I’ve been pondering a subject lately that I think you might find interesting. Secrets. Particularly government secrets. When I started my career in journalism I saw it as my solemn duty to ensure that my government kept no secrets from the public. That is after all the whole reason the first amendment was created, so we don’t go all U.S.S.R. or D.P.R.K. and establish a state controlled media that keeps the voting public in the dark. But I worked for pre-information age editor at a pre-information age newspaper. Those dinosaurs have been persuaded by politicians that there are some bits of information that put the public at risk if made common knowledge. During the Cold War I have no doubt this was true at the highest levels of government. But the wall fell more than a drinker’s age ago. So what is the point of secrets in the modern world? What if we could bring to light all secrets simultaneously with some sort of magic enigma machine? Why don’t we ask Robert Redford and his Sneakers.
I can’t actually recall the last Redford film I’ve observed. He’s not high on my list of favorite actors. Not because he’s not good, no one could accuse him of being talentless, but because he does movies I find uninteresting. The sort of thing that involves horses or fishing, or politics that make my blood boil. But with Sneakers we have nerds, spies, a redhead, and a blind guy driving a delivery van. Honestly, how could I say no? And did I mention Dan Aykroyd? Gotta love Aykroyd as a crazy conspiracy theorist that apparently does something or other with electronic surveillance or something.
The plot meanders takes its good sweet time to develop and there are few surprises. Redford is a college hacker turned professional security tester after his buddy gets pinched hacking into the Federal Reserve while he was out for pizza. Suddenly it’s 1992. The suits have tracked him down and they want him to pull a job in exchange for his freedom. All he has to do is steal this enigma machine from a brilliant mathematician. But of course things are never that simple and the machine changes hands several times. The heists are thrilling in good Hollywood fashion and they’re spiced with a bit of slacker humor as well. The action does a fair job of distracting you from the science behind the enigma machine, or black box.
The box apparently uses maths designed to establish and unbreakable code to break any code. Uh huh. The Russians have some other form of math that the machine is incompatible with. Must be based on bistro math or something. There is no mention of 16-bit encryption or whatever they were using in the days when you still had to put a telephone receiver on your modem. The whole thing is preposterous.
But what’s intriguing is the concept behind the device. A device that allows you to read any and all information from any source you can possible conceive. From your girlfriend’s Juno e-mails to Fortune 500 internal memos to the President’s daily briefings. Not to mention all the foreign information. Remember all that embarrassment caused when a bit of diplomatic correspondence got lose a year or so back? Imagine being able to read every diplomatic e-mail from every diplomat of every country on Earth. In the age of the internet such a thing is possible, and in the age of twitter and Facebook it’s possible for an almost global audience to be so informed with in a matter of hours. Minutes if it’s a work day.
That raises the question, can a government built by representatives with knowledge beyond the scope of the general public survive when the knowledge that bestowed them with great power and responsibility becomes common? We’ve caught glimpses of this potential future in Egypt and the “Arab Spring.” It is the exact opposite of the scenario depicted in many a dystopian novel. What is a world with no secrets? In my mind it could be nothing if not global. How could we hope to look out for the interests of smaller geographic states at the expense of other geographic states when we each know what cards the other holds? At the same time, how could a one world government maintain power over a largely informed public? As creatures in love with our own free will the only time we dare give up our freedoms is when we are either scared, or when we feel such freedom is too tedious for us to oversee personally. So by delegating our own authority to a smaller collection of people we eliminate a degree of discussion, dissent, and control over our society. We start to expect that those we have elected are either wiser or more well-informed than ourselves and therefore more suited for making decisions that affect our daily lives. After all, if we all had to sit down and approve trade agreements, annual budgets, or health care reform would we ever have time to go about our daily lives?
But what if being informed was as simple as receiving a few text messages and voting was as simple as sending one? Where would that put our government? Where would that put us? Consider for a moment the state of modern warfare if everyone was constantly made aware of things like American soldiers urinating on their fallen foes or gunships taking out their targets from the comfort of their unchallenged skies. There are two facts of warfare that have never changed throughout the course of history. War brings out the very worst in humanity, but it also brings out the very best.
Do Redford Aykroyd and pals tackle this great question with their omnipotent power? No, they just drain the Republican National Committee’s bank accounts and give the money to the NAACP, Greenpeace, and other hippies. Well done. Way to tackle the big questions and solve the big problems.