Brandeis Quote on Openness

Here is the definitive citation—and text—of this often-used Brandeis quote.

US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in Harper’s Weekly, Dec 20 1913:

Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.

Edited to add:

Apparently the authoritative cite is to his book, not the magazine—in legal writing books are more authoritative than magazines.

Louis D. Brandeis, Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It 92 (1914): “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

Posted on April 18, 2005 at 8:40 AM6 Comments


Timm Murray April 18, 2005 11:40 AM

That quote comes out of 19th-century thinking that an invention like the lightbulb could be used to light up every dark alley and make crime impossible. Obviously, despite widespread use of artificial lighting, crime has not stopped, or even slowed, and crimes are often committed in broad daylight.

One major problem that artificial lighting has no effect on is a key concept in Social Engineering: just act like you belong. If you walk into a private area without any external signs of suspicion, most people will assume you’re supposed to be there.

Davi Ottenheimer April 18, 2005 11:59 AM

Interesting comment. Could the origin be traced to the invention of fire? 😉

You make the common point that public disclosure can in fact create a new and different security risk. After all social engineering methods revolve around the manipulation of trust, which rely on knowledge of habit, custom, and procedures. However, even this can be uncovered through disclosure. In fact, in investigations it is common to look for the person who tries harder to fit in, or someone who obviously models themselves after others’ behavior.

Also, it is very rare for social engineers (or anthropologists, for that matter) to achieve “natural” status, mainly because they do not need to in order to achieve their goals.

Thus, with regard to the power of public disclosure, if everyone is more self-aware of their own habits and customs they become more attuned to uncovering an imposter both because they can “fake” them into revealing themselves, or they can be aware of subtle mistakes.

For example, there’s a classic WWII movie where the American spy is caught in a French cafe because he forgets to use his knife and fork in the European positions…

quote float April 18, 2005 1:56 PM

What bollocks. This blogging lark, really is a pile of toss. Regurgitation for reemastication. Absolute tosh.


RvnPhnx April 19, 2005 7:19 AM

Agreed. When I was in college the locals used the extra streetlights demanded by the Jersey-folk and their parents to commit even more crimes more efficiently–they could quite literally see their prey a half-mile away (all the while being in the shadows next-to and behind houses on the block).

mark April 20, 2005 11:16 AM

cycling home from a show last night around 10 PM, my wife and I were both struck by how much better we could see during the part of our trip that went through the unlit parks in the river valley, than when we were in residential areas and more developed parks with bright streetlights.

In the less developed parks, everything was evenly lit by the moon – there were no blinding lights, and no dark impenetrable shadows.

In the areas with electric lights, we couldn’t see well, or far – we were blinded by the lights (poorly designed “cobra head” streetlamps that shine in your eyes no matter where you stand), and we couldn’t see a thing outside of the areas immediately around the lamp posts.

Someone wanting to hide from passersby couldn’t have done much better than to stand right in the open, about fourty feet from a streetlight.

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