Transparency vs. Security: The Two-Headed Beast

By Adam Rothstein

Another terminological quandary that Occupy has found itself snared within recently is the issue of Transparency Culture versus Security Culture. Similar to other issues that we are slowly teasing out, explaining, and working through, the impasse with this issue is that viewing the argument in opposing terms has formed a poor understanding of the issues. In fact, transparency need not be opposed to security, or vice versa. By opening up what these concepts mean and looking into their history, hopefully we can heal this artificial rift, and move forward together.

by Illona Trogub

The basis of the conflict has been highlighted in numerous high-profile Occupy scenarios. There is the oft-repeated episode of Tim Pool vs. the Anarchists, reported in many high profile media sources. At Occupy Portland there was the recent case of a Movement Building session in which a number of people not usually associated with Occupy Portland meetings attended, and objected to being filmed by Livestream camera people. When this disagreement came to a head, and people felt that there was disingenuousness on the part of some parties, participants left the meeting rather than submit to being filmed. But the specifics of any one incident are not important to the overall issue. The conflict between similar sides of a similar debate have been voiced by many different people in many different situations at Occupy Portland since October 6th, 2011. Certain people do not want to be filmed, and other people holding cameras believe it is their right to film them anyway.

Rather than focus on specifics of he-said/she-said, I’d like to sum up both arguments in general terms. Not every person will fall completely into either generalization, but this will give a good overview of the field of debate.


Transparency is a core value of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest, and movements that have grown in solidarity with it. At the top of OWS’ “Principles of Solidarity” list, adopted by GA consensus in the early days of the movement, is the principle of “Engaging in direct and transparent participatory democracy.” Of course, several lines below this, “The sanctity of individual privacy,” is also listed as an important principle. So there is a distinction made: there ought to be a realm of transparent, participatory democracy, but outside of this space, allowances are made for personal privacy. These are roughly equivalent to the “public sphere” and the “private sphere” concepts that are inimical to modern democratic theory.

The difficulty, of course, is where to draw that line. Democratic theory is cursed with the problem of “the exception”, most fully theorized by Georgio Agamben. The problem, very briefly summarized, is that the rights granted by nation-states are most often defined in the terms by which they can be removed. In other words, the zone of personal privacy is drawn as a small island, surrounded on all sides by the encroaching “public good”. In practice, the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution–which state that the enumeration of rights shall not be used to deny other rights, and that powers not delegated to the State are reserved by the people–are not followed. The State consistently limits and defines the narrow expression of our “rights” by its laws, and the approval of the Supreme Court. If Congress and the Courts decide that the threat of terrorism is an “exception” to the Constitution, then those privacy rights grow smaller and smaller, and the power of the state diminishes the power of the individual. The size of the public sphere is not controlled by the size of the private sphere, but the other way around; what is private is only the remainder, after “national security”, “public safety,” and any other “exceptions” to individual rights have been satisfied.

Naturally, exposure to the public sphere is not necessarily a totalitarian force. The freedom of the press is a right of the public sphere, to prevent both the extra-legal and juridical side of the state from gaining too much power. Public scrutiny and the power that such scrutiny can wield in the form of an educated, informed society are one of the few checks upon the power of the state–and certainly one of the more effective checks.

Those who work for the press–especially a non-corporate and free press–have an important role in providing this check. And this is the essence of the pro-transparency argument: in the conditions that we live in, when state and corporate power runs nearly unchecked, running a transparent social and political movement means building strong structures on the ground level that take the place of the failed Constitution. Transparency means access, and accountability for individuals’ decisions that affect others. The only way to defend privacy, is by having a strong and self-managed public sphere.

Pro-Transparency Argument Summary

  • Public Sphere & Private Sphere
  • Media as a counter to totalitarian power, defending the separation between public & private
  • Media as a replacement for a failed legal system, defending the separation between public & private
    • Guaranteeing privacy
    • Guaranteeing accountability
  • Media as access


photo by Lauriel


Rather than assume that there is a Public and Private Sphere with definitions that ought to be upheld, pro-Security arguments take as their starting point a different philosophical argument: that information is power. Rather than in democracy theory, this argument finds its philosophical roots in the work of Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and other theorists with Marxist and Psychoanalytic backgrounds. While the philosophy is dense, the basic idea is simple: anything, from a commercial for breakfast cereal, to the colors of the national flag, can be used as a tie-in to a method of belief and control, that affects us even without us thinking about it. While it sounds paranoid, the power of information is not so direct or specific as brainwashing, but more akin to what we know well in modern consumer culture as “acculturation”, or “branding”. Everything around us seeks to form our worldview. Our range of rational decisions are easily directed and limited by the way that we live our life, and the choices that are presented to us via the society and culture that surrounds us. The music on the radio and the words in our children’s textbooks are powerful cultural weapons, and are not to be taken lightly.

The relationship between this power of information and security is that even something innocuous, such as a joke or a random snapshot of a person’s face, can become a powerful weapon in the hands of the right or wrong person. Occupy knows well the power a single image can have–when it is a photo of police brutality. But similarly, anyone who has ever faced a trial by jury knows that even a single statement that appears to shed doubt on a person’s character or their other statements can be the difference between believable testimony and that which is disregarded. A photo of two people together looking happy could be used to imply friendship, and a list of names could be used to imply collusion. Single utterances weigh heavily in the court of public opinion, a blurry photo or garbled recording can be held as gospel by millions in our super-saturated, conclusion-ready, hyper-media environment. The ease with which outright lies can be spun into narratives to discredit people should make the concerns of individuals about half-truths, fragments, and faces on photographs understandable.

These values are also visible in the OWS “Principles of Solidarity”. “Empowering one another against all forms of oppression,” notes how oppression comes in all forms, not only economic and political, but also linguistic and historical. Narratives are a major cultural battle ground, and each tidbit of information can serve as a shield or a bullet. And the item, “Recognizing individuals’ inherent privilege and the influence it has on all interactions,” among all other forms of privilege, would note that different people have a different ability and means to transmit and shape information. The privilege of history is that it is told by the dominant classes, who have control of the media, to tell their side of events. One important aspect of the Occupy movement is our ability to seize the narrative of our own history, and begin to tell it in a way that lessens the privilege that has dominated it, and empower those who have long been oppressed by the dominant paradigm.

What the dominant paradigm is–according to the pro-security argument–should be obvious. It’s the same as the target of the pro-transparency argument: the corporate and state forces that have control of our political and social structures. But it is not just about the fact that they control the narrative, it is that the state and corporation use the narrative to actively persecute those who attempt to question and break into those powers’ dominant positions of control. As such, information is something to be treated cautiously. Like a tool or a weapon, it can be used both for harm and for good. And the stakes have never been greater.

Pro-Security Argument Summary

  • Information as Power
  • Information can be helpful and harmful
    • Information creates oppression and privilege, but can also fight oppression and privilege
    • Information always is already in the hands of certain people, and that gives them privilege
  • Even small pieces of information can be dangerous
  • The stakes are high

Paranoid Egos and Pigheaded Egos

These arguments are quite similar, and both have very nuanced grasps of media’s role in society and politics. The trouble is that proponents of these two sides of the argument typically are not able to elucidate their ideas clearly, and fall upon flat conjectures in the heat of the moment. Tim Pool claiming that he’s going to film anyone he wants to whether they want him to or not doesn’t make him a guardian of free speech, it makes him pigheaded (my opinion). Anonymous Protester claiming that having their face on tape at a random meeting is going to send up flares at the NSA is needlessly paranoid, especially when police informants could easily be infiltrating the meeting if they so chose, or recording it with a hidden recorder, or tapping your phone, or watching the door, or using a hundred other surveillance scenarios (my opinion too). There is a dogmatism to the implementation of both sides that strains rationality. We would do well for both sides to put down these harsh, unsophisticated defenses of their unbridled egos, and to actually consider the nature of transparency and security, and then work together to achieve both.

Vulnerability vs. Secrecy

Both of these arguments view each other in terms of a pejorative, or a flat caricature in the negative. Pro-security views pro-transparency to be an argument for vulnerability; whereas pro-transparency views pro-security as being in favor of secrecy. Described in this terms, we see how each can conceive of the other as being contrary to its own goals. Secrecy, of course, is a hallmark of the oppression of corporate and state power. Vulnerability is a precarious state, in which oppressed groups are constantly held, so that those with privilege can continue to take advantage of them.

But security is not necessarily secrecy, any more than transparency is vulnerability. It is all about context. If we were to let the egos dictate how we deploy security and transparency, then yes–the former would be a world of masks, codes, secret passwords, and misinformation, while the latter would be the flippant publication of anything and everything, our home addresses, or families’ names, and their photos, and forwarding of every email to the corporations and police. Or what is worse–and much more likely–is that transparency and secrecy only would take antagonistic forms towards others; our egos would decide that we keep secrets from those we simply dislike or disagree with, and that we tell tales about those we dislike and disagree with.

This is the crux of the issue, and why pro-transparency and pro-security are, in their correct implementation, the same argument. The implementation of either approach, when done callously or in a self-interested manner, violate the arguments for both simultaneously. However, when deployed conscientiously, both approaches can be unanimously fulfilled.


Trust is the central, hidden issue of both arguments. It is a difficult aspect to account for, because unlike the logical elements of either argument, trust is entirely subjective. And therefore, trust is difficult to prove, and impossible to rely upon.

Trust is being able to rely on the fact that another person’s motives will be synonymous to, or at least not serve to sabotage yours. There is no way to have absolute trust, as even the most trustworthy individuals can violate that trust for any number of reasons. History is filled with examples of those who were trusted partners, until tragically, they were not.

So what can we say about trust? Positively, nothing. All it is, in this circumstance, is one person’s subjective sense that another is deploying a strategy of transparency or security in a useful manner. It is the sense that things are being taken care of, regardless of whether or not one frames one’s arguments in terms of security or transparency. If everything seems copacetic, then the green trust light flips on, and we can proceed. If not, then we must wait, and argue it out.

The “trust light” is not just a nicety, either. It would behoove us to make sure that we are trusted by those we are working with, insofar as we can be trusted. It is a check to make sure that we are guiding our actions with good strategy, rather than with our egos or circular arguments. In the same way that we take temperature checks to make sure that everyone is feeling similarly about an issue, we might take trust checks, to make sure that everyone is in agreement that we are implementing our media and information strategy appropriately.

The fact of trust is that it is simple, while transparency and security are anything but. Transparency is not achieved by filming everything you see and putting it on the internet. Security is not achieved by taking the batteries out of cell phones. Transparency is a time-consuming, complicated process of documenting, and publishing, in a navigable way, crucial information on decision-making processes and power/gate-keeping positions. Security is a time-consuming, complicated process of closing wide-open vulnerabilities, hardening walls and screens, while simultaneously making access as accessible as possible for those who use and need it. Trust is the sense that we are doing both of these correctly.

Transparency and Security

Right now, in many parts of the Occupy movement, trust is out of balance. We do not know enough about implementing security and we do not have enough successful systems of transparency to enable that trust. A comprehensive policy on either will not suit all situations. We must think tactically about both. And we must think hard. Both our transparency and security are being tested every day. The stakes are high, and the holes we leave will be exploited by those who oppose us.

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