Have you ever thought about the word secret? When I do, I can’t help but think about James Bond, Ethan Hunt, or even Maxwell Smart. Those guys were awesome but it’s easy to forget that they were created during a time when secrets were a lot harder to come by. These days, everyone from the CIA to Proctor and Gamble comb social media for information that spies of yesteryear would’ve have considered prime A secret stuff. According to Facebook, still the largest of all social media companies, 1.23 billion people used the site every day in December 2016. Over 600 million use Instagram. Snapchat and Twitter report that 150 and 140 million people use their services every day.
That’s a lot of socializing and I cannot imagine that, as 1/7th of the world’s population trades pictures, anecdotes, recipes, political rants, and the occasional cat video to billions of other people, that someone isn’t spilling the beans about something they shouldn’t. It’s inevitable.
But what we share on social media is just a fraction of the information that we give up each and every day. Our phones themselves emit enough “digital exhaust” that many times, intelligence agencies and law enforcement officials don’t even need a warrant to gather detailed information about us. Every time we use our debit cards, the amount of personal information that we provide data mining services is astounding. But, we do it freely, and will continue to, because frankly it’s just too darn inconvenient not to. As someone who grew up in the 1970s and 80s, I remember what life was like before the digital revolution, and looking back, it was almost laughable. Mundane tasks that we now do with the tap of an icon on our phones used to take hours if not days. Life is a heck of a lot easier. No doubt. But a byproduct of that is that we, as Americans, have gotten really bad at keeping secrets.
With that in mind I thought it would be a pretty cool thing to speak with people who are still required to keep and protect important secrets. Being Averagist, I don’t want to know about their secrets. I’m more interested in the values they bring to their jobs, and whether most Middle Americans agree with those values? That’s what this episode is about.
To explore this topic, I asked four people with high level security clearances about the values they bring to jobs that require them to keep national security secrets. Politically, two lean left and two lean right. They each have unique stories, and all of them were born and raised in Middle America. Given the nature of their work, I’m going to use false names and identifiers, and in a couple cases I intentionally modified their voices to help keep their identities private. The stories we’ll hear aren’t about tracking terrorists, stealing other countries’ secrets, or anything like that. Instead, we’ll hear how people who grew up in the heartland live in a world with real secrets.
As these personal stories show, the stereotype of a deceitful, womanizing, secret agent man operating on the fringes of morality is a fantasy. Now, I don’t claim to have met everyone who works with a security clearance, but today’s guests are more like your next-door neighbor who works in an office rather than James Bond. By speaking with them, I learned some interesting things:
- Protecting secrets isn’t difficult if you don’t act like you have secrets to protect. Even though it may not have been apparent in the interviews, modesty and Averagist behavior is one of the most powerful tools that people use to avoid placing themselves in situations where secrets can be compromised.
- You also don’t have to hide yourself from technology to protect your secrets, but you do have to be smart about how you use it. The truth is technology isn’t your biggest threat. The quickest way to lose your secrets is to trust the wrong person, not the wrong software.
- Averagists don’t lie to protect secrets. In most cases, no one will ask, which leads to the final lesson.
- If someone is quietly telling you something they say is secret, there’s a better than average chance that person doesn’t know half of what they think they know. People with real secrets take their responsibilities very seriously, and people who don’t get drunk and tell stories to whomever will listen to them in a bar.
The Middle American Averagists I talked with are professionals. They’ve stood, or are standing on the front lines. Personally, I’ll take them over James Bond any day.