Secrecy And Privacy

By Dr. Alan Radley,  25 Aug 2017

IT is insightful to ponder a little on the nature (and fundamental definition(s)) of secrecy and privacy…

To begin with, let us imagine that you are standing next to someone in a private location, before passing a real-world object to that person, and in a such manner that ensures (for argument’s sake) that this same action cannot be overlooked/discovered. Accordingly, it is easy to understand—that this act is absolutely private.

However things are not quite so simple—when you pass datagrams (messages, folders and files etc) across a remote wired/wireless communication system (aka the Internet). In particular, such a data-transfer may be visible and/or exposed to the actions of other programs/actors/people—and primarily because it has a public aspect—in terms of the visibility/accessibility of associated communications data. This is because the network itself is public—or open. For example, the packetised-data may be visible, and/or the wire/wifi communications may be observable/hackable; and/or the associated Internet traffic could be spied upon in some way etc.

Regardless of whether or not any exposed—or persisted—copies exist on the communication system itself (i.e. central copies)—one has to admit—that on an open-network—aspects of the live communication process may be visible to nth-parties. Hence communications must be (theoretically) no longer entirely private/secret—or at least in terms of the existence of any transferred packets etc; and most probably in terms of other aspects of the copy’s form. Ergo, we are forced to conclude—that total privacy/secrecy—in relation to the—sum total of all aspects of a copy’s form/content—for such a digital communication process—is quite simply, impossible to achieve.

Another problem, in our terms, relates to the mixing-up—of the media of storage, transfer and access—and in way(s) that likewise result in aspects of a copy’s form being rendered publicly visible/accessible.

Our discussion implies that you (the owner of the copy)—plus the system designer(s)/operator(s)—must choose which aspects of the copy—and hence communication process as whole—to make secret/private. However certain aspects will, nevertheless, remain public! In other words—security is all about deciding which aspects of a datum-copy can be wholly removed from public view (aka beholder’s share etc)— and which (inevitably public) aspects to protect using locking/blocking/concealment mechanism(s) etc.

We can conclude that a secret/private communication process—taking place in a semi-public arena—always has public aspects—or facets—regardless of how powerful—or impenetrable—may be the protection mechanism(s).

Secrecy Defined

WHAT is secrecy, in-and-of-itself? And how do we keep something secret? What are the fundamental techniques for attaining/securing/preserving secrecy?

Unquestionably, these are fundamental questions (for any society)—and answering the same can help us to understand secrecy at a deep, and even philosophical, level. Ergo, we wish to come up with a strict definition for the term. In this respect, right away, we notice that it is necessary to protect an item by concealing, blocking and/or locking its specific material-form and/or inner-meaning from others. In other words we must prevent other people from finding, contacting and/or knowing the item.

Obviously we can build a protective barrier (i.e walls) around the item (i.e place it in a safe/vault); and then create a locked door—being one that requires some form of password/secret-key in order to open. Alternatively, we can prevent any unwarranted person from reaching the it—by means of blocked/inaccessible pathways. Finally, we could hide the item in a secret location known only to ourselves—and the same being one that is—for some reason—difficult to see/ nd by other people.

But all of this begs the question—what is the common feature of secrecy—and can we identify any fundamental characteristic(s)—in terms of being able to attain it by means of a particular method? Put simply, attaining/defending secrecy—for any item—may be defined as protecting the material/virtual-form of a thing; or restricting its contents to the actual owner of the thing alone. In other words, we wish to protect the secrecy of the item—in terms of who can see, know and/or change it.

The concept of secrecy is at the same time—and equally—socially defensive (broadest possible terms) and socially restrictive (narrowest possible terms). Above all, secrecy requires that the genuine entry-method(s)—or valid pathway(s)—used to reach the item’s form/content—must be exceptionally well-defended (in social accessibility terms)—and remain so perpetually. Ergo, any and all unauthorised pathways/ surreptitious entry-methods must be untenable.

Additionally—authorised entry-method(s)—must be of such a form/type/kind that they cannot be attained/ guessed/stumbled-upon, or otherwise discovered/used by any unwarranted-party/breaching-technique (including statistical methods etc).

In a nutshell, secrecy is the attenuation/ whittling-down—or drastic reduction—of unwarranted accessibility options (entry-methods/pathways) for an item—whereby the (relatively scarce) authentic entry-method(s)/pathway(s) are perpetually out-of-reach to any and all unwarranted people/actors.

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