Is total transparency fundamentally limiting?


The idea that transparency is the best tool for removing corruption from government systems seems to be a popular one. Total physical transparency (being able to see and hear every word and action) while perhaps not yet technologically feasible, is an idea I've been contemplating. Without going into the implementation, and assuming a society finds this type of self-surveillance ethical, I'd like to pose a question about the fundamental feasibility of total physical transparency in a government system:

Would total physical transparency (TPT) fundamentally make it impossible to accomplish certain tasks? Even if the surveillance was hidden (classified) until a later time?

Clearly TPT would make it impossible for corruption to occur within the totally transparent system, but my question is of whether it might also fundamentally make it impossible to accomplish "good" tasks that require some level of secrecy. The question could also be phrased as: Can there fundamentally exist a task to be executed by a governing system which must be executed in total secrecy, and would be made impossible if ever made transparent, even if the surveillance is delayed?

For example, a consider a military operation is totally surveyed, however the recording is locked in a box until the information can safely be declassified, but for example no longer than 10 years or so, then the public can see and hear everything that transpired at every level of the chain of command. Would certain military operations then be impossible under these conditions?

I could list various examples in non-military situations, such as classified discussion about top national security issues, but I think the question should be clear enough so far.


Posted 2016-07-31T01:27:07.627

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a box until the information can safely be declassified, but for example no longer than 10 years or so

Ten years may not be enough. For example, an intelligence asset may still be in place after ten years. Consider a new officer in the military. Just the military career might last forty years. Such a long term relationship is no longer possible under your proposed system.

Also realize that equipment may still be in use for more than ten years. So a recorded security briefing might reveal a critical weakness if openly released.

Clearly TPT would make it impossible for corruption to occur within the totally transparent system,

I don't know that that's true. It makes it more difficult certainly. But note how people disagree on interpretations of events that are transparent. For example, the DNC's email system was rendered transparent. This clearly indicated that the DNC was lying about being neutral in the primary. Yet the only person to be negatively impacted by this revelation is Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Schultz was chosen by Barack Obama. Has he lost even a shred of influence as a result?

Another example is the Clinton Foundation. There is one narrative that says that Hillary Clinton traded decisions as Secretary of State for donations to the foundation. We have relatively good information about such donations and about her decisions as Secretary. We even have a particular narrative linking a specific donation to a change in a specific decision. What we don't have is proof that she made the change in response to the donation. And we might not have that even if every moment of her life was recorded since 2008. Consider the following conversation:

Donor: I just gave your foundation a million dollar donation.

Clinton: Why thank you, that was very generous! We'll put the money to good use.

Donor and Clinton exchange small talk.

Donor: By the way, you've been opposed to [whatever]. I think you're wrong. Here's some reasons why.

Clinton: I'll give careful consideration to what you've said.

Clinton eliminates her opposition to whatever it was and supports it instead.

Did the donor just give Clinton a million dollar bribe? Most of her political enemies will say yes, she was giving careful consideration to the linking of the donation to support for the donor's position. Most of her supporters will say no, that she just changed her mind based on new information, possibly including the arguments presented here but unrelated to the donation. And this is with total transparency.

The same problem exists with campaign contributions. We know for a fact that large donors get meetings with politicians where they get to ask for things. What we don't know is if they receive things because they are donors or because the politician would have supported that position regardless.

Transparency means that you can't engage in the obviously illegal. You can't ask someone to make a donation or campaign contribution in exchange for something. But if you receive one, transparency does not keep you from rewarding the donor. It just keeps you from saying that you are doing so.

Another way that this can happen. A politician looks around for someone with a need. Fulfills that need. Retires from politics and asks that someone for a job. Gets it. Now other politicians can see that they too might benefit by filling needs for that potential employer. But since no one ever actually made or accepted an offer, there's no bribe.

Transparency doesn't block corrupt acts. It only blocks discussing them.


Posted 2016-07-31T01:27:07.627

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Can there fundamentally exist a task to be executed by a governing system which must be executed in total secrecy, and would be made impossible if ever made transparent

For the examples I can think of off the top of my head, it depends on your definition of impossible - does it include 'impossible because of personal or state reasons'?

For example, a government might see the absolute need for an illegal covert action that is morally questionable, but be unwilling to face the domestic or international response if/when it becomes known.

An example of that is the government of a rabidly pacifistic nation carrying out the covert killing (or arrest and interrogation) of a terrorist who is also a government minister in a friendly state (and so protected by diplomatic immunity or a lack of sufficient demonstrable legal proof, perhaps because the proof comes from other covert actions), yet is involved in ongoing attacks against the nation. They might or might not be willing to deal with the protests of the friendly state when it becomes known at a later date - especially if they are counting on finding more evidence as time passes. They might or might not be willing to risk the total condemnation of their pacifistic citizens when it becomes known. They might or might not be willing to risk a jail sentence if such an act is illegal. Any of those could be a reason for a politician to declare that it is impossible to carry out despite being desirable for the state. (Yes, I'm thinking of West Wing season 3 and 4 here)

Arguably, sometimes the needs of the state come before the needs of an individual in charge, but far too often it doesn't work that way.

You might also see this in military engagements, with officers refusing to carry out actions that might save the day but will lead to their condemnation or imprisonment (or worse, perhaps involving their family's lives) later.

Also, there might be actions that would make sense in particular cases, but work against an overall policy if known.

An example of that is paying ransoms for high value kidnap victims - while a particular person might well be worth breaking a 'we do not negotiate with terrorists' policy because of who they are or what they know, if it became known that the country (or company or individual) would break such a policy in certain cases then kidnappings would surely increase, particularly of similarly high-value targets. Thus paying ransoms, even for a high-value target, would probably be no longer worth it when looking at the long-term ramifications. Thus saving that particular person becomes impossible, by a political or financial calculation.

TL; DR: Essentially, in a system where covert or secret actions no longer are possible, the evaluation of a course of action must surely include the consequences of it becoming public; this affects the equation for individuals, organisations and governments, shifting the boundary of what will and won't be done. Things that might once be done without the transparency but are now never done and never could be done have effectively been made impossible due to the transparency.

Readers can make their own judgements as to whether such actions should or should not be done (either from moral or legal standpoints).

James Carlyle-Clarke

Posted 2016-07-31T01:27:07.627

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