research in this area is starting to come out from people such as Eric Von Hippel.

4. If your reputation as a person will be hurt by the information you tend to want it secret. This one is huge and complex. Defining the “you” the “others”, along with “reputation” and “hurt”, and lastly with a new word of “justified” are tough to do in a single bullet. I may expand this and do a full blog post on it later.

4a. Are you making the choice for a company? Is the information damning to you/the business because you are/the business is doing things that are illegal or unethical? Share it. Period. No questions asked. If you have the power to share that information and you don’t you are culpable (to the greater good). If you think my assertion here is wrong, tell me why any company should get away with actions which the rest of the world/country/state/county/whatever thinks is unacceptable? If you are a libertarian, isn’t knowledge the first requisite to being able to “choose with your money?”

4b. Are you making the choice for yourself? This one is where I will allow some leeway, until I can figure out a reason not to. Again, this one I’ll revisit in more detail later.

5. Money. This one is simple: why are you hiding your expenses? People feel like their finances are personal and private for reasons I can’t quite pin down. Jealousy (either direction)? Ashamed? Something else? Why is this? Why does it matter what my salary is? You can already infer much of it based on how a person lives (what the buy, what they don’t, etc). True, there are many that live below their means, but you can also infer that as well.

5a This is doubly so for ANY type of organization. I believe that the three main points of Open-book management are almost perfect. I only make one correction: “The company should share finances as well as critical data with all employees.” This means: everyone’s salary (especially the C-level types), where the money comes from (grants, products, services, and how much from where and for what), rent, utilities, everything. It’s easy, too. That document is already circulated among the C-level types and the board at least once a year. Just add it to and be done with it.

5a-continued I know of many non-profits that make their 990s and Financial Statements easily findable. In fact, many Free Software and related orgs’ documents are collated by Bradley Kuhn in this gitorious repository ( And Carl Malamud has made this much easier by providing bulk access to all of the publicly available IRS documents for Tax Exempt Organizations (non-profits), ie: their 990s.

6. What’s your excuse? Please share (really).

Based on these refutations of the above excuses it is plainly clear that most, if not all, information should be freely available. Secrecy harms more than it protects.

Let’s think of all the ways that secrecy harms individuals and our society.

1. The countless deaths from secret drone attacks.

2. The countless deaths from secret wars perpetrated by democracies.

3. The countless deaths from secrets withheld by pharmaceutical companies.

4. The countless deaths from secrets withheld by car manufacturers.

… If those weren’t enough …

5. Unable to make quality non-profit donation decisions because we don’t know the organizations current financials and roadmap(s). I complain about this every year when donation time rolls around. This year a lot of non-profits were (minimally) hurt because I chose not to give to them, even after I did last year, because of a lack of information. In some small way, their own secrecy directly hurt them.

But, I don’t want to end on such an insignificant thought like me not donating $50 to the EFF this year. So instead, I’ll let you know that I’m not the only one thinking about this (Mike Linksvayer has alluded to this idea, while I was drafting this post, no less).

And now, let me ask you a question:

What secrets are you keeping and why?

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  1. The example you post about cancer in Japan is a bit more subtle than that. As a patient you’re often asked beforehand ether you want to know if you have any of a range of deadly diseases or not. And even if not asked, a fair few people declare they don’t want o know of their own volition.

    So it’s not so much widtholding information but more a “right not to know” kind of thing.

  2. I keep secrets for no other reason than that I dislike and distrust other people. Anybody who might wield authority over me is my enemy, and I don’t tell my enemies anything.

  3. Matthew:

    Thanks for the feedback! That is a great response that I actually have another draft lined up to address (in some way).

    Short version: who has authority over you and why? Are they accountable? Or are they omnipotent? (yes, the short version is just questions)

  4. Thanks Janne.

    I’ll be honest, I didn’t fully read the article that I based my assertion on. It was this one: “Psychological process from hospitalization to death among uninformed terminal liver cancer patients in Japan”

    Edited the post.

  5. Matthew:

    I should also add, I’m sorry you feel that your boss, your mother, and your teacher were all enemies (at one point or another in your life).

  6. I tried to login as the admin user for this site, but you seem to have kept the password a secret?

    I’m unsure of what you are arguing for? Are you saying that all information should be free, some should be free or more information should be free?

    You may want to keep a secret to protect yourself (or another) to prevent persecution by another, others or society. Examples: Keeping your religious beliefs secret because of the society you live in is intolerant of your belief or non-belief. Keeping you sexuality secret for similar reasons. Hiding someone in your home or work place to prevent persecution due to their race (Anne Frank).

    There are countless more examples.

    Your arguments seem to be based on an assumption that the society that a person is living in is a tolerant one. Perhaps your position should be more clearly stated?

  7. Hello Andrew,

    Actually, there is no admin account on this site ;)

    This post is just a small portion of a larger argument. While it is relatively long for the average blog post (weighing in at ~1400 words) it is, however, sadly too short to encapsulate all of the argument that needs to be made.

    As you may or may not have read in my reply to Matthew: Accountability is as much a factor as any of the ones I listed above. Accountability for all parties.

    My assumption is only one that all parties are accountable for their actions, thus, intoleratant, abusive, unsustainable, idiotic, etc actions will illicit an (equally accountable) response.

    What does that accountability look like? I need to the time to draft the next post ;)

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