Transparency sits on a spectrum

Blog Post
Juliette Kayyem
Former DHS

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Publish date

Jun 16, 2022

Juliette Kayyem is former Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security and an Evolv Technology Advisor

On the surface, we hear the word “transparency” and think it’s all-around a good thing, and something to expect from businesses, our government and the technology we use. But, in most cases, transparency is a spectrum, not all or none. We have a tendency to think of things as an on/off switch – either it’s transparent or secure – which doesn’t fit the complex and complicated world in which we live today. The best technology is transparent as to what it does without disclosing a “blueprint” to an enemy or releasing private information that shouldn’t be.

My perspective from having been in security for many years is not to ask whether something is transparent; rather, ask what rules, processes, and best practices are in place that can help guide the deployment of technology. For example, in some situations, that might be displaying signage disclosing to people that they are walking through detection technology designed to find weapons.

We need to judge the framework guiding transparency 

Today, we all live a bit in the “in between,” where there’s a big space between something being unlawful or violent and disclosure. Some information, like a breach of medical information, can be damaging or harmful to a person’s reputation, but doesn’t risk physical harm. Other information, like how to “trick” or get around security – like we’ve seen in hundreds of movies – can lead to real, physical harm to one or many people. Our job as security professionals is to identify our goal(s) for deploying processes and technology, the risks of those failing and our audience’s expectations for transparency – and find the place at the center where all of those can coexist.

Choices about transparency, security and “everyday life” are everywhere

Today’s threat environment means Americans are having to constantly make choices about how much transparency we – both as individuals and collectively as a society – require, and what we’re willing to live with in order to go about our lives. For example, when visiting a theme park, you may be aware of the screening technology you walk through to enter, but may not be aware of the videos and plain-clothed security professionals positioned throughout the park. Most of us are willing to visit the park for the experience it provides and to spend quality time with our families and friends, despite not knowing its exact security protocols. We trust the organization to share the information they feel won’t risk our security, and keep the rest from getting into the wrong hands.

In other words, we know there is a trade-off because we understand that security is complicated; there are multiple layers in place in order to prevent someone with bad intentions from getting access. And security measures are not just at the physical entrance, they begin with restricting access to information that can help bad actors navigate around – and through – those layers.

Expectations, like transparency, exist on a spectrum

When I’m in my own home, my expectations for privacy are greater than they are when I’m out at a big public event. (Although, even those expectations are shifting with the ubiquity of connected devices – speakers, refrigerators, thermostats, etc.) When I’m attending, say, a sporting event, my expectation for privacy shifts; I recognize that, for the safety and security of the crowd, I will be subject to things like screenings, security reviews and surveillance. And, in practice, most people will go through those crowds anonymously – until they bring a gun or weapon that is prohibited, and they/the risk is handled per the venue’s security protocols.

The reality is, just like everything, transparency isn’t black or white. While it’s easy to say something violates or doesn’t violate transparency, it is not as simple as that. In order to live in a society where we can gather together – at a concert, a football game, a museum – we all make trade-offs to ensure our own safety and security, as well as that of those with whom we gather. So, every time we rush to judgment on whether or not something is transparent, we need to stop and consider the overall framework, security risks and responsibility involved in making decisions about an individual’s – or large group’s – safety.

To read more about Juliette, visit her LinkedIn; follow her on Twitter or find her latest book, The Devil Never Sleeps, on Amazon

Juliette Kayyem
Former DHS