Secrets aren't SECRETBecause I’ve spent a lot of time in the Washington, DC area working in and for the federal government, I’ve been asked frequently about recent news reports coming from the national capital.  Most of the questions are of the type, “Can the President/FBI/CIA/NSA/etc. really do ___________________ and keep it secret?”

My short answer is usually NO.  The long answer is more complicated.

Today, it’s not hard to find out facts about people.  Once, when I was trying to convince a nonprofit organization that they didn’t really want to make their membership list with phone numbers, addresses and email address available to the public, I challenge my business partner to find out as much as she could about one member with just their first and last name and email address – and she only had a half hour.  The result was 10 pages of information including complete details about family (including children’s friends), business dealings, home and shop contents, buying patterns – even how much was spent on the spouse’s wedding dress!  And that was only from public sources!

Technically, very little is safe if someone is willing to spend the time, effort and money.  As one example, technology exists which can bounce microwaves off window glass panes converting the vibrations from people speaking inside the room back into recognizable human speech.  (Which is why one security officer appreciated me playing a radio in my office.)  However, to do so requires the willingness to expend a lot of money (a line-of-sight location, expensive equipment, knowledgeable and experienced personnel), time (setup and calibration of equipment, collection and analysis of recordings) and the effort (operation, security, etc.)  The question comes down to whether the information gathered is worth the effort?

For most people the answer would be no.  Only in a small subset of situations would the effort be worthwhile.  But when is the effort worthwhile?  When there’s a lot of money or life and death.  In the first case, it is worth the effort for Google, Facebook, or the host of other organizations to gather the information because they can sell it, or, rather, they can sell you, to people and organizations that want your attention, i.e., advertisers, which includes politicians, people with a cause, and organizations that want your money such as the American Red Cross to Campbell’s Soup.  In the second case, you have national security, criminal investigations, and their shadier cousins – people trying to gain an advantage thru knowledge that will be used against others for blackmail or leverage.  The first case carries little risk to the user because the effort is designed to help target the provider’s specific audience – they have a choice.  The second case carries significant risk because knowledge of the effort negates its value – an example of what I call the Hostage Paradox.

The Hostage Paradox comes from the fact that the THREAT of harm to hostages acts as a deterrent to acts against the hostage taker – take an action and I’ll kill the hostage.  But once the hostage taker kills a hostage, then the threat is no longer a deterrent because what have you got to lose – do nothing and the hostage taker will kill the hostages or storm the hostage taker and maybe rescue some of the hostages?

In short, most situations don’t occur because the payoff is not worth the effort and the person or organization can’t afford to spend what’s required because of constraints in money, equipment, personnel or time.

But here’s the funny aspect of the whole question:

“That secret you’ve been guarding, isn’t.” Unknown

Most secrets aren’t.  Think you’re keeping that office romance a secret from everyone?  Not likely.  That secret government facility you’re building?  All the neighbors know about it.  That secret company merger?  Forget it – it’s been the talk around the water cooler for weeks.

Now the details may not be known, but the fact that something is going on will be known.  Because we all “leak” – Ever try to hide something from your spouse?  People are very good at picking up the social clues that betray without anything being said.  And the efforts to hide are usually ludicrous – Have you seen the scene in Hidden Figures where the paper is held up to the light and the name Atlas can be clearly seen even though it had been redacted?  So much for that secret!

The result is that most what we want to be kept secret won’t be.  The answer is to operate as if you have no secrets – minimize only what you must, tell no one, and keep no records.

Because what history tells us is that everything will eventually come to light.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.