Technology and secrets go hand in hand.
The newspapers are a treasure trove this week. First and most noteworthy is a story from my city of Minneapolis. A whiskered University of Minnesota professor of New Testament studies named Dr. Richard (Dick) Pervo (I swear this is true) was arrested for having a cabinet full of thousands of items of downloaded kiddie porn. News reports described it as especially ugly, abusive stuff, but you would not know it by the old professor’s demeanor. When agents knocked on his door, Pervo greeted them with, “I suppose you’ve come about my collection.”
The same week, Napster announced plans not only to pay aggrieved record companies $1 billion for all those songs people have downloaded through its service, but to sell itself to Bertelsmann, the German media company which runs, among its many tentacle operations, the BMG Music Club. Record companies snorted derisively at the $1 billion offer. First, Napster has no billions to pay, and Bertelsmann, to the contrary, is not likely to have any in the near future. And second, the merge with Bertelsmann surely spells the end of Napster as anyone would recognize it. The plan is for Napster to charge users who elect to continue to use it–an estimated 2 percent of the current number–to pay $3 to $10 for a universe of music a fraction as large. Bertelsmann is known around the world as a dull company with low regard for its customers. The chances of Bertelsmann “saving” Napster is slimmer than Slim Shady.
The final leg of this cyber-trifecta was the news that FBI agent Robert Hanssen was arrested for selling secrets to Russia in return for cash, diamonds, and thrills. It is alleged that Hanssen ratted out agents working in Russia, which led to their being executed. A combination of high tech and low, his modus operandi was to meet Russian contacts on footbridges in the D.C. suburbs and hand over neat packages of floppy disks containing a wide array of secrets.
What these stories all have in common is that they are about secrecy. Professor Pervo evidently has lived an exemplary life. No one is accusing him of doing to children the things that are in his pictures. He appears to have partitioned this ugly little corner of his life into a credenza at his University office. The measure of his corrupt innocence is that he taught the art of biblical exegesis to college students while suffering the little children to come to him online.
Napster’s crime was that it got cute and divulged the recording industry’s biggest secret–music is just bits. Without itself trading in any music, it enabled millions of users to swap music from one another. No money changed hands. But it messed with the recording industry’s traditional prerogatives, so down came the boot.
Finally, the spy on the footbridge. Like Pervo and like Napster, Hanssen appears to have delighted in the naughtiness of his dealings. Almost as if it were a game, he did it because he could do it. Just save a file to disk, and put it in a bag.
And he was right. Information technology and our constitutional love of mischief begs us to do all this stuff. And while these particular three people–Pervo, Napster and Hanssen–will have their happiness extinguished, the capability will not go away. All the government can do, for all its technology and all its ferocity, is make examples of people. Industrial age Band-Aids can’t cover up the fissures open up by the digital age.
The credenza lid is slipped open, and all the hoohah is out. Kiddie porn will get around because the people who do it are crazy, and because they can do it. By the same token, the government can’t keep nasty bits out of the Russians’ hands–it’s impossible.
And once music is bits, baby, you can sing it goodbye.
Mike Finley is co-author of “The New Why Teams Don’t Work.”