Once word got out to a larger audience that News International had been paying people to hack into phones, News Corp. itself became a victim of hacking. Does this sort of vigilante hacking help defend our privacy through some form of poetic justice or does it exacerbate the problem by making people generally feel their privacy is less secure?
Republicans and Democrats share the same reflex—suspicion of authority—though aiming it in different directions. But reciprocal accountability only happens when people get truth about all elites, their conspiracies or human failings. It takes courage to step up and reveal shenanigans of the mighty. Whistle-blowers are our paladins and they need more protection.
That doesn't mean all secrecy is evil, or that all revelations are justified. But this News Corp. scandal shows us the future. Only fools will proceed into the 21st century without constantly asking: "What will happen to us if this thing we're doing appears on page one?"
You point to the group of hackers calling themselves Anonymous as an example of how such posturing becomes a problem. How so?
Hacking has become associated with romantic anti-authoritarianism by bright, privileged guys who themselves represent an elite of technical competence. In these situations self-righteousness generally trumps everything else. Thus, when Anonymous went after the banks that cut off credit to WikiLeaks, they were in turn attacked by so-called "patriotic hackers." Each side styles itself as the brave defender of goodness, pouring light upon evil. And each feels justified in evading light aimed at them. Ironic? It's human. Only now it may lead to tit-for-tat cyber wars that drag us all in, without our say-so, with the real players masked.
In a further irony, hacker groups are always ripe to be suborned by those with real power. What would you do if you were the National Security Agency? You'd set up dummy memberships in Anonymous.
No. If reciprocal accountability is the essential ingredient of the Enlightenment, then instead of silly gestures, what you want is revelation. Julian Assange's Wikileaks organization did that. And now we get the biggest irony of all. Sure, those 250,000 leaked U.S. State Department cables exposed a few minor embarrassments. But in fact, as Assange recently admitted, the main effect was to boost the U.S. government's reputation at a critical time among young activists of the recent "Arab Spring" by revealing how many of our foreign service officers candidly despised the dictators they had to deal with. The leaks helped to damp any anti-U.S. flavor to the Arab revolutions. Surely not Assange's intent.
That's not to say the next spill won't reveal dastardly things. The State Department survived a tsunami of revelation because there wasn't much there. Fine. But smart folks will learn a vital lesson—to prepare for a more transparent world.
And make your enemies come to the same understanding.
So hackers like Anonymous and LulzSec and whistle-blowers like Wikileaks are in a way redefining privacy using different approaches. Posturing aside, does hacking (computers, networks, phones or otherwise) have a legitimate role in society?
Look, the odds have always been stacked against freedom, against the Enlightenment experiment. The normal condition—top-down tyranny—may return, enhanced by brutally efficient surveillance technologies. I suppose if that happens, our hope may lie with "cyberpunks" skulking and undermining the tyrants from within.
Alas, though, I doubt many of today's romantic, attention-seeking hackers will be around. Any real dictatorship will gather them up, in a trice. No, if despotism looms, our heroes will be those who quietly developed their skills without ego or grandstanding.
As it happens, we're not in a tyranny, but [rather] a vastly intricate, awkwardly immature, intermediate-stage Enlightenment that may finish off tyranny forever—if we can innovate the right set of tools, skills and attitudes. Refining reciprocal accountability will take skill and goodwill and negotiation, a willingness to face complexity, not the drug high of indignation. But above all, it will take the courage to face a world filled with light.