- By Jamie Shea
The war in Ukraine and the global response to it are giving us a glimpse of what may be possible both now and in the near future. Among them is an unprecedented level of transparency brought about by exponential leaps in open-source intelligence combined with the West’s use of intelligence releases to maintain unity and thwart Russian disinformation.
In February 2022, the United States and United Kingdom were already releasing highly classified information in an attempt to deter Russia but also to alert both Ukraine and the rest of Europe to be prepared for a Russian assault.
From the start of this crisis, Russian military forces have also been tracked, observed and reported on by open-source practitioners – but movements of Western forces and reconnaissance flights have been tracked as well, right down to the tail number of the aircraft or identification of the formation. It was this kind of crowd-sourced open-source intelligence that confirmed what the US and UK had been reporting already.
Once the war began, Ukraine’s digital ministry called out for ‘hacktivist’ volunteers to join their cause, which drew over 300,000 persons to support Kyiv’s cyber efforts on the dark web and coordinate attacks to interfere with Russia’s ability to invade Ukraine.
Governments are finding themselves in a new world of even greater transparency albeit not always of their own design
These hacktivists have not only defended Ukraine’s cyberspace and disrupted Russian government activities but have also hacked and released reams of data on the Kremlin, at one point even including a list of every Russian military service member taking part in the offensive into Ukraine.
In other cases, evidence of Russian war crimes and the identities of the suspected perpetrators were collected, analysed and passed on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague by private individuals and civil society groups.
No more secrets? Governments are finding themselves in a new world of even greater transparency albeit not always of their own design. Many of the same technologies and platforms that allow for the surveillance of citizens are also available for citizens to watch what governments are doing in a war zone several time zones away or in their own town.
Citizens in Western democracies now have the ability to have situational awareness on crisis zones at a level that previously only governments had. They also now have the ability to act on it as witnessed during the war in Ukraine.
Access does not mean understanding, much less expertise
Today, any citizen with an adequate internet connection can also observe more closely what their own governments are doing in peacetime. Citizens can now observe in real time well beyond their own locality and see if promises have been delivered on, if problems have been solved, or if other problems have been covered up.
This higher level of scrutiny has also placed new demands on government officials to ensure their statements are current and correct since citizens can seek to verify the information themselves.
But these same citizens, lacking training and experience in dealing with the information they have access to, can cause confusion or sow mistrust. Access does not mean understanding, much less expertise.
Thus, well-meaning citizens can unwittingly feed into disinformation narratives and help grow conspiracy theories. So, a certain amount of citizen education will be a necessary part of any approach to greater transparency.
The race is on to not only reach quantum supremacy but to develop and deploy quantum resistant cryptography to protect systems throughout society
Citizens today are much more aware of how digital technology, public surveillance systems and emergency measures, such as pandemic contact tracing, have impacted their privacy. This seems to have created an even greater public demand for governments and private companies to be more transparent and restore some kind of balance.
Unless this imbalance is addressed, citizens who feel their lives have become an open book while they are governed by opaque technocracies will lose trust in the system – and be open to narratives that call on them to upend it.
As quantum computing matures in the coming years, new levels of transparency could expand even further as the ability to break virtually any digital encryption becomes possible. The race is on to not only reach quantum supremacy but to develop and deploy quantum resistant cryptography to protect systems throughout society.
Given the vast volumes of data that have already been acquired in ‘hack now, decrypt later’ schemes by state and non-state actors, we can expect a certain number of disruptive revelations in the coming years as emails, financial transactions and diplomatic cables from present day are revealed to the public as 2030 approaches.
Confidentiality is to governments what privacy is to citizens
The question for Western democracies is how to respond to these new developments: by tightening security even further and issuing denials or by leaning into greater transparency?
The ability to hold certain information secret is one aspect of exercising power and control over a group or society. But when the technology to access information that was previously hidden becomes available to the public, it shifts more power from the state to the individual. This of course is part of a larger trend in which the democratisation of technology is significantly changing the relationship between the citizen and the state.
Considering the lack of trust that people living in democracies have in their governments today and the continued democratisation of information technology, leaning into greater transparency may be the only viable solution. If done in a meaningful way, it can help strengthen democracy and public trust for an era in which both will need strengthened resilience.
Of course, governments cannot function effectively nor protect citizens’ information without confidentiality and certain safeguards. Confidentiality is to governments what privacy is to citizens. The key is to find the balance in a new social contract between citizens, states and private entities.
Transparency practices are already being implemented
To do so, there must be a consensus on what kinds of information must be protected in the public interest, such as information on dangerous goods, negotiating positions, criminal investigations and personal data. But for so much other information, governments will need to learn to trust their citizens since soon they may not have a choice.
In Asian democracies like Taiwan, these types of transparency practices are already being implemented. Under Taiwan’s open government approach, citizens are placed on various councils to provide overwatch on what the government is doing on everything from budgeting, to handling of personal data, to new laws and regulations.
This approach has also been critical to Taiwan’s successful campaign to address disinformation, finding that their unique approach involving greater citizen involvement, transparency, rapid response and partnership with civil society helps them inoculate their society against harmful information manipulations.
Once again, the proven approach to strengthening democracy is more democracy.
The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.
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