Get ready for a transparent future

The dust is settling on the affair of the leaked BNP membership list. For those of us of a more liberal persuasion – by my calculations, roughly 60,764,238 UK citizens – and who feel that the best way to attack demotic authoritarian nastiness is through irony and ridicule, it's been a curiously satisfying business.

The dust is settling on the affair of the leaked BNP membership list. For those of us of a more liberal persuasion – by my calculations, roughly 60,764,238 UK citizens – and who feel that the best way to attack demotic authoritarian nastiness is through irony and ridicule, it's been a curiously satisfying business. But there are mixed feelings too – there are generally agreed reasons why people should be allowed to belong to organisations without having to declare membership. For example, you can belong to a union and keep it secret, and historically this has been the saviour of the right to organise and a safeguard of the balance of power in the workplace.

And while the BNP may have some thoroughly unpleasant, unhelpful and indefensible principles, it is not an illegal organisation. If it isn't breaking the law it deserves to be able to conduct its affairs as it sees fit. People should be members if they so choose.

However, even though the leak shouldn't have happened and has unfairly damaged people's lives, there's nothing that can be done about it. It can't be unleaked. This one-way ratcheting effect isn't going to go away: it's going to get worse, as technology makes it ever easier to copy and disseminate information surreptitiously and safely.

Imagine what would happen if, for example, the Government's proposed national databases of our personal information, online habits and life records became public. That only need happen once, even if data security works a million times over. Today, 64GB of flash memory fits unobtrusively on a keyring or in a phone, can store a thousand characters for each citizen of the UK, and will plug neatly into any computer that has a USB keyboard or mouse. How many thousands of such systems will be connected to the UK databases? Who will have access? It's not a question of if such information will be published – it's when.

Secrecy is on the wane, and like any shift in society the transition to a new way of being is painful and disruptive. If you're over forty, you'll be very uncomfortable with the idea that large parts of your past life, in considerable personal detail, could be available to anyone – including the person who may hire you, the person who may marry you or the person who may bear you a grudge (if you're exceptionally unlucky, all the same person). If you're younger, then you accept that as part of the deal – after all, everyone like you is in the same boat.

Many problems exist when these two ways of life come into contact, as exemplified during the recruitment process. By and large, people over forty tend not to have their youth preserved in amber on the Net, and they tend to do the hiring. That is hugely asymmetric: both candidate and hirer will Google the other as a matter of course these days before a job interview, but only one will belong to the new global tribe of transparent humans. Hence, of course, the fuss over Obama's recruitment questionnaire – which asks potential administration candidates for “all aliases or ‘handles’ you have used to communicate on the Internet,” everything they’ve written, “including, but not limited to, any posts or comments on blogs or other websites,” and any “electronic communication, including but not limited to an email, text message or instant message.” that could be controversial. Which is only fair, given that the moment anyone becomes remotely powerful such information will be keenly sought by press and opposition. But why can't you ask the same of your interviewer? (There's some justice here, though: the ultimate boss in the White House has effectively been publicly vetted to that extent during the election process. Now we're all getting it).

In time, such questions will be otiose. Search will get better, so Google will be able to answer those questions even if you can't. What happens then? What sort of society, and what sort of personal relationships, will we have when we can't keep secrets from each other, or expect time to cover the past with the usual veil of forgetfulness? That's a discussion we should be having now: our culture is about to make a huge and irreversible change thanks to technology, and everyone's looking the other way. And how ironic is it, that one of the pathfinders into this future is the reactionary, backward looking BNP. At least when we get there, there'll be plenty to laugh about.