Eyes Above The Waves

Robert O'Callahan. Christian. Repatriate Kiwi. Hacker.

Sunday 7 January 2018

On Keeping Secrets

Once upon a time I was at a dinner at a computer science conference. At that time the existence of Chrome was a deeply guarded secret; I knew of it, but I was sworn to secrecy. Out of the blue, one of my dinner companions turned to me and asked "is Google working on a browser?"

This was a terrible dilemma. I could not answer "no" or "I don't know"; Christians mustn't lie. "Yes" would have betrayed my commitment. Refusing to answer would obviously amount to a positive answer, as would any obvious attempt to dodge the question ("hey I think that's Donald Knuth over there!").

I can't remember exactly what I said, but it was something evasive, and I remember feeling it was not satisfactory. I spent a lot of time later thinking about what I should have said, and what I should say or do if a similar situation arises again. Perhaps a good answer would have been: "aren't you asking the wrong person?" Alternatively, go for a high-commitment distraction, perhaps a cleverly triggered app that self-dials a phone call. "You're going into labour? I'll be right there!" (Note: not really, this would also be a deception.) It's worth being prepared.

One thing I really enjoyed about working at Mozilla was that we didn't have many secrets to keep. Most of the secrets I had to protect were about other companies. Minimizing one's secrecy burden generally seems like a good idea, although I can't eliminate it because it's often helpful to other people for them to be able to share secrets with me in confidence.

Update The situation for Christians has some nuance.


Steve Fink
"If I knew, I probably wouldn't be able to tell you."? At one point, I was firmly of the opinion that all negotiations should be public. Otherwise, there's simply far too much opportunity and temptation to do evil things behind closed doors, to disenfranchise those who are highly concerned with the outcome, to allow corruption and bribery to flourish. I have since done a 180. Productive negotiation requires give and take, to propose different scenarios and try to find something that makes both sides happy (or the least unhappy.) That often cannot be done in the open, since your constituents all have their own weightings of the various pieces you're negotiating with, and if they see how the sausage is made they will react and effectively withdraw from the negotiation before any full proposal has been made. It will be two public personas negotiating, which means a lot of grandstanding and little progress in any but the most straightforward negotiations. It's a lot like privacy. The point is not whether you have something to hide. It's that you do everything differently, you do everything differently, in private vs public. Sorry, this is all wandering a bit far afield of your original post!
Steve Fink
Ugh. That was supposed to be "...you do everything differently, you *think* differently,..."
Those are good points! > "If I knew, I probably wouldn't be able to tell you."? I like that one!
Peter Kasting
My suggestion would have been "if you find out, let me know!"
That's a good one too.
Anthony Ricaud
In business and personal life, I prefer when the person asking to keep a secret also tells you how to behave when someone is poking at the secret. They are burdening you with a secret so I think it's only fair that they help you keep it secret.
Obviously I've now had longer to think about this than you had at dinner, but when the questioner isn't expecting you to have secret information (they think they're just asking about public knowledge) you could answer along the lines of: “I don't think I've seen anything about that in the tech press.” In the specific case of what Google's up to it's easier — simply say: “Google's so big that expect between them they're working on everything.” (That there's likely to a Google engineer somewhere tinkering with a pet rendering engine doesn't reveal anything about the secret you were asked to keep.) My equivalent situation (complete with sleepless nights) was when, as a developer, I was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement before attending a secret meeting. That turned out to be a bunch of managers discussing how to close a satellite office, presuming that none of the staff there could be trusted once the closure was announced. That office's manager was a friend of mine, to whom I'd previously agreed to keep informed of anything I heard at HQ that was relevant to that office. When he asked me to do that, he wasn't anticipating I'd ever have specific information (I wasn't a manager) or would have signed to keep something secret; as somebody in a remote office that many in HQ often forgot about, he just wanted to be kept up-to-date with things on the grapevine that were common knowledge in HQ. But I was then in a position where I couldn't honour both my commitment to my friend and the paperwork I'd signed. Needless to say, I wasn't a very productive developer for the next few weeks. In the short term I could avoid a direct conflict by not saying anything (my friend could hardly be suspicious of my not saying something that he didn't know about), but I hadn't worked out what I'd do if he idly happened to ask if I had any news; I just wanted management to tell him as soon as possible, to minimize the period where I knew and he didn't. I am a Christian, but I'm not sure how relevant that is — I think it'd be a horrible situation for anybody. (I persuaded management that the office manager, my friend, could be trusted to be professional, and that we'd have a smoother handover with his help and experience than by trying to set up replacements without him, theoretically to take over the second he was told about the closure. Once he knew, I apologized to him — he was very understanding — then the two of us concocted a plan for saving that office. We presented it to the new-ish MD, over the head of the senior manager who'd decided to close the office. Fortunately the MD agreed, and shortly afterwards that senior manager left. But that's irrelevant to the anguish of the secret-keeping.)
That's a really good example. Thanks. I think in my case, had I not been a Christian, I would have quickly concluded that answering "I don't know" would be a harmless lie that maximised utility. Your two suggestions would probably not have worked well in my case. The questioner did expect me to have access to non-public information (correctly!), and the question was clearly about Google launching a browser, not someone tinkering.
Justin Marsh (:flaviusb)
That is an interesting wrinkle - did that friend realise that they were asking you to break a trust that you had been given? Because if you are usually pretty free with telling them secret information, they might not have realised, and you would have put yourself in a situation where you could not be truthful while keeping the secret. But if you draw a hard line early on - eg "you are clearly asking me to divulge secrets that I have been trusted to keep - that is not cool, man" even when you don't know the secret they are after, it makes it possible to say that when you do know the secret without giving that away.
That's a good point. But I don't think they expected me to have secret information whose secrecy I was bound to keep. They probably expected me to answer based on my observations from outside.
turn it into joke maybe? "If I told you, I'd have to kill you"
Jeff Walden
This is somewhat similar to what happened to James Clapper in the US -- a high-ranking US government official, asked point-blank whether there was a program that involved massive spying on the American populace by a hostile Senator Ron Wyden. Wyden knew the existence of such program was classified, that Clapper couldn't truthfully answer the question (because it would violate classification), and that Clapper couldn't refuse to answer (because then people would infer that the program was classified). Clapper chose to lie, which got a ton of civil libertarians very angry at him when the actual truth was revealed. I don't know how the question could have been answered, consistent with Christian beliefs, without effectively revealing the existence of the program. (Which is to say -- the problem highlighted here can be far, far worse when someone is actively trying to exploit your principals.) It does occur to me -- just as governments may, consistent with Biblical principle, engage in war involving the deliberate taking of human life, maybe there is room within that to allow for government to lie to fulfill some sort of "just government" principles. I'm not at all sure there is such room (and even if there were, I don't know whether it would have protected Clapper).