The fallacy of security through secrecy

The fight against secrecy is never ending. The most common battle with open government opponents is their argument that more transparency will reduce security and that the public will not be able to understand the data. They claim that the data will be taken out of context and the public sector’s hard work will be misrepresented, reducing their ability to do their job. Though this seems possible, it has yet to happen. For many years, I worked to fight this argument in Canada with organizations such as Montreal Ouvert, Quebec Ouvert and Open North. Though I am no longer involved in these organizations, the fight is far from over.

The same argument that greater transparency will lead to security risks is used by anti-transparency advocates to shut down access to information and hide behind various barriers. The recent European Court of Justice decision that the EU Anti-Money Laundering Directive breaches the right to privacy has led numerous EU countries to turn off access to beneficial ownership records of corporations. This will do serious damage to the fight for greater transparency in corporate records and will inevitably lead to more money laundering and tax evasion. Without the ability to analyze corporate records for connections, links and information – it becomes near impossible to track down the true owners who might control a vast swath of connected entities behind which they pull the strings. OpenCorporates has been working on making all corporate beneficial ownership records public, accessible and connected – this decision is a serious setback, but hopefully a temporary one. Beyond tax evasion, hiding corporate records will impede the fight against companies who break a variety of laws such as environmental ones.

In reality – more transparency of ownership, of technology and of information almost always leads to positive benefits and great security. The more people know the truth, the greater the ability to act based on facts. This seems obvious, yet many people have refused to believe it. In the software world, Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux, famously said that all bugs are shallow given enough eyeballs. Translated, this means all problems are solvable with enough resources. If we open information, journalists, law enforcement and average citizens can all contribute more actively towards progress. In addition, with easy access and distribution of information on the Internet, you can mobilize resources from around the world, who may be specialized in a specific problem at little to no cost. Open data and transparency allows citizens to come out of the woodwork and help improve services – from retired engineers to students. This does not mean open data will replace professional public servants, police or journalists, but if we truly open up data and create a two way dialogue this will inevitably lead to progress. 

All sorts or ridiculous arguments are used to fight this narrative and corporate media is often too happy to play along. Just today, The Globe and Mail published a ridiculous Opinion piece that advocates for hiding ownership of companies because a small cadre of owners who travel to high risk countries have some security concerns. There are millions (maybe billions) of corporate entities around the world and any decision to hide their data should be made based on the majority of the companies, not some small subsection with particular issues. 

In the seventeenth century Bishop Wilkins wrote the first book on cryptography, a subject that had remained secret, he felt the need to justify himself: “If all those useful Inventions that are liable to abuse, should therefore be concealed, there is not any Art or Science which might be lawfully profest”. That is to say, if we agree to the argument that secrecy of invention is critical to its protection, we will arrest progress rather rapidly. In the nineteenth century, locksmiths objected to the publication of books on their craft; although villains already knew which locks were easy to pick, the locksmiths’ customers mostly didn’t. In the 1970s, the NSA tried to block academic research in cryptography; in the 1990s, big software firms tried to claim that proprietary software is more secure than its open-source competitors. All of these claims that secrecy was somehow essential to their work were proved false. If anything, opening up the information on these topics led to better cryptography, better locks and safer software. However, it was a genuine battle to make this information public. 

This argument of greater transparency leading to high quality service is equally applicable to government and public service information. The more people know what’s going on, the more opportunity and incentive there is to improve the system. This is also true of the patent and copyright laws. During the industrial revolution, Germany and the United States were able to catch up to England due in part to their lack of patent law. Though there are reasons for certain patents when development costs are exorbitantly high, such as with medicine, these patents and copyrights have been pushed into an extreme where hundred year old creations such as Mickey Mouse are still under copyright. These laws create walled gardens where the public must pay a price to access something that was created decades ago. Instead, opening up many of these creations will almost inevitably lead to greater creativity and innovation. 

Whether it is information on corporate ownership, patents, copyrights, or government records – the claim that secrecy will lead to greater security for society is patently false. Though it is false, it does not follow that governments will act to ensure more information is made publicly accessible in digital and open format. The hard reality is that there are many people, companies and organizations who would prefer to keep information secret or hidden behind a complex legal structure to avoid being exposed to inquiry. This is as true of government officials as it is of wealthy families trying to avoid paying taxes. Governments, elected officials and civil society must work tirelessly to  open records for the benefit of all. Better access to information will benefit the vast majority of society. We must be very firm in our fight against those who claim to use secrecy for security, but are in fact using obscurity to mask nefarious activities. 

Published on December 27, 2022