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Editorial: The public’s “right to know” versus information security

It’s generally agreed upon that the public needs to be informed to make thorough decisions on issues. A general rule of journalism is to inform the people of what the public needs to know. News outlets play a pivotal role in upholding this facet of democratic society. But who decides what’s important for United States citizens to know? Who is the gatekeeper in the heaviest of cases, like those concerning nuclear warfare or collusion?

Information privacy has a long history in our country. In decades past, strong lines of distrust ran through the public. The average citizen had concerns that our government could be sharing more information with us – especially concerning war and foreign affairs. In 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) granted the public rights to request records from any federal agency. The about page on FOIA describes the act as “…the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.”

This sounds ideal — in theory. A Freedom Forum poll from 2000 found some contradictions in the public’s opinions over privacy, security and the release of information. While 60 percent of respondents believed public access to government records was crucial to a healthy government, another question in the poll found that 54 percent thought laws around private privacy should be improved, even at risk of losing government record access. FOIA has exemptions in place to protect national security, privileged agency communications and other confidential information. Polling over recent years has suggested that the public generally wants personal records, such as marriage and divorce papers, to be withheld from public access.

While citizens are asking for their lives to be kept private, they are also expecting full disclosure from the government — even in cases of classified, potentially dangerous information.

John C. Merrill wrote for the Foundation for Economic Education in 1967 that, historically, only the press is consistently concerned about public access to information. “They criticize, agitate, and fret about the “people’s right to know” being infringed on by government,” Merrill writes. He further argues that journalists also censor what information is available to the public by editing all the content they receive and choosing what is most important to know.

It seems, then, that the press are the gatekeepers. Deciding what is newsworthy is a political move in itself, and it curates down the flow of widely available information to give the public only the decided points. This is usually an effective system. The sheer amount of information on the day-to-day operations of every government agency and official would drown the public. How do we know what to read, if everything is placed at our feet?

The Nunes memo has been huge in the news lately. The memo was released on Feb. 2 following President Donald Trump’s approval. Much of the information in the memo concerns the FBI and allegations of abused surveillance into the Trump campaign. Opposition has been fierce. Opponents of the memo’s release cited cherry-picking as a reason to keep this memo private, for fear of intentionally misinforming the public. Furthermore, information inside was originally classified. Questions over security were reasonably raised. How do we decide what classified information is safe to release? Will the average citizen truly understand the often nuanced, context-dependent intelligence that government agencies deal with?

When the Nunes memo hit the public, several public figures pointed out that much of the information had been previously reported. While some details were new, the memo did not have the cannonball effect that some were bracing for. Memos like this are not a new move, though they always succeed in invigorating and panicking the public.

There is no doubt that the government has betrayed our collective trust in the past, by withholding information that the public really should have known. But not everything should be fair game. Releasing information too early, or without all the context needed to comprehend the situation, just for the sake of distracting the public, is a dangerous game we shouldn’t be playing. We should rally for a safe and in-the-loop public, rather than rallying for an indiscriminately aware public.

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