It used to be way easier to keep a secret. It is pretty close to impossible these days. But it seems the harder it is to keep a secret, the harder government agencies work to try to do just that.
When I heard the news in June that someone had hacked into the emails of the Democratic National Committee I had the same response as when I learned about the hack into the email accounts of the Sony movie studio several years ago: Who would write stuff in an email that would cause tons of damage if it got passed around?
Years and years ago, a friend of mine lost his job because he trash talked his boss in an email he mistakenly sent to ... his boss. But even if he hadn't been such a lamebrain, he had no assurance that his email wouldn't eventually get back to his supervisor. Once you hit the send button, the email is out of your control and all it takes is the recipient to forward it on. When someone wants to converse about something controversial in an email, this is my standard response: Let's talk.
Wikileaks taught us that just about any server is hackable. That was before the launch of the learn-to-code movement. Now schools across the country are teaching an army of school kids to code. What do you think bored teens will do with this skill? Did you not see the movie War Games? But it would be ridiculous to try to protect privacy by not teaching kids to code.
Some things need to be kept secret. It wouldn't be good to have the locations of nuclear weapons fall into the wrong hands. But then again, if we didn't have weapons so powerful we could never actually use them, there wouldn't be any danger of them falling into the wrong hands, would there? I digress. Much of what people and governments try to keep secret isn't such a danger. The ramifications of disclosure are often more embarrassing than dangerous.
I embarrass easy. I used to be paranoid about having my photo online. I obsessively de-tagged myself when friends posted photos of me. I de-friended my husband on Facebook when he posted a photo without my permission. But over time, I realized that I couldn't fight that. Just about everyone gets memed these days and survives. I learned to be Zen about bad photos or anything demeaning about myself I might stumble upon online.
I find it a better expenditure of energy to try to act in ways that won't embarrass myself and to own up to any mistakes I do make. We are all human and we all do stupid things from time to time. I think the Internet is teaching many of us this simple rule.
But it seems that some government officials, in contrast, are doubling down on non-disclosure.
Consider the extraordinary lengths to which some local journalists have had to go to access public information.
Early this year, a superior court judge ordered the Humboldt County Fair Board to pay Davis attorney Paul Nicholas Boylan $45,000 after losing a suit over public records that he filed on behalf of the Ferndale Enterprise. Enterprise publisher Caroline Titus got another $150,000 from the fair board in a legal settlement that stemmed from years of harassment culminating in the firing of her husband as manager of the fair, allegedly in retaliation for her relentless coverage of the organization.
The city of Eureka spent almost two years fighting a request by the North Coast Journal for a police dash cam video of the arrest of a juvenile. And it will likely have to pay Boylan another tidy sum for his representation of the Journal before the California Court of Appeals, which ruled in the paper's favor last month. Eureka had argued that the video was a part of a personnel file and that made it confidential. The court disagreed and told Eureka to release it.
When government agencies withhold information, people suspect that officials are trying to cover up bad or illegal behavior. Cover-ups are often worse than the crimes committed.
In May, San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis told the San Diego Union-Tribune that her department would routinely release police video of every officer-involved shooting, unless the officer involved is charged with a crime. In those cases, the video would be withheld until entered as evidence in a courtroom. Before announcing the new policy, Dumanis had fought the release of police videos. But across the country, police agencies are finding that withholding information causes more anger and harm in the community than releasing it.
It tires me out just thinking about the energy some people spend to keep information from the public. And the public's imagination goes wild when information is withheld, while that same public is often forgiving of transgressions when officials voluntarily fess up to them.
Governments keep so much information classified with little justification. If more were made available to the public and less kept out of the public's reach, it might be easier to protect truly sensitive information from the hands of hackers.
Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University.