Sense, Secrecy and Cartoons

In the age of open data, privacy and secrecy are hot topics. There is a growing movement towards openness and data sharing in government, as well as in science. Like many scientists, I’m convinced that openness and transparency are largely a good thing, and we astronomers generally take policies of data sharing and posting our work to open access repositories for granted. But in other areas of society the advantage of or need for openness is not so clear. An increased call to openness inevitably leads to the question: when should information be secret, and when should it be open? Under what circumstances is it ok, indeed is it recommended, not to share data and information? Or: “When does my right to privacy trump your need for security?”.

On Edge, American entrepreneur Danny Hillis asked the question: “Who gets to keep secrets?”. The result is an interesting collection of short essays on the topic of secrecy and on the balance between privacy and security, by Lee Smolin, George Dyson and Clay Shirky, amongst others. Read their insightful answers here.

No discussion of secrecy and openness in 2010 is complete without mentioning the Wikileaks phenomenon. On Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll has written about Wikileaks’ recent releasing of a large volume of diplomatic cables to the world, and I find myself agreeing with his arguments. On the balance I think Wikileaks is a good thing, but I’m not entirely sure I see the value of many of these cables being in the public domain.

Finally, xkcd as usual hits the nail on the head:


  1. After having read an article by Bill Thompson (BBC), and links within, I don’t think Wikileaks’s point are the contents of the leaks. Wikileaks want to affect the behaviour of governments by making them paranoid about protecting their own secrets.

  2. Right. This article by Jaron Lanier in The Atlantic makes a somewhat similar point – Wikileaks won’t drive governments to more openness.

  3. The style of writing is quite familiar . Have you written guest posts for other blogs? I mean really very helpful for me