To Defeat Autocracy, Weaponize Transparency
The gap between what governments know and what members of the public can discover is shrinking. The proliferation of high-quality, open source data and the diffusion of analytic tools and skills outside of government have democratized what were once unique capabilities held exclusively by national security institutions. This will require a paradigm shift in the way these institutions operate — one uniquely poised to benefit the United States and its allies, if they are willing to embrace it.
Every government has its secrets, but some need them more than others. This is a fundamental difference between democracies like the United States and autocracies like Russia and China, and a tremendous source of American strength. A renaissance in open source data collection is forcing autocracies to expend significant resources to obfuscate their actions and retain control of the information space. In the years to come, the United States will have an opportunity to both harness and empower open source intelligence networks, especially as it pushes back against a rising China.
In the Struggle Against Autocracy, Transparency Is a Key Weapon
Democracies have a significant advantage in weaponizing transparency at scale to highlight autocratic activities that break international norms or inflict damage on local economies and populations. The Biden administration’s latest strategic disclosure of sensitive information to the public is only one of many tools in its arsenal to promote such transparency. Others include the publication and dissemination of data produced by the U.S. government, federally funded data creation through non-governmental institutions, and a cultural shift toward embracing transparency in partnership with non-governmental practitioners. Each of these tools brings unique opportunities and challenges, but all can be wielded to improve America’s position in the global information space. Agencies are already spending significant resources on modernizing their information management systems internally to begin applying 21st-century analytical tools to the challenges of foreign policy, and these existing efforts will support the goal of making unclassified information more accessible to the public.
How would this differ from the general idea of weaponizing information? The scale and approaches to doing so are adapted to the technical realities of the 21st century. The urgency and sophistication of the challenge will demand that democracies transparently scale up the production and release of unclassified data on autocratic adversaries.
The Biden administration’s decision to rapidly declassify and disseminate information about President Vladimir Putin’s intentions, strategy, and operations has helped the United States stay ahead of Russian moves and rally a surprisingly diverse coalition to Ukraine’s defense. In its decision to weaponize transparency, the Biden administration likely calculated that the benefit of preemptively calling out Russian plans outweighed the potential risk to sources and methods of intelligence, or of rapid Russian adaptation.
Like many autocracies, Russia’s national security apparatus has long been hidebound by a culture of secrecy — owing largely to the historical role of its military and intelligence services in managing domestic politics. Modern Russia hides its nuclear modernization programs. Its oligarchs hide their wealth. Putin hid the true intent of his “special military operation,” the invasion of Ukraine, from the first soldiers he sent into that country — all while “yes men” in the security state even hid the truth about their military readiness from Putin himself.
This reliance on secrecy is not unique to Russia. The People’s Republic of China has long obfuscated its efforts to undermine and ultimately replace the rules-based international order established by the United States and its allies. As early as 1989, then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping encouraged China’s foreign policy apparatus to “hide your strength, and bide your time” — a strategy embraced by successive Chinese leaders up to and including Xi Jinping. This obfuscation includes hiding its military spending, concealing its global influence operations under the auspices of “united front work,” and threatening and intimidating members of the Chinese diaspora while attempting to maintain plausible deniability. Domestically, China hides its unfair trade practices and coercive economic diplomacy, leaning on foreign firms to share their own secrets in exchange for access to the Chinese market. Abroad, China hides the strings attached to its foreign assistance programs. This is to say nothing of the Chinese government’s effort to obfuscate its global ambitions, or its Orwellian domestic information control efforts to hide genocide, leadership abuses, and lockdowns.
Each of China’s secrets constitutes both moral failures and potential strategic opportunities, which the United States can utilize in its mission to uphold a liberal international order. As technology ushers in even greater transparency, national security institutions should adjust their policies and processes to incentivize the greater collection, distribution, and magnification of publicly available information about China’s malign activities, corrupt business practices, human rights abuses, rising militarization, and flaunting of international norms. Reliance on legacy public diplomacy through social media and standard news outlets is simply not sufficient, especially as the broader information ecosystem becomes more diffuse and federated. To ride the global wave of digitally literate information producers and brokers, democratic institutions need to become more aggressively transparent generators of national security data.
Any effort to promote greater government transparency must itself be transparent. Attempts to manipulate the facts and shape global narratives through the release of cherry-picked information has proven disastrous — for example, in the lead-up to the Iraq War. But rigorously researched and well-documented information generation and disclosure on a broad scale, even when not perfectly aligned with executive-branch priorities, will build trust and support broader U.S. interests.
As the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Democratic governments can take three steps to better weaponize transparency: streamlining the ways they currently collect and publish data, funding public-private partnerships to harvest more of it, and encouraging a cultural shift within their intelligence networks.
First, democratic governments should streamline access to their own unclassified data holdings. Dating back to the establishment of the census in the Constitution, the United States has a long but imperfect history of collecting and sharing data and analysis with the public. In the modern era, this information is best delivered at scale in the form of machine-readable data. While the volume and scope of the data collected by the U.S. government has exploded, what has not kept pace is the ability to structure, clean, store, and easily share unclassified data with the public. This is a missed opportunity because much of the data collected and analyzed by national security agencies — by some estimates, as much as 80 percent — is unclassified. Yet, in 2022, the key manner by which the U.S. government shares data and analysis remains massive PDF files strewn across hundreds of individual agency websites. This antiquated approach makes it harder for a growing ecosystem of industry, think tanks, foreign allies, international civil society, and nonprofits to utilize the underlying data for their own specific needs, research, and applications.
Second, democracies can lean on civil society to widen the net of public data collectors. Academic research centers like William and Mary’s AidData, the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, and Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology have contributed tremendous value to public, private, and government researchers alike. With relatively minimal government funding, these and other disaggregated research centers can produce high-quality data that can be bought once and used many times. This academic model also provides the auxiliary benefits of strengthening American research institutions and training future national security practitioners in areas that are technical and policy priorities. What’s more, publicly funded academic data projects sidestep many of the proprietary issues that prevent sharing datasets produced by the private sector. Academics can independently confirm and reproduce information which was already known to the intelligence community, without its being stamped with classification restrictions — a valuable service. Increasing funding for such programs should be a no-brainer for Congress, as it can directly bring funds to American institutions (and member districts) while improving national security.
Finally, a strategy built on weaponizing transparency will necessitate buy-in from intelligence agencies, the Defense Department, and the State Department. Critics of this new paradigm of openness will push back against the additional risk to sources and methods that greater information and data sharing with the public may create. This is a risk that must be taken seriously, but that clear policy frameworks and better classification guidance can help mitigate. Overclassification has been a serious problem across the national security enterprise for decades, with little common sense applied to the question of what cannot be shared and why. This hinders both internal government operations and any ability to rapidly share data externally to non-government organizations.
China’s “great firewall” blocks Chinese access to external information, and its massive censorship apparatus means the state can manipulate public discourse and totally lock down information on contentious topics. It is therefore unlikely that a Western-led push for strategic transparency will affect Chinese domestic politics or discourse. However, few other countries have such ironclad control over the information space. In many places around the world, greater access to information on Chinese corruption, persecution, and political manipulation of other countries coule massively alter domestic political discourse and undermine public support for collaboration with the Chinese government and its proxies.
Some will argue that radical transparency only serves to inform adversaries of what the United States knows and allow them to adapt. This is a feature, not a bug, of weaponizing transparency. It should drive behavior change across and within autocratic regimes. There is inevitably a “cat and mouse” dynamic to all information collection, but in the modern and hyper-connected era, the advantage will increasingly favor openness. For example, the vast majority of information on Chinese activities remains sourced from news, public websites, statements, and social media. If a concerted effort to collect, organize, vet, and share this information leads to greater obfuscation, then autocratic leaders must pay a cost for that through additional work on their end and decreased accessibility of information to the wider world.
Defense, intelligence, and diplomatic efforts will always necessitate some degree of secrecy, but the forces driving the rise of global transparency are not going away. Fortunately, the United States and its allies have significantly less to hide than their autocratic adversaries. To make the most of this democratic advantage, national security agencies need to see the strategic value of producing, funding, and sharing public national security data as a means to achieve their goals. This starts with a consensus that information transparency is both a critical tool to push back against autocracy, and a global good that can help secure a more equitable and free international order.
Garrett Berntsen is the Deputy Chief Data Officer at the U.S. Department of State.
Ryan Fedasiuk is an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government.