Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
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Privacy and Secrecy are Not The Same Thing - My Refutation of Cryptography

Valkyrie McGill

Ethical Technology

August 22, 2012

I’ve been having many arguments about transparency and “privacy”, so I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about “Cryptography” - one of the first arguments thrown up when I point out that transparency means an end to secrecy.


Complete entry


Posted by SHaGGGz  on  08/22  at  07:17 AM

Your distinction between secrecy and privacy seems virtually wholly insubstantial, and the brief ways you attempt to define each term seems to be applicable to the other. Is a closeted homosexual not that way to “keep things hidden from the community out of fear of social reprisals”? Can the supposed right to privacy not be abused to inflict harm upon the community?

Posted by Giulio Prisco  on  08/22  at  08:52 AM

Val, you are a brave fighter against secrecy, but I must agree with SHaGGGz, there is no real difference between secrecy and privacy.

Re “No matter how many security protocols you attempt to enforce, there will ALWAYS be a means to bypass them”

This is right. But also: there will ALWAYS be a security protocol that cannot be bypassed - yet.

A new security protocol will be bypassed by better spying technology, which in turn will be bypassed by a better security protocol, and so forth, in a never ending leapfrog.

At any given moment, my money is on the pro-secrecy hackers, because they tend to be smarter.

Posted by SHaGGGz  on  08/22  at  08:57 AM

@Giulio: Agreed - the practical impossibility of cracking the superlative security protocols renders moot the in principle impossibility of devising an unhackable system. I wonder if there is some principle of information theory or complex systems theory etc. that states or suggests this reality?

Posted by Valkyrie Ice  on  08/22  at  09:06 AM

And again, to you both, enjoy your wishful thinking, but I simply cannot see any manner in which you are going to remain able to keep secrets.

And Shaggz, as I’ve pointed out before, hiding a personal secret is a joke compared to someone being able to hide murder on a massive scale.  A transparent society in which privacy is actively given would not stigmatize someone for being gay, because such a society would have finally been forced to realize that the “freedom” to keep such “secrets” are NOT WORTH THE COST of allowing much more harmful actions to be concealed.

Also, as Leyvann pointed out in the thread I linked, you and Giulio are continuing to presuppose CURRENT CONDITIONS, i.e. the ability of select groups to conceal harmful actions, instead of the conditions I am discussing, in which they cannot. There can be no meaningful discussion so long as we continue to talk about two very different and distinct societal models AS IF THEY ARE THE SAME THING. Just as there cannot be any real discussion so long as you continue to blind yourself to the distinctions between privacy and secrecy.

Posted by SHaGGGz  on  08/22  at  09:19 AM

@Val: You assert that we “continue to blind ourselves to the distinctions between privacy and secrecy” and yet have not provided a response to our concerns calling attention to the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a substantive line in the sand between the two. Your asserting that one merely involves harm while the other is necessary is a vapid, subjective distinction, inviting and reminiscent of very obviously selectively enforced applications of definitions, such as torture, terrorism, etc.

As for your theorizing on the benefits of near-perfect equi/omniveillance, I’m receptive to the idea, though with a big caveat: how do we get from here to there? You assert that this is the one, inevitable, predetermined endpoint, though I’m not so sure. From our current vantage point, we can only have a faint grasp of how things’ll turn out, which might turn out to be dependent upon historical power struggles and peculiarities to an unknown degree. For instance, the capability to surveil every square meter of the planet is within technological reach right now, and yet there are obvious sociopolitical forces preventing this from happening. Even if we extrapolate from current advances to the point of smart dust, there is no guarantee that said forces would not retain the upper hand, or that there is another technology that trumps it.

Posted by Giulio Prisco  on  08/22  at  09:31 AM

Re “I simply cannot see any manner in which you are going to remain able to keep secrets.”

Trust me Val: if anyone comes in my house to record what I do in my private sphere, with my friends, without my consent, I will shoot. That’s how I will remain able to keep secrets, if it comes to that.

Seriously: I understand the damage that powerful persons hidden from public view can do, and I have proposed a solution. But _I am not a powerful person_ and I will fight for my (and your) right to privacy in a clearly defined personal sphere.

Posted by Giulio Prisco  on  08/22  at  09:42 AM

@SHaGGGz re “I wonder if there is some principle of information theory or complex systems theory etc. that states or suggests this reality?”

I think it follows from the common-sense that we learn at the school of hard knocks (aka life): there is no such a thing as infinite perfection, but only finite imperfection. Everything has limits that can be used to break it. This applies to both privacy and surveillance tech.

Posted by SHaGGGz  on  08/22  at  10:08 AM

@Giulio: I don’t think it follows; my question was more specific, namely is there a discernible law/tendency for the universality of practical uncrackability over in-principle crackability, and if this is due to systemic/theoretical dynamics we have formal knowledge of.

Posted by melis256  on  08/22  at  10:11 AM

@Giulio “if anyone comes in my house to record what I do in my private sphere, with my friends, without my consent, I will shoot. That’s how I will remain able to keep secrets, if it comes to that.”

You won’t defend if you are oblivious of the intruder.

Posted by Valkyrie Ice  on  08/22  at  02:45 PM


*sigh* the base assumption you are making is that you will reject such surveillance. You won’t. It will be necessary to enable the very technologies you are working on.

Secondly, you are also assuming that there is an unlimited number of ways to avoid surveillance. I don’t. Based on all current technology, the ability to avoid surveillance overwhelmingly appears to be one of diminishing returns, with the effort to avoid requiring ever greater resources, with a end point that is perfectly clear: Total Surveillance.

I am not ADVOCATING for this, despite the numerous accusations. I am merely pointing out the logical conclusion. At some point the ability to remain hidden will cease to exist due to overwhelming numbers of sensors, cameras, and other surveillance devices. THERE WILL BE A SATURATION POINT, beyond which no efforts to retain secrecy can succeed, because the entire solar system will be filled with devices, such as utility fog, which will track and record our every single action, IN ORDER TO PROVIDE US WITH SERVICES WE DESIRE.

Additionally, we are going into an era in which we can RESHAPE OUR BODIES AT WILL, in which every fantasy of the human psyche is about to go on display in VR/AR. Do you REALLY think that ANYTHING you do in the “privacy” of your home will interest ANYONE? UNLESS it actually involves HARM TO OTHERS?  DO you think “being gay” is going to matter in a world in which EVERYONE CHOOSES GENDERS? Do you think anyone will GIVE A DAMN whether you like to watch anime hentai or lesbian porn in a world in which Catgirls are walking down the street?

Seriously Giulio, stop and actually THINK for a minute. This is NOT about “authority figures” IMPOSING surveillance on you. This is about YOU CHOOSING TO BE SURVEILLED, to allow your smartphone to provide you universal access to VR, to allow your coffee to always be at the right temperature, to allow your house to know when to send out the Roomba to vacuum.  It’s about allowing your Digital Assistant to field those annoying phone calls, or your Sexbot/Surrogate to mimic your lover half a world away.

You and Shaggz and so many others have this dark fantasy that “Big Brother” is going to force nasty bad surveillance on everyone so that they can spy on what you eat for breakfast, but the truth is that we are SURVEILLING OURSELVES IN ORDER TO GAIN ACCESS TO NEVER BEFORE AVAILABLE CONVENIENCES AND ABILITIES. No-one is going to force a sensor in your home. YOU are going to install it yourself. No-one is going to force you to have a personal lifeblog, YOU will chose to start one to take advantage of the benefits it will bring. No-one is going to send a camera crew over to follow your every move and broadcast it to the world, YOU will choose to “Video Twitter” it yourself.

I am NOT talking about a behind-the-scenes Big Brother vs. Big brother scenario ALONE. I am talking about the overwhelming majority of humanity embracing tranhuman enhancements that are ENABLED by devices that monitor everything we say and do, and even our thoughts, all to give us these “superpowers” we love to talk about all the time. AND THEN I AM EXTRAPOLATING THE LOGICAL OUTCOMES of all those sensors, cameras, BCI’s, etc as it ELIMINATES the ability of ANYONE, even the “powerful”, to hide anything.

But that is not advocacy, no matter how many times you say it is.

Posted by Valkyrie Ice  on  08/22  at  10:23 PM

oh, and Shaggz… I already answered you, in fact you’ve read and commented on my answer. Just because you cannot make the distinction, even after a full length article explaining the distinction, it does not equate to a failure on my part to answer it.

Posted by SHaGGGz  on  08/23  at  03:47 AM

@Val: Yes, I’ve read your articles expounding upon your understanding of the distinction. That doesn’t mean that this distinction holds up to scrutiny, nor that my disagreement with you entails some sort of failure on my part. I understand your restaurant allegory and its bottom-up construction conception of privacy, but nevertheless contend that the definitions are just too porous and interchangeable, as I’ve exemplified in previous comments.

“But that is not advocacy, no matter how many times you say it is.”
Please show where either of us has attributed advocacy to you? It seems you’ve set yourself off on another fit of blind rage, lumping all of your rhetorical foes together indiscriminately. I believe it was Angela Adams that laughably called you a fascist for laying out your inevitability argument, and confused description and advocacy.

And by the way, CAPITALIZING every other WORD does NOT add ANYTHING of VALUE to your ARGUMENT!

Posted by Valkyrie Ice  on  08/23  at  07:53 AM

<Val, you are a brave fighter against secrecy, >

That is an accusation of advocacy, Shagggz

Posted by Giulio Prisco  on  08/23  at  09:38 AM

@Val re “This is about YOU CHOOSING TO BE SURVEILLED, to allow your smartphone to provide you universal access to VR, to allow your coffee to always be at the right temperature, to allow your house to know when to send out the Roomba to vacuum.  It’s about allowing your Digital Assistant to field those annoying phone calls, or your Sexbot/Surrogate to mimic your lover half a world away.”

Perhaps I would choose to opt-in, but it is my choice to make, and it must remain my choice. My smartphone has a nice “power off” button that I can push when I want. If my phone didn’t have that button, I would throw it away.

Posted by SHaGGGz  on  08/23  at  09:42 AM

@Val: I’ll give you this one on the technicality that you don’t explicitly come out as saying that these technological developments are a good thing. However, it’s pretty obvious that your writing emphasizes the aspects of this technology that most would deem as good, such as toppling tyrannical governments and inability to hide harm, which is easily interpretable as advocacy.

Also, your claim here that “No-one is going to send a camera crew over to follow your every move and broadcast it to the world, YOU will choose to “Video Twitter” it yourself” is out of step with your claims that smart dust will inevitably and irresistibly envelop our entire planet and beyond, regardless of our assent to this.

Posted by engineerblogs  on  08/23  at  02:29 PM

I think both are very difficult ,  In general We Need Privacy, Secrecy keep your mouth closed.

Posted by Valkyrie Ice  on  08/23  at  02:48 PM


I’ve always said you would opt in. I’ve always pointed out that we are ALREADY CHOOSING to surveil ourselves, AS WELL AS being victims of involuntary surveillance. Self surveillance is going to be the sole defense against “big brother”


But the simple fact that you WILL opt in is not really in dispute as far as I am concerned. The success of smartphones and iPads should show you that. The very VR technology you are working on should show you that. Whether you individually reject such “self surveillance” the rest of humanity will not, and for every single “objector”, there will be ten thousand “non-objectors”. As these devices proliferate, it’s not going to matter if you make the choice to use it or not anymore because at some point it will reach such a saturation level that you will NO LONGER HAVE A CHOICE. It will be EVERYWHERE.

It’s kind of like being at the bottom of the ocean without an air tank, Giulio.  Eventually, you’re going to be breathing water.

And that is JUST the VOLUNTARY surveillance stuff. Once you really acknowledge the lengths the “elite” will go to maintain power, as the ongoing case of Julian Assange should illustrate, do you REALLY think you can escape it?

I don’t see any. Maybe you will be right, but I really see no path to avoid it. Every argument I’ve ever been presented for how we will avoid total surveillance has boiled down to “My defiance will prevent it! Somehow!” But no-one has ever given me a concrete route to preventing it, just a lot of fist shaking and empty words of resistance.

Which is why I started to look at the situation not from a viewpoint of trying to prevent, but to analyse the effects. Once you acknowledge that total surveillance is the only logical conclusion, given human nature, and given the necessary enabling technologies that will be required to provide such technologies as VR, Uploading, Morphological freedom, intelligence enhancement, BCI, etc, what are the effects?  David Brin covered many of them in Transparent Society, but I feel that like too many others, he stopped looking at the problem once he got to “Totalitarian control” and failed to carry his logic through to the inevitable collapse of totalitarian control, and it’s resulting consequences.

Simply put, the increasing ability to spy on others inevitably results in the increasing ability to be spied upon yourself. This is the one UNAVOIDABLE truth of the surveillance arms race.  No matter how hard you try to “stay ahead of the curve” with anti-spy technology, that curve will eventually reach a stage of diminishing returns, at which point, no further efforts to avoid surveillance will be possible. Up until that point, you MAY have some small and limited ability to avoid surveillance, but more likely, you will just be ignorant of the level of surveillance you are under. So long as you use ANY modern technology, from Credit Cards to SmartPhones to the Internet, you WILL be under some level of surveillance, even if it’s only tracking your purchases to “customize” the advertising you see.

And it’s only going to get worse. You DO have a choice now. Not about the end result, but which path we take to get there. Total Surveillance is the evolutionary endpoint whether we like or not, or whether we embrace it or fight tooth and claw to prevent it. Every path I can see leads to it. But it is up to us to find the path of least harm. That is the POINT of IEET, isn’t it? To find the paths of least harm to the human race?

And Shagggz, there are a million other writers out there discussing all the potential horrors of surveillance. I agree with them all about the downsides. I fully agree that totalitarian forces will seek to use surveillance technologies to enslave anyone they can. And just like you, I have absolutely no desire to be enslaved.

So rather than focus on the negatives, I talk about the positives, because not enough people are aware that there ARE positives, because all they have ever heard are the negatives. There are many potential positives, but like all things, they have a price, and that price will be the loss of secrecy. We will have to give up the ability to deceive, to conceal, and to pretend to be someone or something we are not. We will have to give up prejudice, ignorance, and intolerance, and learn to be civilized human beings. It’s not going to fun, it’s not going to easy, and it’s not going to happen without a lot of pain and people dying. And it most certainly is going to mean the “End of the World” as we currently know it, which is why all your arguments based in current social reality are rather meaningless.

But to “Advocate” would mean that I feel I have some means to change things one way or another. It would be nice to think I do, but I simply can’t manage to scrape up that level of hubris. I’m just reporting, and pointing out the flaws I see in counter-arguments against what I am reporting on. To be honest, I really don’t see a means for ANYONE to prevent the consequences I am reporting on, because it’s too far along, and happening on too many levels. I think we passed the point of no return when we created the computer. We might have had a chance to avoid this had we bombed ourselves back to the stone age, but even that I think would have merely delayed things.

And I am fully aware I might be wrong, but I’ve spent over twenty years observing human nature, and technology, and the cynic in me has no hope. It’s going to be hell. There is no-one who will “save us” from ourselves. But those of us who survive will have to adapt to a different reality than the one we live in now. In someways, I think it will be a better one. In others it might be a total nightmare. I don’t know. That’s entirely up to us.

Posted by Valkyrie Ice  on  08/23  at  03:25 PM

Oh, and read this, and see if anything in it contradicts my predictions. If anything, it should provide further confirmation

Posted by SHaGGGz  on  08/24  at  03:42 AM

@Val: I understand the changes in social dynamics you describe, and recognize that this a possible, maybe even probable, future. I just think there is too much we don’t know to make the simplistic claims of inevitability that you’re all too comfortable making.

@Henry: lol

Posted by Valkyrie Ice  on  08/24  at  08:28 AM

That’s fine Shagggz, I simply object to you claiming that they are simplistic. I take a LOT more factors into account than I see a overwhelming majority of “futurists” doing, including massive amounts of data completely ignored because it’s “not mainstream” enough. I’ve written several articles on that very subject.

Posted by SHaGGGz  on  08/24  at  08:41 AM

@Val: I take them to be simplistic when measured against a strictly sober respect for the limits of our ability to predict the future, especially in a situation like this where there are so many wild cards at play, an account that would not be as generous with the claims of inevitability. I agree that your analysis is nevertheless more valid than those of most other writers, though that’s a pretty low bar. I also agree with most all of your claims, including the implicit, on balance desirability of these developments. I amplify the minute points of disagreement between us mostly just because you’re a fun one to prod. Muah.

Posted by Valkyrie Ice  on  08/24  at  07:57 PM


I would still say you are underestimating precisely how much thought and analysis I have put into this before reaching these conclusions, but that is because I have a very difficult time attempting to boil down all the various factors I have examined into anything less than a multi-volume encyclopedia. My bad.

However I have been giving the other issue some thought, so here goes yet another attempt to explain the difference between privacy and secrecy.

In your home, you expect privacy. Even if your house was made of glass, you have every right to expect not to have a thousand people watching you have sex with your wife.

That’s “privacy”

But you have NO RIGHT WHATSOEVER to expect to be allowed to have that same “privacy” when you are raping a five year old girl. Not even if your house was buried inside the center of the god-damn Earth.

It’s none of my business what position you and your wife favor. Even if I am curious, you have a right to be free of my nosiness. My right to swing my fist stops where your nose begins, right? Even if you are making amateur porno, it’s not okay for me to watch it UNTIL you give it to me to watch. Why? Because you’ve then given your consent. That’s a socially granted privilege. Nothing you are doing is legitimately “of interest” to SOCIETY and therefore “invisible” It’s actually in Society’s best interests to ensure you have this privilege, and defend it vigorously, because maximum diversity ensures the greatest number of “evolutionary experiments” contributing to the advancement and well being of Society at large.

But Society has decided that raping five year old girls is harmful to the good of Society as a whole. As you are violating another humans right to consent, and causing harm to a member of Society. That makes your activities of “Legitimate Interest”. Concealing this action will prevent Society from being able to inflict suitable penalties designed to prevent you from inflicting further harm. This is an “evolutionary experiment” that Society has already performed over and over through recorded history, with only harmful outcomes. It already knows that allowing this experiment to continue will only result in further harm, and that it must be purged.

To make a biological comparison, Secrecy is like a defense mechanism for a harmful cancer. It prevents the “immune system” of Society from being able to purge the harm.  It allows an escape from accountability.

Yes, under current societal reality there are many activities that should not be considered harmful, and which should be included under the curtain of social invisibility.  It’s these activities that cause no actual harm to society but which are persecuted under various religious or “moral” ideologies which are most likely to result in enormous loss of life and the strongest efforts to establish totalitarian systems of control. The primary efforts to seek paths of least harm will have to be directed at eliminating the harmful memes embedded in these ideologies which encourage individuals to engage in actions which inflict harm on the collective.

For a better accounting of these harmful memes, I recommend “God Want’s You Dead.” (a downloadable PDF file is available at the link.

Posted by SHaGGGz  on  08/25  at  03:34 AM

@Val: Your reformulation reinforces my earlier understanding that your distinction merely rests upon one being “good” and the other not. Here you do some work in trying to explicate how we are to determine the nature of this goodness, which I don’t find particularly compelling or informative. You say that society has been conducting social experiments extending back deep into evolutionary time to determine what sorts of things lead to harm, but fail to take into account just how profoundly contingent upon cultural and technological contexts these values are. Let’s go with your child rape example. Most people, in today’s developed world, would agree that raping children (let alone anyone) is bad, though there is substantial variation in what’s deemed old enough to be able to give consent among these developed nations. This doesn’t even take into account the developing world, which exhibits even greater variation. Also, there is variation across historical time. Just a couple centuries ago even in the developed world they approved of sexual relations with what we would now consider to be children. An even more remote example would be Mohammed, whose youngest wife was nine, a marriage he consummated. How do we determine what “actual” harm is, or how far the community has a “legitimate interest” in regulating such things? When a community finds that it has such an interest in regulating non-standard sexual behavior, by what standard do you adjudge them to be wrong? By your definition, they are acting in “secrecy” because they are taking measures to hide their behavior and avoid social reprisal, but you would also argue that only some kinds of acts are legitimately regulated because they don’t cause “actual” harm, which, of course, conveniently aligns with your own conception of what constitutes harm. Therefore your distinction between privacy and secrecy is devoid of actual substance, except your arbitrary approval.

Posted by Valkyrie Ice  on  08/25  at  10:14 AM

And I think you are being intentionally dense and refusing to see the distinction because you don’t wish there to be one. Very few others have trouble understanding the distinction I’ve made, unless they have a ideological need to pretend otherwise.

But that is your choice. That was my final attempt to debate with you on that subject.

Posted by SHaGGGz  on  08/25  at  10:28 AM

@Val: Vague accusations of intentional density and ideological needs do not an argument make…

Posted by Valkyrie Ice  on  08/25  at  05:12 PM

Nor are they intended to make one.  The simple truth Shagggz is that I am sick and tired of debating the issue with you when it has become obvious that no matter how precisely I define the difference, you will continue to claim there is none, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of other readers seem to get the distinction just fine.

Posted by Peter Wicks  on  08/25  at  09:02 PM

Just for the record, I don’t really “get” this distinction either, and judging from his comment at the top of this thread neither does Giulio. Maybe one of the readers who do can have anotherbgo at explaining it to those of us who don’t?

Posted by Intomorrow  on  08/25  at  09:36 PM

One might say privacy, to begin with, is more concerned with comfort-zoning, while secrecy is more relatable to covering-up.
Nixon erased portions of his White House tapes not because he wanted more privacy (something more of an analog to the sort of left-alone privacy of the family dinner table, say) in his discussions with his underlings, but because he was covering-up—being secretive.

Posted by Valkyrie Ice  on  08/27  at  10:32 AM

Thank you Intomorrow. Nicely put.

Shagggz, I get all too well that “Harm” is a subjective measure. I will not however debate it’s definition with you. If 4000 years of philosophers haven’t yet been able to make a objective measure for it, I find it extremely disingenuous on your part to claim that my failure to define harm invalidates the very clear distinctions I am making between Privacy and Secrecy, which makes me have little choice but to believe the sole reason you do so is because of an ideological belief which prefers to pretend there is no distinction.

And make a note that at no point do I think you are even aware of that ideological bias.

Posted by Valkyrie Ice  on  09/01  at  08:05 PM

And, more proof of how little you actually know about how thoroughly you are watched.

Posted by Peter Wicks  on  09/02  at  02:40 AM

Intomorrow’s formulation of the conceptual difference is indeed nicely put; on the other hand the questions posed by SHaGGGz at the beginning of this thread still seem pertinent to me, so I shall repeat them here. Is a closeted homosexual not that way to “keep things hidden from the community out of fear of social reprisals”? Can the supposed right to privacy not be abused to inflict harm upon the community?

By the way, I agree with Val’s point about historical evidence suggesting that quantum cryptography will not be the last word, but doesn’t that argument also support the idea that newer, stronger ways to preserve privacy/secrecy will be developed?

Going back to the privacy/secrecy distinction, it seems to boil mainly down to motivation (for insisting on and/or granting it). But the mechanics seem to be identical in both cases, hence SHaGGGz’ questions. However the battle between transparency and secrecy evolves, I still don’t really see how to protect (legitimate) privacy without also allowing secrecy. A balance must be drawn (as long as this remains possible), and people must be judged according to how they use their privacy. The rule must be: if you abuse it, you lose it.

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