How much Secrecy do you like?

Any secret is information distributed unequally. Secrets may be protected passively by avoiding to draw attention or actively by obstructing access. As an advantage of information is not always justified, active obstruction is not acceptable most of the time.

tl;dr

  1. A secret is any information that is known to at least one person and unknown to at least one other person.
  2. A secret arises by active or passive concealment.
  3. Only true information can be secret.
  4. Secrets are used to avoid undesired reactions.

Asymmetrical distribution of Information

An advantage of information happens whenever one knows something another does not know. It is unimportant how one obtained that information and if the other could as well. As soon as someone is less aware than the other, it is a secret. And because no one is all-knowing, we have to live with a lot of secrets. But that's only a problem if I want some information that I don't get access to.

It's secret. It's more secret. It's the most secret.

If one does not know, they lack information, they won't bother. If you want to keep a secret, simply don't draw attention to the topic and hope no one cares on their own. A lot of information is irrelevant anyway. And combined with a lack of interest this not-mentioning relieves us of considering thousands of banalities of daily life which are technically secrets - like what happened on the toilet. Same, when you move birthday presents out of sight until you hand them over or refuse to answer when asked about information. You hide information passively.

It is already active obstruction if you claim ignorance about that information. You fake one information that is untrue as a cover that misdirects the interested party away from the real information. If you successfully divert or mislead them, you might even succeed without creating false information.

There are no fake secrets

It is untrue to say, my skin is green. It cannot be checked at the moment, so I am just making an assertion. It might be a funny rumour if anyone would share this alleged information. Maybe that rumour is shared in confidence, but it is not a secret. No one, who gets access to this rumour, has an advantage of information because I do not have green skin. It might be a secret that I lied about the colour of my skin because that is information: my skin does have a different colour than green and I lied about it.

If you knew ...

Any information that does not provoke any response will not be kept secret. Any information that only provokes positive response will not be kept secret. Sadly, almost anything can cause some negative response - or at least you might fear it will. We hide information for gain or to avoid real or imagined consequences. Although, quite often, the only consequence avoided is feeling ashamed.

Any entitlement to secrets must be limited

Someone having information others lack is not necessarily a good thing. Patronisation, unconscionability, non-transparency, fraud, cover-up ... the list of possible injustices based on secrets is never-ending. A right to secrecy must end somewhere.

When and how is concealing yourself appropriate?

I have done something that nobody knows. If done it alone. This information would only make a statement about me and not about anyone else. Maybe I fear some backfire if gets out. Maybe I have a benefit as long as no one knows what I am doing. It doesn't matter what I get out of this secret. It only matters whether I have a legitimate reason. Am I entitled to have this perk, to avoid this backfire? If so, I have a right to keep secret. The only question is, buy which means may I keep it?

Somebody becomes curious and wants to know what I did there. Do they have a legitimate reason to know? Would this information bring them an advantage they are entitled to or cancel out a disadvantage they suffer wrongfully? If so, my legitimate reason for secrecy and their legitimate reason for knowing collide. In such cases, I believe it is wrong to conceal this information actively. It cannot be justified to lie or delude someone when they are denied a rightful benefit. That would only be justified if they lack legitimate reason. In any case, I may passively conceal my secret. I don't need to let everyone in on it.

But if my need for secrecy is illegitimate, I am not entitled to any benefit. I may never actively conceal it. If somebody without a proper cause wants to know, I might passively conceal it and hope they don't find out. But if someone has a legitimate reason to know, I may not keep it secret at all. To be fair, I would have to incriminate myself. In such a case, I lose any right to secrecy!

  • a legitimate reason for secrecy vs. a legitimate reason to know: passive concealment, e.g. pregnancy at work
  • a legitimate reason for secrecy vs. an illegitimate reason to know: active concealment, e.g. personal identification (credit card PIN)
  • an illegitimate reason for secrecy vs. a legitimate reason to know: mandatory disclosure, e.g. additional income of elected representatives, identification after a traffic accident
  • an illegitimate reason for secrecy vs. an illegitimate reason to know: passive concealment, e.g. the most embarrassing thing you have ever done

I know what you did last summer

The details of weighing the right to keep a secret against the right to know changes if a secret is not about myself but someone else. The analysis which behaviour is appropriate does not. A person may have a legitimate reason to keep this secret - or not. A third person may have a legitimate reason to know - or not.

It is difficult to decide whose needs are legitimate. Neither the one keeping a secret nor the one wanting to know will be able to make the final decision. In case of doubt, it has to go to court.

But I never have a legitimate reason to keep a secret, if I obtained that information unwarrantedly.

Secrets without license

If active concealment is warranted, any means are justified. I might use deception, deflection and encryption. But I must accept that a curious person might take measure into their own hands if the situation justifies only passive concealment.

 

Originally published July 8th 2013.

Photo credits: Yuri Samoilov - Some rights reserved