It’s probably no surprise to most people reading this website that information, computing power, and the ability to hack into “secure” systems is growing exponentially. This is leading to the increasing difficulty of keeping secrets, even for top levels of government intelligence. It has been dubbed the declining half life of secrets by Peter Swire, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology as well as a previous member of President Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology. He put forth his ideas in a paper last year describing the ways that several components are causing the ability to keep a secret to become harder and harder. These factors are Moore’s Law, the sociological trends in the information community, and different sources and methods for the information community.
Moore’s Law refers to the predictable increase in computing power over time – or more specifically, that the amount of transistors in a dense integrated circuit will double roughly every two years. This has been proven year after year. There has been debate over whether or not there will be a physical end to Moore’s Law, however for the time being it is a contributor to the increase in computing power and a reliable observation of how information technology will become faster and more powerful over time.
The present day dissemination of information compared to ten or twenty years ago is strikingly different. The cost of information storage is negligible, and the ability to share that information through self publishing on the internet leads to an almost immediate worldwide audience.
When Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, the magnitude seemed enormous, over 7,000 pages in 7 printed volumes. Snowden, by contrast, took between 50,000 and 200,000 documents, according to former NSA Director Keith Alexander. Today a 64 gigabyte thumb drive costs less than $30, and holds over 4 million pages of text. One full thumb drive is a gusher, not a leak.” Peter Swire in The Declining Half Life Of Secrets
Hence, the risk to government agencies is much, much higher. The ability to unleash a rather large quantity of information quickly to a huge audience is unprecedented in humanity until now.
Another aspect to this change is the culture in which this unlimited information disclosure is happening. When it comes to the opinion of how “free” information should be there is a huge divide in culture between the government and its associated agencies and Silicon Valley. The litmus test seems to be Edward Snowden, who is regarded as a traitor among government information intelligence personnel and government agencies but a whistleblower among those in Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley is a culture entrenched in the protection of user privacy as well as the complete freedom of information. The government relies on cutting edge technologies from Silicon Valley however it is becoming harder and harder to get proprietary technology as well as the ability to hire those with the opinion that the government should be able to have at least a few secrets.
Methodology of secret activities is also becoming harder and harder as high end technology gets cheaper and cheaper and is available to the general public. Computing power that was once the domain of only the government is now available to teenagers using their parent’s desktop. Combining resources allows internet communities to track things such as government satellites, drones, and , making it harder and harder for the government to conduct activities in secrecy.
The entire topic raises quite an interesting debate. Should the government have the ability to keep some secrets in the interest of national security? In some sense it seems logical that this should happen. The public can’t seem to be trusted with important decisions (case in point, Donald Trump coming so far in the election cycle). However the interest of personal privacy in opposition to the huge increases in surveillance technology is somewhat at odds. Add to that the antiquated laws that are being applied to current technologies like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Laws are notoriously slow to be updated, and can’t quite keep up with the pace of technology.
How do you feel about the conflict of government secrets and the freedom of information? Leave a comment below.