The 1992 movie Sneakers offered a recurring phrase: “no more secrets.” This was a key plot point in what the Internet Movie Database described as a “complex but lighthearted thriller about computers and cryptography, government and espionage, secrets and deception and betrayal.” One of the characters had acquired a decryption device capable of accessing any computer network; as a result, there would be no more secrets.
Fast forward twenty years. We now have a movie – Zero Dark Thirty – that portrays both the search for and the killing of Osama bin Laden. The mission at the time was top secret – almost everyone was kept in the dark about it until it was over. Even now those involved with the movie are not at liberty to talk about aspects of it, including details about the CIA agent who was the inspiration for the Maya character in the movie. As the Washington Post’s Emi Kolawole notes: “There is still information that, at least for the foreseeable future, will remain hidden from view, always behind a whispering veil of secrecy.”
Nevertheless, this movie reveals a great deal about both the search and the ensuing mission to Abbottabad by SEAL Team 6. That’s pretty amazing – especially since the raid happened less than two years ago. Compare that to another CIA mission that was the subject of a recent movie, Argo. That mission, which involved smuggling US embassy staff out of Iran in 1980, was largely unknown by anyone until the movie came out thirty-some years later.
While there are doubtless a variety of reasons for the difference in the timeliness of these two stories, a key factor is how technology has changed our expectations. As Kolawole observes:
But in the age of the Internet, that whisper sounds a little different – a little louder, perhaps — than it might have sounded in the past. Today, we are used to having information available at our fingertips on just about everything…Even the former director of the CIA learned the hard way that it is all but impossible to keep anything online secret for very long.
I have written before about how the ready availability of information has changed our world. The existence of a movie like Zero Dark Thirty just reinforces that point.
But it also shows another way in which things have changed. Twenty years ago we had a movie concerning secrecy in a computerized world. But revealing secrets then was deemed to require an electronic device – a super decoder kind of black box that very few would know how to make or use.
With the Internet, many secrets today can be uncovered just by going to the movies or searching Google – or WikiLeaks. In a very real and accessible way, we now live in a world in which there often truly are no more secrets.