Privacy vs. Secrecy

The tenth chapter of Gabriella Coleman’s new book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous is titled “The Desire of a Secret Is To Be Told.” I haven’t read that far yet, so I don’t know what the context is, but those words jumped out at me as I looked over the table of contents for the first time. Something about them rang really true. Of course, it’s fun to be a confidante. We like learning secrets and guarding them, we take pleasure in feeling forced to disclose them — a quality of pleasure that relates to gratifying somebody else’s desire to know something we do. The very nature of a secret connotes something special, a situation or thought so impactful that it has to remain under wraps. Disclosure of a secret is a pretty profound demonstration of respect. The sweetest thing you can do to a friend is trust them.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the difference between secrecy and privacy. I thought it would be interesting to come up with a working definition of those two concepts in contradistinction to each other. This is what I have so far:

Privacy: protection from an other, an outside force. It’s always in relation to something beyond itself. Privacy is an exponent of fear.

Secrecy: Relishing the exquisiteness of a thing so much that you need it to be kept between yourself and God, or yourself and a known/precise number of people, or yourself and yourself alone. Placid awareness of the fact that sharing secrets creates imperfect copies, derivatives that bear the same name and manifestation but aren’t quite “it.” Impostors that chip away at “it.” Speaking something that isn’t a spell by function and definition always has the effect of diminishing its magic.

This has been on my mind a lot, I think, because I’ve been beginning to learn about encryption recently. Last month I watched live streams of the 31st Chaos Communication Congress , a four day conference on technology, society, and utopia. I paid particularly close attention to Jacob Appelbaum and Laura Poitras’s talk “Reconstructing Narratives: Transparency in the Service of Justice”. Jacob Appelbaum is an independent security researcher who’s known in part for his work on the Tor project, a software network designed to protect anonymity online. In the lecture, he spoke for some time about the fundamenntal fallibility of even our most seemingly unhackable security systems. He advocated strongly for OTR encryption as being our best current solution. As a crypto n00b, a lot of this went over my head, but it inspired enough curiosity in me to attempt to make my own online interactions more secure. I recently set up accounts with Peerio and and have been reading up on the particulars of GPG (the cryptographic software used by Keybase, which also happens to be free and open source).

I must confess — the air of techno-paranoia that attends this kind of work makes me uneasy. This is why I’ve been thinking about secrecy so much. The only way I feel I can move forward with technically complex research is to conceive of the work as a dedication to something I love as opposed to a way of protecting myself from something I… don’t quite love. As I said: privacy denotes outside forces, something to be private in relation to. Secrecy, on the other hand, points to intrinsic values. I think so, anyway. There is something numinous about secrets.

In the book, Coleman indicates that Anonymous is unique among Western cultures insofar as those who join voluntary dissolve their individuality into the group’s collective identity. She points out that this is rare in Western countries (well, Western Europe, the USA and Canada..). It’s not a stretch to say that the activities in which most people in these places voluntarily engage incline toward individualism and self-expression rather than solidarity with a force that stipulates assimilation. So by virtue of the fact that members must remain true to its eponymous directive, Anonymous is a unique case. There’s a lot of interesting stuff hidden in the corners of that particular reality — ideas about the need for people to feel they belong, about values like solidarity and commitment that appear to have lapsed state in the later twentieth century — but what really fascinated me is the idea of non-individualism and self-dissolution as a principle of femininity, of womanhood.

I believe pretty strongly in masculine and feminine values, which I take to mean essential metaphysical principles that serve as the basis of the distinction between manhood and womanhood. Every human, I think, exists as a blend of these forces — they definitely don’t map perfectly onto our sex and gender identity, but the fact remains that they’re there as complementary opposites ( I know some gender theorists would find this problematic, but I can’t discuss that without going off on a tangent). Yin and yang. Dionysus and Apollo. Dark and light. Yin is femininity, dark space and nonexistence. Yin offers the space in which masculine principles of explicit existence, extrusion, and so on, actualize. To desire dissolution of one’s unique identity into the identity of a group is a perfect embodiment of Yin principles.

So, although the stereotype of hackers and hacker collectives is of men and qualities we associated with men and boys, I think there’s something extremely feminine about Anonymous, at least in theory. Women have occupied anonymous spaces throughout human history, performing unrecognized labor, and at no point in human history have enjoyed the same degree of recognition for their contributions as men. In a lot of ways, this is what digital activists do — they work to maintain the integrity of technical infrastructure so that it not only works, but works in favor of human beings. Infrastructure, of course, is designed to be ignored. Researcher Ingrid Burrington remarked in an interview she conducted for Deep Lab, an all-female artist and hacker collective, that we only notice infrastructure when it doesn’t work. Likewise, we only notice traditionally feminine work when it fails to get done. Children not tended to, kitchens not cleaned and food not made — the visibility of women’s work is always in the “not,” in what doesn’t get done.

This sounds very upsetting. I think it’s good not to whitewash the gloominess of the situation. And I also think it’s important to recognize that part of this gloominess resides in the fact that we’ve been conditioned to think of non-recognition as always being a bad thing. The concept of laboring in private, of never having another person identify what we do as being valuable or praiseworthy, strikes us as really sad. The artist Henry Darger worked alone in an attic for most of his career; it was only after his death that the secret art-universe he’d constructed was discovered. Darger looms large in the consciousness of his fans as a perfect example of a commitment to obscurity; he fascinates a lot of people not just because of what he made, but because he did it for no apparent reason beyond a simple compulsion to do it. The mythos of Emily Dickinson exists because of this peculiarity, I think, as well.

There’s something very charming about this. Darger and Dickinson were progenitors of secret pleasures. The beauty of a poem or painting made with no intention of ever being displayed is of an order unto itself, a pleasure that causes us to shudder as it intimates ineffable beauty. This is the Feminine. This is Yin.

And in its own odd, roundabout way, this is what I hope to substantiate as my digital communications tend more toward privacy over time. I permanently deleted my Facebook the other night and I feel happier for it. The next step is to connect with others who value secrets in the same way I do — using technologies developed to honor them.

As Thomas Geffroyd (@Orph30) tweeted the other day: “using gpg/pgp encryption gives you this warm feeling of getting words just for you, like opening a present made for you.

I like that. I like that a lot.


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