It is difficult to make a case for secrecy. As Carl Friedrich observed, ‘Secrecy belongs to the group of phenomena which while ubiquitous in politics are considered morally objectionable or at least dubious, such as corruption, violence, betrayal.’ Whatever liberal democracy is for, secrecy seems to be against.
Every vice requires for its meaning a corresponding virtue. In the case of secrecy the most obvious is transparency, but presented out of context this can be little more than a negative of a negative, an absence of controls over information. In the modern era, a more fertile opposition is that between secrecy and privacy. Both terms have at their root blocked communication. In his Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson saw the two words as virtually interchangeable, defining privacy as, ‘state of being secret; secrecy’, and secrecy as, ‘privacy; state of being hidden’.
Democracy needs privacy
During the nineteenth century the terms began to pull apart. The capacity of individuals to manage their personal archive became a measure of a free society. Conversely the legitimacy of the increasingly powerful state rested on the openness of its transactions. Private secrecy policed nascent forms of democracy; public secrecy paved the road to absolutism.
The creation of what Edward Shils has described as the ‘golden age of privacy’ was associated with the capacity of the urban middle class to enjoy enhanced levels of domestic security. It was less necessary to conduct social life in public and more feasible to exclude strangers from the business of the home. But this bricks-and-mortar privacy brought its own constraints, particularly for respectable women who found it increasingly difficult to congregate out of doors.
Release came through the growing use of the communications technology of the era to create a realm of virtual privacy. The development of mass postal systems, beginning with Britain’s Penny Post in 1840 and quickly spreading elsewhere in Europe and North America, permitted an early form of social networking. Particularly in the expanding urban areas, it was possible to conduct and extend relationships by exchanging correspondence within a single day at minimal cost.
It was when this expanding form of networking collided with state surveillance that the modern battle lines between privacy and secrecy were drawn up. In 1844 the British Government was caught opening personal letters at the request of the Austrian state. During the ensuing storm of protest it was argued in Parliament that ‘it is a grave thing that the correspondence of the country should be tampered with; that the private family secrets should be known.’ The sheer frailty of the envelope dramatized the vulnerability of this form of personal discourse. ‘My letters’ protested the new satirical magazine Punch, ‘- and the thousands I receive! -had all of them been defiled by the eyes of a spy; that all my most domestic secrets had been rumpled and tousled, and pinched here and pinched there – searched by an English Minister as shuddering modesty is searched by a French custom-house!’ The government insisted that it need the reserve power of espionage to deal with unpredictable threats to national security in a century of revolutions. Its critics insisted that once it invaded the personal archive, all claims to legitimacy were lost.
The tendency of governments in many democracies to clothe its secrecy in secrecy has made increasingly likely the explosion of leaks and protest that is currently occupying the western media. Less obviously the recurring claims of abuse throw attention on the value of concealment represented by privacy. Viewed through the lens of the past, the claims of absolute personal property in every fragment of information about an individual seem neither realistic nor defensible.
„Privacy from“ and „Privacy for“
Equally the notion of privacy as the ‘right to be let alone’ is at best partially attainable and partially desirable. Rather it is necessary to distinguish between ‘privacy from’ and ‘privacy for’. The function of barriers is not to create some kind of informational autarky but to facilitate the conduct of intimate relationships. ‘Privacy for’ is the capacity to exclude outsiders and to create a zone in which personal information is shared only between individuals linked by mutual trust. Such a process requires protected space and time, ‘sanctuaries from the gaze of the crowd in which slow mutual self-disclosure is possible’ as Jeffrey Rosen puts it.
In these sanctuaries communication takes place at many levels, many of them non-verbal. Individuals know that they know each other because they require so little for the effective exchange of emotion or information. Whilst the threats from digital technologies and those who control them continue to grow, the rich complexity of achieved intimacy remains its best defense. Properly regarded, there is much more to privacy than the fragments captured on cameras or circulating on the web.