Secrecy part 2: Accountability

In my previous post in this series (Secrecy is power over others) I began the exploration on secrecy in today’s world. It was a very primitive exploration without much depth, admittedly. I ended it attempting to outline a few of the common excuses used for not sharing secrets.

I need to expand, clarify, and generally make my argument more coherent, but it serves its current purpose of beginning the discussion.

Now I want to discuss one of the concerns from the comments (thanks Matthew and Andrew). It boils down to accountability.

What do I mean by accountability? From the Wiktionary definition of accountable we have:

  • Liable to be called on to render an account;
  • Being answerable for.
  • Being liable for.

Without accountability (universally), no wrong or unethical action could be brought to justice. Thus, I think we can safely assume and make it a priori that justice and accountability are good things.

I assert that justice should be universal and thus, by extension, accountability should be as well.

This has two sides for my secrecy post.

1. To be accountable others must have access to the evidence (incriminating or exonerating). This is much of the reasoning to justify my assertions that all corporate information (especially those things normally treated as secrets) should be shared publicly.

2. The flip side is that those who have access to others’ information (or secrets if you will) must be accountable for their actions with that information. This is precisely why the actions of the government (especially those actions involving the killing of people) needs to be shared and thus justified. If the people killing others are not held accountable, we get the slew of horrible examples I closed my secrecy post with.

I’ll expand #2 a little more.

My daily habits, movements, readings, and interactions with other people is routinely monitored by government agencies. However, those agencies are not directly accountable for the actions they take informed by that information. And they are ESPECIALLY not accountable to me. This is the problem. And I posit, if this part of the problem were addressed (with more information sharing, getting rid of government secrets) then I wouldn’t be as uneasy with sharing that information publicly. Of course, it isn’t only the government that does bad things; corporations, non-profits, and other people do as well. Everyone should be accountable to everyone. Period. Let me repeat that.

Everyone should be accountable to everyone.

If your actions adversely affect me, then you should be accountable (and make amends) to me.
If my actions adversely affect you, then I should be accountable (and make amends) to you.

“What about my personal information? Isn’t that going to be used against me?”

That’s the most common response/retort to the notion of a more transparent society; people (or corporations or governments) will misuse that information.

I agree. They will. And they do now. A lot. Everyday in fact.

Why are they able to misuse that information? First, they are the ones collecting the information, thus they are the ones in control of its sharing, not you (unless you take extensive actions like recording all of your own movements, fingerprints, id numbers, etc etc and sharing them in public). Because they, not you, are now in control of your data, they can do what they want with that data (they call it “theirs” by this point, since they collected it). You, at the same time, don’t really have many easy avenues to 1) verify the accuracy of their data on you or 2) fix wrong or illegally acquired data (think: credit report mistakes or FBI files with wrong information).

Why not? Because they are not accountable to you. There are laws in place to make sure that governments and corporations are not accountable to the citizens. It’s really simple, actually, but it is also insanely irresponsible as a society.

The first step to remedy this issue to make the government and corporations (and even other individuals) accountable to the people who they are collecting data about. We’ve only recently begun to understand this as an American (US of A) population; see: the FACT Act of 2003 for credit reports and the Freedom of Information Act (1966) for government information (both horribly late in the history of the US, beyond despicable for a country that proclaims to be the pinnacle of them all). We need more of these things. Or maybe just a blanket law:

if you record information about people, those very people must be able to review all related recorded information without delay and submit corrections where appropriate.

The obviously difficult part of this proposal is the “submit corrections” part; how does anyone verify the correction (or the previously wrong information)? (ok ok, it is all difficult, how do we ensure we know of everyone who is recording data before we can even begin to bring accountability into the picture?)

Summary in quasi-logic:

  1. More transparency in life generally leads to more efficient and productive (thus less wasteful and hurtful) lives.
  2. Corporations, government agencies, and individuals are scared of being more transparent for various reasons.
  3. The vast majority of these reasons are superfluous.
  4. The remaining can be addressed through universal accountability with justice.
  5. Therefore, we should work toward a society with universal accountability and justice.

Addendum (8:50am PST): To be clear: I use ghostery, DoNotTrack, run a Tor relay and similar things because universal (or even partial) accountability has not addressed the concerns for which they were created.

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2 comments.

  1. “If your actions adversely affect me, then you should be accountable (and make amends) to me.
    If my actions adversely affect you, then I should be accountable (and make amends) to you.”

    I feel this is painting in too broad of strokes. Something that ‘adversely affect[s] you’ can actually be a quite subjective experience. For an example outside of information collecting, some people feel that allowing two individuals of the same sex to marry adversely affects them as heterosexuals. Should the homosexual couple, or even broader society, be held “accountable” for their feeling of adverse effects? Broader society may be able to show from its perspective that heterosexuals are not adversely affected, however, I suspect at least a number of defense of marriage folks will not be persuaded. And what kind of ‘amend’ can be made for that? So I agree greater accountability, especially as it can temper the power given to individuals/organizations in high power, is a good thing I think the statement ‘everyone should be accountable to everyone’ could be better nuanced.

  2. Sharon: Exact same reaction as many others have had.

    See my responses in this discussion on Identi.ca: http://identi.ca/conversation/98182179

    I see I need to clarify things a little bit more. :)

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