“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
So said Benjamin Franklin, a man who knew a thing or two about the activities of the state and its miscontents. He recognised the haste with which word spreads once a secret gets out, particularly when the information contained is shocking or surprising – anything that gives the possessor cultural currency. The only way truly to keep a secret is to share it with absolutely no one.
The recent glut of celebrity hackers and fame junkie whistleblowers suggests that this wisdom is not widely heeded. Edward Snowdon, Julian Assange and their ilk are individuals who have demonstrated bravery in pursuing justice and defending the public against intrusions into their civil liberties by their own Governments. But by attaching their own names to their exposures, they have effectively blown their cover, making it impossible for them to operate below the radar eliciting further information. It seems these individuals are more motivated by the opportunity to be the pin ups of radical chic – they are the political equivalent of Rihanna or Kim Kardashian, spaced out on the Bourne Identity trilogy and the tatty Che Guevara poster pinned on the wall.
They have fallen, like so many before them, to the irresistible allure of celebrity. The culture they are involved with holds great fascination for the public. We are a nation raised on the works of Ian Fleming. From the characters of James Bond we’ve learnt to lionise the slick operators who move beneath the surfaces of powerful political bodies, executing acts of espionage, subterfuge and seduction all in the name of the public good and without a mark on their spotless tuxedos. Code cracking has been with us since the Cold War and even earlier, and in many ways it is now easier than ever, but our view is still shaped by Ian Fleming and John le Carre’s portraits of the glamour of the lifestyle.
How many could resist the temptation of being portrayed as a real world Daniel Craig? There is a huge appetite for this stuff: not the nuts and bolts nitty gritty of their actions, but also an insight into their personal lives and relationships. We want to know if it is as glamorous and exciting as the movies suggest. The fearsome appetite with which the world has gobbled up the digital titbits that Snowdon’s (now presumably ex) girlfriend has left strewn through cyberspace is a case in point. The fact she’s a pole dancer with a predilection for posting ‘selfies’ in her underwear just further serves our collective imagination.
But courting celebrity is a dangerous game, with players as likely to garner criticism and legal consequences as much as the longed for adulation. And in spite of the neat headlines their actions foster, is anyone really surprised by the fact that Google is in cahoots with the NSA? Or that the CIA and MI5 are spying on our personal data? Shucks: of course they are.
What is certain is that for all those that wind up on the front pages of national newspapers around the world, there are many more operating beneath the surface, avoiding the toxicity of fame at all costs. These are the people with the real power: the faceless blackhats making serious dosh harvesting data farms. They are cognisant of the fact that only anonymity will allow them to operate below the radar, unlocking the true machinations of the world’s great political and financial powers.