In her latest book, Radical Secrecy: The Ends of Transparency in Datafied America, Clare Birchall advocates for a rejection of the familiar opposition between “the promise of transparency” and “the threat posed by secrecy”. Her analysis of the pattern of visibility and opacity in the current Covid-19 pandemic lays bare governance risks that apply as much to the European Union as they do to the United States.
At the heart of my new book, Radical Secrecy: The Ends of Transparency in Datafied America, are some deliberately provocative questions. How might transparency, in contrast to the high hopes placed in it by a range of political pundits, organizational and management theorists, and campaigners, actually delimit the scope of the political and serve agendas that are far from transparent? Can we imagine, or think with, a secret or secrecy that could act in the service of, rather than against, a progressive politics? And finally, how can we represent the relationship between secrecy and transparency in a way that avoids the dead-ends of current debates? Together, these questions prompt a reassessment of secrecy and transparency as ideas, practices, and resources.
The Covid-19 pandemic: the existing government transparency order revisited?
Radical Secrecy troubles the vectors of secrecy and transparency to make room for more equitable distributions of power. I completed it in March 2020, watching Covid-19 topple healthcare systems and economies like dominos. There is a chance that the political settlement described and challenged in my book may be consigned to history. A year on, it is still too soon to know whether the high levels of state intervention seen in otherwise capitalist democracies will survive the crisis and normalize socialist solutions and wealth redistribution, or whether states will simply revert to pre-crisis behaviors. Some democracies may rebound further—embracing aggressive forms of disaster capitalism and more intensified marketization and privatization—or shift towards state monopoly capitalism. It is unlikely that the past year’s appeal to civic duty, altruism and collective action can reverse years of individualism, atomization, and the logic of competition. In some ways, the crisis has precipitated forms of international co-operation (such as COVAX), but we have also seen examples of vaccine diplomacy and protectionism, and discourses of anti-globalization, nationalism and xenophobia.
Radical Secrecy interrogates the state’s claims to transparency and on secrecy, particularly as these are mediated through digital data. This means I am concerned with how the state makes data visible and how it justifies covert data surveillance via invocations of security. While the pandemic primarily impacts health and the economy rather than security, it still casts new light on the book’s concerns with how transparency and secrecy policies and practices serve as carriers of ideology, prescribing the relationship between citizens and the state, rarely in ways that favor the former. The split between data surveillance and open data collapses in the current crisis as certain nation states repurpose their surveillant capacities for tracking and limiting the spread of infection, in turn making that data available to citizens to enlist them in the fight against the virus. But this “responsibilization”—this outsourcing of vigilance to the public—can constitute a weak form of agency, as the book argues.
The split between data surveillance and open data collapses in the current crisis as certain nation states repurpose their surveillant capacities for tracking and limiting the spread of infection, in turn making that data available to citizens to enlist them in the fight against the virus.
Biometric monitoring is part of a wider technological solutionism at work in this crisis. Many are looking to big tech, social media, AI, drones, and blockchain to assist in the epidemiological, economic, informational, and social challenges posed by Covid-19. In addition to the well-documented surveillant technologies in China, many countries—including the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, Poland, Austria, and Italy—explored possibilities for biometric monitoring of one kind or another, courtesy of smartphone data. The ease with which data surveillance can be repurposed is having the unintended consequence of revealing just how broad the existing surveillant capacities of private tech platforms and state sponsored intelligence agencies are. The Snowden revelations precipitated scrutiny of these capacities, but the desperation and fear produced by a pandemic perhaps lowers the barriers to their acceptance. To what end will biometric data be put once the health crisis subsides?
The risk of data harms in a permanent health crisis
The fear of another outbreak may well secure acquiescence to extended, perhaps indefinite, forms of data surveillance (via the “Covid passports” currently under discussion, for example), meaning what few legal constraints remain might be removed. Perhaps these relaxed regulations will be complemented by measures designed to ensure ethical data tracking: truly anonymized data, or non-retention of data beyond a time-limited, explicitly identified purpose, based on meaningful forms of consent. Whether such forms of “transparent” data surveillance or sharing would go far enough to avoid the anti-political tendencies described in my book is unclear.
In Radical Secrecy, I explore tactical opacity and obfuscation as methods of interrupting demands to share and engage with data. Such strategies are undoubtedly harder to justify in the context of health datasets compared with a security function that casts its gaze, and applies algorithmic discrimination, in uneven ways. Privacy is a weak defense in the face of mass suffering. But how can we be certain that these two uses of our data will be kept separate when the demands of health and security intertwine as viral bodies are reconfigured as security risks?
Privacy is a weak defense in the face of mass suffering. But how can we be certain that these two uses of our data will be kept separate when the demands of health and security intertwine as viral bodies are reconfigured as security risks?
As well as fashioning opacity as a tactic that can resist calls on the data subject, I also invoke opacity as the Martinican philosopher Édouard Glissant understands it: as an irreducible singularity of the minoritarian self, which remains illegible despite attempts to understand and articulate it. One cannot help but note a grim lack of respect for singularity in broad categorizations like the “herd” of “herd immunity”, or reductive, catch-all terms like “underlying conditions”, or the casual racism, employed to deflect accountability, of “the Chinese virus”.
Alongside data surveillance, this book looks at the role of open government data. The Covid-19 pandemic shows us that while the openness of data is important, the way that the data has been gathered is even more so. Useful though it was, the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 map, for example, kept a running count of cases, recoveries, and deaths, but did not include details of how, for example, deaths are recorded. It offered a valuable snapshot in those early days of the pandemic, but made comparisons across countries seem simple where they were not. Similarly, models, such as that developed by a team at Imperial College London, showed the likely outcome of different measures taken, but “explicitly limit the scope of analysis to narrowly tailored questions framed within the dominant social order. By design, they fail to capture the broader market forces driving outbreaks and the political decisions underlying interventions” (Wallace et al., 2020). This is why Radical Secrecy calls for thoroughly contextualized transparency and open data in whatever format; for transparency and open data that above all delivers social benefit; and for transparency mechanisms that help to highlight inequalities, rather than simply optimize inequitable systems. Containing a pandemic, and fostering fairer political and economic systems in its wake, require all of these.
Beyond the ethical transparency-secrecy binary
In essence, my book represents a move away from the familiar opposition between “the promise of transparency” and “the threat posed by secrecy”. The innovative forms of both transparency and secrecy that I explore have the potential to interrupt the political settlement that state-prescribed forms of transparency and secrecy prop up. At the end of Radical Secrecy, I show why the opposition between these two sides of the secret—revelation and concealment—collapses under scrutiny and, more importantly, how to move away from old regimes of visibility to open up a new form of politics. If the newly disrupted co-ordinates of partisan ideologies and economic orthodoxies settle back into old patterns after the crisis—if the response to economic recession is a return to, or increased reliance upon, neoliberal politico-economic modes, securitization, and concentrations of data power—we will need such an approach more than ever.
Clare Birchall is reader in contemporary culture at King’s College London. She has published extensively on the subject of government transparency and secrecy policies as well as conspiracy theories and other forms of popular knowledges.
EU buyers can purchase Radical Secrecy from Combined Academic Publishers with 30% off using the code CSFS2021.