Information wants to be free (maybe) – but do we want it to be leaky?

Of the many reactions to Trump’s election in 2016, one was an embrace of online tools for increased privacy.  Interest in encryption soared, from email clients like Protonmail to messaging apps like SignalCrypto parties – workshops where tech experts teach interested rookies how to use privacy tools – popped up across the United States.

At the same time that regular people are stepping up tools for information control, Trump’s presidency has seen an incredible wave of leaks from the White House and other government agencies.  Leakiness is itself a fluid, unmanageable concept, straddling individuals, institutions, mediated communication and information control. It’s up to political theorists, journalists and activists to figure out what leaks mean for politics.  As an internet studies researcher, I find myself trying to think through the politics of leakiness in terms of digital media.

Like a lot of people on the left, I feel somewhat desperate for any sense of logic or explanatory power about what’s going on in the White House, and leaks offer some clue as to what’s going on.  They also seem to signal discontent with the administration, at a time when internal dissent is deeply appealing.  But how do politics of secure communication square with disclosures about political actions?

In a recent Harpers article, Michael Glennon described leaks from within intelligence agencies as “a short-term tactic for buttressing their organizations’ authority.”  Yet Glennon also argues that “Leaks … connote indiscipline, and thus provide fodder for the argument that a disorderly intelligence community needs a thorough housecleaning. Moreover, as Trump pointed out, the leaks are felonies (and they come from the same organizations whose leaders once called for Edward Snowden’s head).”

Using the term “indiscipline” is important here, and intelligence agencies aren’t the only ones who need to stick to protocol to protect their institutions. Activist communities often treat newcomers in suspicion, fearing informants and infiltration from the police.  (These fears are not unfounded.) Many anti-fascist and direct action groups are particularly fierce in declaring “no snitching” when it comes to their groups and actions.

While these groups demand discipline in their information practices, at other times leaks are crucial acts of political dissent. Leaks from Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden have given us incredibly powerful information about the extent of anti-democratic surveillance on behalf of the government over its own people. (It’s important to note that Trump’s anger with White House and agency leaks has an important recent legacy in Obama’s crack down on whistle-blowers.) Part of the issue here is around the context-dependent nature of integrity – when does discipline signal protecting a community and when does indiscipline signal a critique of injustice?

It may be helpful here to separate privacy and secrecy.  In my research with countercultural communities and digital media, I’ve started to think of these concepts as being about whose information is being protected: privacy is about keeping what I do private, secrecy is about keeping what we do private. So encryption methods are tools of privacy, whereas relationships to technology can signal commitments to secrecy.

Take the punk rock community in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  For years they’ve engaged in a cat and mouse game with local law enforcement over house shows.  Punks want other music fans to come to shows, but don’t want to alert the police to upcoming performances.  They use social media to share information but (fearing police infiltration of their online networks) only up to a point.  While dates, times and the lineup are posted to Facebook invites, the actual house address is kept secret, conveyed through word of mouth or text message.  These practices are ritualized with catch phrases like “ask a punk” as a cryptic instruction of the limits of online information. Despite millenials’ reputation of being permanently wired and dependent on social media, when it comes to preserving a cherished music scene in the city where they live, New Brunswick punks maintain secrecy by adhering to a system of deliberate information opacity.

A pre-web comparison of activist secrecy might be useful. In 1971, a small group of activists raided an FBI office in Media, PA.  After breaking into the office and stealing a series of files, the activists anonymously handed over their materials to journalists at the Washington Post, a scoop that eventually led to the discovery of Nixon’s COINTELPRO.  Furious, the FBI descended on the leftist and radical community of West Philadelphia, convinced (correctly) that the responsible parties were in the area.  Although surveilled for months, the activists were surrounded by a community of radicals who were supportive of their actions.  At a screening of a documentary about the Media action, several of the activists spoke about the action and the current political climate.  Asked about their ability to stay quiet about their actions until after the statute of limitations had expired, one speaker noted “It’s easy to keep a secret if talking could send you to federal prison, taking you away from your children.”

Even as powerful tools have been developed to support whistleblowers, it’s important to ask how social media platforms support more problematic forms of leaks.  In a moment where self-expression is distributed technologically, are socio-technical norms of disclosure making it harder to keep secrets, even when leaks can threaten relationships, both activist and diplomatic?  Has the emphasis on tools for privacy kept us from thinking about the need for social practices of secrecy?

I’ve been trying to trace a complex social, political and technological landscape of leaks, and as happens a lot with cultural studies folks, I have more questions than answers.  (Hey, it’s a blog post, a medium meant for brainstorming.)  Perhaps one approach is to shift our framing of leaks.  Emma Pask has written about leaks in terms of gender, embodiment and fluidity, where leakiness has the capacity to disrupt our notion of the body as whole and impenetrable. Perhaps we can use a politics of leaks to critique the perception of institutions as similarly whole and static, when in fact they are influx and seeping.

Alternatively (or perhaps orthogonally), Kimberly Christen has written about how indigenous ethics can shape information practices and content management.  I’m writing this piece from Vancouver after meeting with a number of artists, academics and activists who work with and from First Nations communities. Tools for privacy should be embraced as important methods of protecting ourselves and our communities. But looking at the broader media landscape, we should also consider how dominant norms of digital media use can be challenged by alternative ethics and framings in ways that give us a more robust understanding of when information should be free, when it should leak and when it should be kept secret.

One thought on “Information wants to be free (maybe) – but do we want it to be leaky?

  1. Hi, Jessa! Wendy Chun and Nishant Shah have been writing about leaks and networks for a while now. You might find their work helpful. Chun and Friedland, “Habits of Leaking” and Nishant Shah on “The Selfie and the Slut.”
    Chun’s long argued that network devices are fundamentally leaky, and that thinking from the perspective of leaks and the interface (as ideology) might point to bigger problems in liberalism

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