© Bryan R. Smith/The New York Times
I’ve never been able to fit the concepts of privacy, history and encryption together in a satisfying way, though it continues to seem that I should. Each concept has to do with information; each can be considered to concern the public and the private; and each involves aspects of society, and perhaps particularly digital society. But experience has taught me that all I can hope to do with these three concepts is demonstrate the problems that considering them together causes.
Privacy confuses me, beyond my simplest understanding — which is that individuals prefer, to different degrees, that information about them not be freely available to others. I desire privacy myself, and I understand why other individuals want it. But when the entity desiring privacy is a state, a corporation or some other human institution, my understanding of privacy becomes confused.
While it’s true that states and corporations often desire privacy, they just as often desire that I myself have less privacy. What does it mean, in an ostensible democracy, for the state to keep secrets from its citizens? The idea of the secret state seems antithetical to democracy, since its citizens, the voters, can’t know what their government is doing. Thereby hang the countless conspiracy theories of our day, many of them supposing that we possess far less privacy than we actually do. Advocates of the secret state, wishing to comfort us, sometimes praise a rough and ready transparency: If you have nothing to hide and you trust your government, what can you possibly have to fear? Except that one can just as readily ask: If you have nothing to hide, what do you really have, aside from the panoptic attention of a state, which itself keeps secrets?
Even this simple consideration of privacy confuses me. Is individual privacy and state privacy the same thing? Are they conceptually antithetical? Is it to a state’s advantage to permit its citizens to keep secrets? States desirous of citizens’ secrets have been known to torture their own people in the course of encouraging them to reveal what they know. We know this historically, and we know it still to be true, though whether we’ve personally been affected by it largely depends on where we happen to live.
I have ideas about history, more than I have about privacy, and it is here that my confusion deepens exponentially. I believe that our ability to create history, to transcend generations via our extraordinary prosthetic equivalents of memory, is the most remarkable thing about us. Unless we’ve forgotten something, lost it to history, we’ve yet to encounter another species capable of the same thing. Should the FBI or other agencies be able to unlock the iPhones of terrorists? To be able to do so makes them able to unlock yours or mine. Should I be able to encrypt documents in such a way that the FBI can’t decrypt them? If I can, terrorists can as well. (Not that I necessarily accept terrorism as the ultimate fulcrum in such arguments, but it’s become the one most often employed.)
In the short term, the span of a lifetime, many of us would argue for privacy, and therefore against transparency. But history, the long term, is transparency; it is the absence of secrets. So we are quite merciless, as historians, when it comes to the secrets of the past, the secrets of the dead. We come to know them with an intimacy impossible in their day. It would be unthinkable for us to turn away from their secrets, to allow the Iceman his privacy or to not scan beneath the bitumen to recover an Egyptian priestess’s tattoos.
And here, to complete my tangle of confusion, is encryption, no doubt aggravated by my inability to understand the concept mathematically. I assume (perhaps incorrectly) that the future is all too liable to have its way with today’s most sophisticated encryption technology. I imagine that the world’s best-kept secrets — those of both private citizens and state institutions — will one day sit in plain sight on whatever it is that our descendants display data on.
Privy to that information while looking back at us, our ancestors will know us differently than we currently know ourselves, just as we now know the Victorians quite differently from how they knew themselves. The past, our own past, which our descendants will see us as having emerged from, will not be the past from which we now see ourselves emerging, but a reinterpretation of it, based on subsequently available information, greater transparency and fewer secrets.
If our continually lengthening, ever more transparent history is the sum total of who we are as a species, then our species is the poorer for every secret faithfully kept.
Any permanently unbreakable encryption seems counter to that.
And yet I would prefer to keep certain secrets of my own, as I assume most of us would. So perhaps that desire is as much a part of us, as a species, as our need to build these memory palaces.