Questioning secrecy

Questioning secrecy

Transdiciplinary approach and methods. Four days Inter-Semester Seminar in June 8, 9, 10 and 11 2020 - Didier Bigo and Benoit Pelopidas
  • Actualité Sciences PoActualité Sciences Po

Objective: methods for investigating secrecy

The seminar will allow the students to handle situations under secrecy, by knowing how to investigate, manage data and write confidently and incisively on their topic. It will give them also opportunities to network with experts on sociology of secrets, especially on nuclear, military, policing and intelligence matters, but not only, private companies and everyday situations will be covered. Each session will have a strong component on the nuts and bolts, on the making of research and the “how to” question. The last session will be a crypto party on how to protect your computer and adopt a reasonable digital hygiene.
By the end of the seminar, students will have a better understanding of how to deal with topics covered by secrets and the methods to investigate these objects while being attentive to specific risks.

Format: Four days Inter-semester seminar

The course will be organized in June 8, 9, 10 and 11. Each day will consist of six-hours and an interval of two hours for a brown bag lunch giving the possibilities to have many informal one-to-one meetings with researchers, experts and exchange of ideas. This day-long format, including lunch, is designed to create an atmosphere of sharing and networking. 

The course is open to doctoral students at any stage of their research, and to master students across disciplines. Pre-requisites are not necessary, but an interest on a topic where secrecy is at stake is necessary. Specific bibliographies by sessions will be given after registration. For those who need a certification, the attendance and participation to the course will be validated by 4 ECTS credits.

This course will be given in English but requires a passive knowledge of French as some speakers (often field actors) can only speak in this language. Short translations will be made during the intervention if necessary.

Core team and guests

Didier Bigo is professor of sociology at Sciences Po and of war studies at King’s College London. He has worked on French and EU police liaison officers abroad, anti-terrorist policing, intelligence services, Snowden disclosures of NSA, Extraordinary renditions and torture by CIA and its accomplices, and now on oversight of intelligence services. He has created the journal International Political Sociology specialized on anthropological and sociological methods for international studies. He is editor of the journal Cultures et Conflits

Benoit Pelopidas is the founding director of the Nuclear Knowledges program, at CERI (Sciences Po) and research associate at Stanford University. He has worked over a decade on uncovering primary sources worldwide regarding nuclear history and is investigating the conditions of validity of claims regarding nuclear secrets. He is at the heart of a network investigating practices of classification, declassification and reclassification.

In addition to the two professors, the sessions will be convened with the research associates from their different research projects and foreign colleagues as well as some key practitioners. The full list of guests will be given after registration.

Organisation of the seminar

The seminar is built in four stages. First, a discussion of the researcher's position regarding the different forms that secrecy takes and a reflexive approach to understand what is at stake in terms of research and publication. Second, a discussion of sources, methods of investigation that provide access to knowledge about shared secrets or false claims of secrecy, and methods of collecting, storing and building data on institutions surrounding by secrecy protections. Thirdly, a discussion of possible modes of analysis in a transdisciplinary approach and the specificities of analysis and writing for social science research
Students should prepare for this course by identifying written or individual sources that might be useful for their own research.

June 8, 2020: 10:00-18:00: Knowing and respecting the rules of the game around secrecy

The day will begin with an introduction (10h-11h) by Didier Bigo and Benoit Pelopidas about the production, organization, distribution of objects, documents, events becoming secrets through specific procedures.
The analysis will discuss the emergence and conditions of existence of a sphere of secrecy and its formal and informal boundaries in specific sectors. The focus will be on two cases regarding nuclear and intelligence issues, but the constitution of secrets enforced by sanctions in case of divulgation can be encountered inside private companies, in academic life and even in everyday life. Shared secrets are a condition of social life. So, what secrets must the researcher respect and what is possible to know and to search about? Are secrets always important? How is it possible to "know" about them?

Several speakers, academics specialized on the legal boundaries of secrets will come for a round table (11h-13h) to present the different forms of classification of documents and the possibility and limits of investigation for a researcher interested in these spheres covered by secrecy.  They will explain in concrete terms the conditions under which it is possible to carry out research while knowing the risks and respecting the rules.  We will have a discussion about the situation in France, but also what is at stake with the European rules and jurisprudences which are more open to give researchers access in terms of freedom of information, aand also the possibilities in transnational cases which have different rules to find out where to go. Canada, for example, may be more open than others partners, is it useful to go for transnational investigations or to know the situations of other countries collaborating with them? Timing is also very important and makes often difference between journalists, institutions doing enquiries, insiders who want to have a testimony, whistle blowers and researchers.

After the brown bag lunch from 13h to 15h, the afternoon (15h-18h) will be dedicated to solving some of the issues raised in the morning. Researchers and practitioners will explain the derogations to secret, and the allowed exceptions that make the difference between denunciation, offence, and defence of the public good, as well as the conditions of confidentiality that are not classified as secrets as such but are used at the margins to define situations of shared secrets. For example, what can be collected and reproduced from meetings under Chatham House rules or invitations to professional meetings? Often these rules are misunderstood by ignorance or sacralization of secrets.

9 June 2020: 10am-6pm: Collecting data: archives, interviews, qualitative-quantitative methods

This session will begin (10h-11h) by a presentation on how to obtain waivers for the consultation of documents in the various archives that students are likely to visit, and the different procedures for requesting declassification of documents with the help of some NGOs that can assist in these processes. 
A round table (11h-13h) with one or more organisations that specialize in research support will attend the session, for example to help with the preparation of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests at the European level or in English-speaking areas.
Students who have concrete cases will be able to send them in advance and discuss them with the interlocutors during the round table or brown bag lunch (13h-15h).
The afternoon (15h-18h) will be devoted to reports on the experiences of experts on these subjects and who have conducted numerous interviews with professionals in topics covered by secrecy. How to envisage the interview? What is it reasonable to ask and what are the mistakes that disqualify the interviewer? Is it possible to engage in investigative and writing collaborations with security professionals? Specialists in intelligence issues, anti-terrorist and criminal police, financial flow surveillance, nuclear and more generally public and private programmatic elites who build the frontiers of protected and shared secrets will come to explain their own trajectories and discuss with students and researchers. 

10 June 2020: 10am-6pm: Analysing and writing from sources that give access in part to secrets? 

How to use interviews, archives and works such as those of investigative journalists? This morning session (10h-11h) will focus on possible collaborations between different professions, the limitations often encountered in social science research and the danger of academic hubris in regard to collaboration with leading investigative reporters, as well as the use of the data obtained from them or co-constructed.
We will have a round table (11h-13h) with several journalists to present their work in these fields of intelligence, defence, nuclear, arms companies, and the international collaborations they are developing among themselves and also on certain subjects with academics and NGOs.
The conversation will continue over lunch (13h-15h) and in the early afternoon (15h-16h).
Then we will reflect together on how to work collectively  while being reflexive about what is important to write and what may involve risks for people under institutional secrecy and/or their targets, as well as the privacy of all (16h-18h). The issues of regulating the right to privacy and the right to institutional and professional secrecy will be discussed, as well as the possible tensions that may exist between these principles in practice.

June 11: Starting in good conditions. How to protect your computer and adopt a reasonable digital hygiene

On this last day we will organize what is called in the English-speaking world a "crypto party" so that each student knows what tools s/he needs to minimize the number of traces s/he doesn't want to give to third parties. The first part of the session will try to explain the why and the second part will try to explain the how.
Protecting one's computer without paranoia is essential for any student or researcher using digital tools and especially for those interested in secrecy. The heart of the morning sessionn (10h-13h) will focus on what to do when collecting and analyzing confidential data. What should be avoided? How to avoid to become paranoid and to react under "maximum security" with its perverse effects?
In connection with the first session, we will come back to the practical tools needed in order to conduct research that defend academic freedom against some extensive and unreasonable conceptions of state secrecy by certain bureaucracies, while at the same time understanding what is at stake for the researcher, the people with whom he or she has conducted interviews and their targets.
Having a collective reflective discussion is often a way to better understand the scope of what academic freedom means in the digital age, and also to slow down the speed and needs of the computer.  It has been shown that this attitude is a good way to become more efficient, not less. It is also a way of looking at the protection of everyone's data in a different way, i.e. as normal hygiene and not as an external constraint. During the brown bag lunch (13h-15h) we will have additional speakers- professional web masters, ex-hackers. who have been confronted with these situations.

The second part (15h-18h) will be carried out by specialists in cryptology. They will help the audience to install tools and software on computers to better control the surveillance and danger of intrusion by third parties, as well as the different possibilities of encryption in order to know when, in what context and at what level specific protections are needed. Don’t forget your computer and smart devices that day.

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