Privacy, Security, Secrecy

Privacy, security, and secrecy


In Conversation talk, Privacy, Security and Secrecy, Waverley Library, Thunder Bay, Nov. 26, 2016

The following are some partial remarks in response to Mr. Larivière's talk. Unfortunately, copies of the paper were not made available, as a result, the remarks below only reflect particular aspects of the presentation. For example, his specific concept of privacy is not reflected here.

Mr. Larivière’s talk reminded us of an important argument against secrecy on the part of the state. This is the democratic argument for transparency to ensure an effective evaluation of whether state policies and institutions are successfully achieving stated objectives.

Mr. Larivière noted his professional interest in scientific and legal standards of knowledge and evidence, however, such standards may not provide the appropriate context for evaluating the issues of privacy, security and secrecy in the current era. Legal, scientific or democratic communities, typically assume an underlying democratic consensus or shared professional context within which evidence is assessed.

Societies which are undergoing fundamental rifts, civil war, wars on terror, seeking to deport millions within their borders or to build walls to keep millions out, are often not operating according to any such underlying consensus.

So if secrecy is a sign of an insecure state and disrupted society, Mr. Larivière may not have made the case that these are not our current relevant operative conditions. The recent Brexit, Trump election and resurgence of the European right, may indicate that the ideal underlying consensus Mr. Larivière’s argument assumes, does not currently exist.

Finally, Mr. Larivière argues for the possible use of “obfuscation” as a tactic to create, in essence, sufficient noise in a surveillance system to disrupt its capacity to track our actual behaviour. The problem is, if there is a case to be made for the value of such disruption, then its unclear why the case for secrecy, which is intended to disrupt the agency of another actor, could not be built on the same philosophical foundation, especially in an era of profound social upheaval.

In conclusion, Mr. Larivière’s argument reminds us of the value of open and transparent communication between state and citizens in a relationship of democratic accountability. However, it is less clear that he has made an argument for a state or citizenry perceived to be under siege. Given that many seem to see the latter as the current state of affairs, what counts as a standard of evidence may need to be able to take greater account of an environment of disruption than his account of secrecy currently appears to offer.


The paper read by Mr. Larivière was not made available, howerver, here is an article announcing the talk: "Privacy, security, and secrecy"