PARIS -- The ongoing leaks of confidential business data from Sony Pictures Entertainment and the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report on the use of enhanced interrogation techniques by the Central Intelligence Agency have something in common. Call it the "Snowden Privacy Paradox."
The Sony leaks and the so-called torture report are being celebrated by transparency cheerleaders who hypocritically want the strictest privacy safeguards applied to them and to those who share their worldview, but who inadvertently undermine everyone's privacy (including their own) by aggressively promoting a culture of transparency.
In fleeing to China with loads of top-secret data, National Security Agency contractor turned privacy advocate Edward Snowden displayed little regard for the U.S. government's right to secrecy in matters of national security. Snowden found himself at odds with that longstanding and universally accepted intelligence-service "best practice" of keeping one's yap shut.
The aggressive promotion of transparency in dark corners that were previously considered acceptably opaque brings about a troublesome new development. There is now increased tolerance for what transparency advocates consider to be "acceptable" privacy violations -- particularly those that expose governments, businesses and individuals they dislike -- and that means a subsequent tilting of the global playing field in favor of entities that aren't on transparency advocates' radar.
Snowden Privacy Paradoxers want to drive down the center of the road, straddling both the transparency and privacy lanes until it personally suits them to swerve one way or the other. If an intruder broke into their home with the intention of killing their family, they'd most likely feel entitled to shoot him or pulverize him with a golf club, no questions asked. And please, no judging them for an individual choice made under duress. But when it comes to captured terrorists hell-bent on doing harm to innocents, these same critics feel obligated to put others under the microscope, lest a terrorist be subjected to any discomfort.
"America needs to set a high moral bar," they say. But would they just stand there slack-jawed if someone repeatedly punched them? Doubtful. And would they want their friends and neighbors to judge them if they fought back? Probably not.
Moral consistency is much more palpable in a country like France, the birthplace of human rights, where there is no public outcry for government transparency in matters of national security, and where individual privacy rights are enforced by law and reflected in an overarching culture of privacy and discretion. The French understand and accept that intelligence services conduct discreet operations in the nation's best interests. They know that transparency in such matters brings little benefit, in large part because the general public doesn't have enough information or contextual understanding to objectively assess such matters. And yes, this remains true even in the Internet age, when everyone feels qualified to diagnose their own illnesses through WebMD or to crowdsource a prognosis on Twitter.
Democracy has become fallaciously equated with the public's right to know about everything. Can democracy thrive in the absence of full and absolute transparency? Of course it can -- and has. It's one thing for you to know how your tax money is being spent; it's another to be so transparent on national defense and security issues that enemies are able to use the information to their benefit.
If you're going to be morally consistent, then you have to advocate either full transparency across the board or full privacy. When you make choices about which entities should be entitled to discretion and which should be laid bare, your underlying values start showing through those choices.
That brings us to the Sony leaks.
Not to say that if information is leaked, you aren't going to read it. Even the French cop to that. People rubberneck at car wrecks, too, but that doesn't mean that they want more of them. On the other hand, if you like the idea of internal communications between studio executives and Hollywood celebrities like George Clooney strewn across the Internet because you figure that transparency rules, particularly when it comes to those "Hollywood jerks," then presumably you wouldn't mind your employer dumping all of your email into cyberspace for the world to parse in the absence of any context.
Some people would prefer that terrorists be interrogated in public, but these same people would be aghast if the contents of their Amazon Wish List were disclosed. They fail to understand that advocating transparency in one realm can undermine the desire for privacy in other realms