Is Political Transparency Worth the Cost to Privacy?

Credits: The New York Times

This year, the presidential election in the United States has been dominated by a series of leaks. First, the Democratic National Committee was hacked (likely by Russia) and thousands of internal memos were released. Next, former Secretary of State Colin Powell had his personal correspondence shared with the entire world. Then, three pages of Donald Trump’s 1995 tax return were sent to a New York Times reporter by an anonymous source inside of Trump’s organization.

By Clayton Becker

These are no longer simply isolated cases or even a series of isolated events; this is a pattern of violation and dissemination. Even more distressing, it is becoming a pattern that we increasingly seem to believe we deserve. After all, each of these leaks provided very valuable information that really should have been part of political discussion from the outset.

Hacktivist groups like WikiLeaks, Anonymous, and even other nations’ intelligence services (I’m looking at you Russia) are romanticized on social media as crusaders for increased civilian access to government, keeping the big guns accountable to the rest of us. To a certain extent we should indeed expect this transparency from our government and our corporate citizens, but these extrajudicial measures carried out by people to whom due process is not even a suggestion are not the way to go about getting it. However, we are increasingly on a path towards that reality.

After each new round of email leaks, we only ever focus on the content of the hack. The argument which justifies this is generally twofold. First that the content is simply too inflammatory to ignore and second that it is the fault of the person who was hacked for having written such incriminating things in the first place.

The first of these reasons is perhaps more understandable than the second. Would we have ignored Watergate if the scandal were uncovered through extralegal means? Of course not, and nor should we have been expected to. However, there is a fundamental difference between the Watergate Scandal and the modern form of hacking to which we have been becoming more and more accustomed. Watergate entailed legitimately criminal actions for which anyone should have been held accountable. Indeed, some responsibility does fall on political actors to be more transparent in the first place; the secrecy with which political processes are guarded in today’s day and age is not at all conducive to political participation and is a chief cause of the growing distrust in government. However, none of the recent high profile email hacks have revealed anything anywhere close to the level of unprecedented criminality revealed in the course of the Watergate hearings.

Regardless of your political beliefs or your personal disdain for any given person, no one deserves to have their personal information and correspondence shared with the whole world. While the goal of increased political transparency is admirable, we should all be very careful about allowing the right to privacy to be whittled away in the pursuit of that goal. We cannot oppose the NSA’s surveillance, Metadata collection, and the Yes Man of the FISA court while simultaneously trying to justify every new release of emails.

The second of these reasons is decidedly more problematic.  The argument that it is the fault of those who were hacked for ever having written the emails in the first place is just as absurd as claiming that victims of nude photos leaks are to blame for taking the photos, just as ridiculous as asserting that victims of sexual assault and harassment are to blame for wearing “provocative” clothing, just as preposterous as the idea that victims burglary are to blame for buying things people would want to steal. We all have skeletons in our closet and no matter how innocuous we may have believed our text messages—detailing exactly how much we hate so and so, how incompetent we think our boss is, or how we called in sick and then went out with friends, etc.—to be when we sent them, any one of those messages could have dire consequences if they were ever seen by someone for whom they were not intended.

It is tempting to assert that the people who have been the victims of these high profile hacks occupy such a drastically different position in life, have so much more responsibility than your average person, that their right to privacy is outweighed by the country’s right to know what their government is doing. This is precisely the way to completely miss the point. Citizens do not lose their inalienable rights simply because of the job they choose. The ultimate measure of a society’s commitment to justice, civil rights, and fundamental freedoms is not how it behaves when things are easy or when the people whose rights are concerned are completely free of suspicion. The ultimate measure of our society’s commitment to those foundational principles is how it behaves when things are hard and when the people whose rights are concerned are tied to even the most grave of crimes.

Political transparency and accountability are important, make no mistake. But protecting basic rights and ensuring that no citizen has to experience the ruination of having their life broadcast to the world are even more so. We all want our rights to be protected, but we have no right to expect, and no right to justify the invasion of privacy that has become so pervasive in the pursuit of more transparency.

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