Privacy and Power

When I write and speak about privacy, I am regularly confronted with the mutual disclosure argument. Explained in books like David Brin's The Transparent Society, the argument goes something like this: In a world of ubiquitous surveillance, you'll know all about me, but I will also know all about you. The government will be watching us, but we'll also be watching the government. This is different than before, but it's not automatically worse. And because I know your secrets, you can't use my secrets as a weapon against me.

This might not be everybody's idea of utopia -- and it certainly doesn't address the inherent value of privacy -- but this theory has a glossy appeal, and could easily be mistaken for a way out of the problem of technology's continuing erosion of privacy. Except it doesn't work, because it ignores the crucial dissimilarity of power.

You cannot evaluate the value of privacy and disclosure unless you account for the relative power levels of the discloser and the disclosee.

If I disclose information to you, your power with respect to me increases. One way to address this power imbalance is for you to similarly disclose information to me. We both have less privacy, but the balance of power is maintained. But this mechanism fails utterly if you and I have different power levels to begin with.

An example will make this clearer. You're stopped by a police officer, who demands to see identification. Divulging your identity will give the officer enormous power over you: He or she can search police databases using the information on your ID; he or she can create a police record attached to your name; he or she can put you on this or that secret terrorist watch list. Asking to see the officer's ID in return gives you no comparable power over him or her. The power imbalance is too great, and mutual disclosure does not make it OK.

You can think of your existing power as the exponent in an equation that determines the value, to you, of more information. The more power you have, the more additional power you derive from the new data.

Another example: When your doctor says "take off your clothes," it makes no sense for you to say, "You first, doc." The two of you are not engaging in an interaction of equals.

This is the principle that should guide decision-makers when they consider installing surveillance cameras or launching data-mining programs. It's not enough to open the efforts to public scrutiny. All aspects of government work best when the relative power between the governors and the governed remains as small as possible -- when liberty is high and control is low. Forced openness in government reduces the relative power differential between the two, and is generally good. Forced openness in laypeople increases the relative power, and is generally bad.

Seventeen-year-old Erik Crespo was arrested in 2005 in connection with a shooting in a New York City elevator. There's no question that he committed the shooting; it was captured on surveillance-camera videotape. But he claimed that while being interrogated, Detective Christopher Perino tried to talk him out of getting a lawyer, and told him that he had to sign a confession before he could see a judge.

Perino denied, under oath, that he ever questioned Crespo. But Crespo had received an MP3 player as a Christmas gift, and surreptitiously recorded the questioning. The defense brought a transcript and CD into evidence. Shortly thereafter, the prosecution offered Crespo a better deal than originally proffered (seven years rather than 15). Crespo took the deal, and Perino was separately indicted on charges of perjury.

Without that recording, it was the detective's word against Crespo's. And who would believe a murder suspect over a New York City detective? That power imbalance was reduced only because Crespo was smart enough to press the "record" button on his MP3 player. Why aren't all interrogations recorded? Why don't defendants have the right to those recordings, just as they have the right to an attorney? Police routinely record traffic stops from their squad cars for their own protection; that video record shouldn't stop once the suspect is no longer a threat.

Cameras make sense when trained on police, and in offices where lawmakers meet with lobbyists, and wherever government officials wield power over the people. Open-government laws, giving the public access to government records and meetings of governmental bodies, also make sense. These all foster liberty.

Ubiquitous surveillance programs that affect everyone without probable cause or warrant, like the National Security Agency's warrantless eavesdropping programs or various proposals to monitor everything on the internet, foster control. And no one is safer in a political system of control.

This essay originally appeared on Wired.com.

Commentary by David Brin.

Posted on March 11, 2008 at 6:09 AM • 84 Comments

Comments

Lord LucanMarch 11, 2008 7:13 AM

Hmm, I wonder how long this article will take to show up on the RSS feed - the previous two (Israeli IFF and Security suites) took between 12 and 24 hours between Bruce posting them and RSS noticing them.

Sometimes there's one hell of a lag on the RSS feed for Bruce's blog that I don't see for other websites and blogs.

FredMarch 11, 2008 7:17 AM

The equation starts out balanced. Citizens have less privacy; the government has more openness. But government makes the laws. Eventually, the balance will tip against the citizens. Government can close, while retaining the laws that limit privacy. This idea of mutual openness does not work if one side has much more power than the other.

Nick LancasterMarch 11, 2008 7:31 AM

@Fred:

I respectfully disagree - we're not starting as equals with a slow tipping off balance. I don't remember who made the remark (possibly John Gilmore or Whit Diffie) - that if you centralize the power, you attract those desirous of power.

Not that I'm advocating anarchy, but the very act of voting cedes power to another, and, therefore, cedes privacy.

John HummelMarch 11, 2008 7:35 AM

"Why aren't all interrogations recorded? Why don't defendants have the right to those recordings, just as they have the right to an attorney? Police routinely record traffic stops from their squad cars for their own protection; that video record shouldn't stop once the suspect is no longer a threat."

It is my understanding that under Illinois law passed within the last few years, all police interrogations must be video taped, and the tapes turned over to the defense as part of the discovery process.

Evidently, it was a hard sell to the police - but seems like even they agreed to it in the end.

LeoMarch 11, 2008 7:39 AM

@Lord Lucan
"Sometimes there's one hell of a lag on the RSS feed for Bruce's blog that I don't see for other websites and blogs."

I got to this from the RSS feed, so this one isn't significantly delayed. I haven't noticed any significant delays here, but I often don't even check until late in the day. Insomnia got me here this early today.

And from the post:
"And because I know your secrets, you can't use my secrets as a weapon against me."

The power disparity Bruce describes can exist between individuals. Some of the things we keep private are things that make us unusual, abnormal, relatively harmless but disapproved of by the teeming masses and are things that if known could be used to harm us. But those who are normal (and, yes, most people are normal) have nothing comparable to offer in the power-privacy exchange. In a world without privacy some of us must lose, not just in a business or government to individual exchange but even in an individual to individual exchange. Privacy provides security.

JeroenMarch 11, 2008 7:43 AM

@Nick:

Not to mention "Those most eager to rule are least fit to do so" (Not a real quote, but something in that spirit)

KarellenMarch 11, 2008 7:58 AM

Bruce, your argument appears to be based on a misunderstanding of how deep transparency goes in a transparent society as advocated by Brin.

"You're stopped by a police officer, who demands to see identification. Divulging your identity will give the officer enormous power over you: He or she can search police databases using the information on your ID;"

In a transparent society, you (or any concerned citizen) should be able to get a record of all the searches the officer has performed, to see if those searches match a pattern of abuse of the system. All searches are recorded so that they can be checked, including searches on searches.

"he or she can create a police record attached to your name;"

And you can see all the details of that record, challenge any of its contents if you think they are inaccurate, and find out who made any incorrect changes.

"he or she can put you on this or that secret terrorist watch list."

Secret terrorist watchlist? Um ... the point of a transparent society is that the government and its agents do not get to keep secrets from the public.

"Asking to see the officer's ID in return gives you no comparable power over him or her."

It gives you the power to check up on him, to ensure that he is not abusing the power he has been granted. If it can be shown he is abusing his power, knowing who he is allows you to report this officer to his superiors, IA (or equivalent), the press, your friends, etc...

Now, I'm not sure if the transparency arguments are sound or not, and I'm not sure if I'd like to live in such a society, but I don't find your arguments convincing as they don't appear to show an in-depth understanding of the society that transparency advocates are suggesting.

Nick LancasterMarch 11, 2008 8:04 AM

Brin is living on his own planet. Both Bruce and David were part of a panel on security at WorldCon in 2002, along with author Vernor Vinge and cypherpunk Hugh Daniel.

Brin made the amazing assertion that 'we have never been so safe, or so free'. He also managed to make a comment that sent about 20 women out of the room (I'd left some minutes before).

Nick LancasterMarch 11, 2008 8:05 AM

@Jeroen:

And then there's Douglas Adams:

"Under no circumstances should anyone who wants the job of president actually be given it."

Phillip J. BirminghamMarch 11, 2008 8:43 AM

@Nick Lancaster:

"Brin made the amazing assertion that 'we have never been so safe, or so free'. He also managed to make a comment that sent about 20 women out of the room (I'd left some minutes before)."

I don't agree with everything Brin says on this front, but on the grand scale of things, he's right to say that. We've suffered a bit of a down-tick lately, but compared to the lot of most of humanity, throughout most of history, Western modernity is indeed one of the freest civilizations ever.

That doesn't mean that we should let bedwetters rescind our liberties in response to the threat du jour, but it never hurts to remember that we're fighting to keep a level of liberty and security undreamed of by a medieval European serf.

AnonymousMarch 11, 2008 8:59 AM

@Karellen

"Um ... the point of a transparent society is that the government and its agents do not get to keep secrets from the public."

The entire premise of a transparent society is one of massive, over-arching, trust. You have to trust the government and everyone else to abide by the rules of transparency -- that this cop and his buddies are not maintaining the Secret Terrorist List as a piece of paper, tacked to a particular tree in a large forest.

Now, if you can trust the government to be as super-open as the Transparent Society demands, then why can't you trust them to protect your privacy? The consequences of a breach of trust in either system are at least equally high, though it seems to me that a breach in the transparent society would be even higher as it such would be dent the entire fabric, and not just one or two or a set of cases. That is, transparency is quite brittle, while privacy is more robust.

ndgMarch 11, 2008 9:15 AM

@Jeroen

And then there is Phillip K Dick's "Solar Lottery" where the president of the Solar System is chosen by lottery. There are of course a few disqualifying factors. The main one being anyone who wants to be President is not fit to be President.

GregMarch 11, 2008 9:22 AM

@Phillip J. Birmingham

Thank you. A quote comes to mind, "The thing about the good 'ol days is they weren't".

ZaD MoFoMarch 11, 2008 9:31 AM

I could'nt have expressed it better than you. I do share this "point de vue" with you Bruce. Thank tou!. This is an excellent article.

LeoMarch 11, 2008 9:39 AM

@ndg
"The main one being anyone who wants to be President is not fit to be President."

I've seen this assertion in three forms so far in this discussion, each time without any rational support. Generally speaking, we tend to assume that people are most likely to be suited to those fields they have a passion for - those with a passion for mathematics best suited to mathematics, those with a passion for acting best suited to acting (actors like to talk about this a lot). Does the same disqualification apply to all leadership positions - someone wanting to be a CEO is thereby not fit for the corporate executive offices, someone wanting to be in management also not fit by the simple desire, perhaps even generals in the military not being fit to the duty if they desire it? This would even seem to contradict one of the basic assumptions of a free society - that society works best if people are allowed to pursue their own desires.

Is this just some common bit of folklore that people love to repeat despite the fact that it makes no sense? Or do we need some state control that assigns us to our careers, whether we want it or not? Can a free society in fact not work?

And why to I get the feeling that a completely transparent society would perfectly enforce conformism and completely suppress dissent, that is, completely destroy freedom?

CassandraMarch 11, 2008 10:14 AM

In some people's experience, the mere act of asking someone in officialdom for their ID signals to the official in question that you are 'trouble' and need to be 'put in your place'.

Cassie

T-RexMarch 11, 2008 10:21 AM

@Leo:

The people stating that desire disqualifies someone from the presidency is based on the idea that power corrupts, and the people pursuing the presidency are doing so out of a desire for power. Ipso facto, the power seekers are corrupt and therefore disqualified to be president.

This is not a well-supported rational argument, but anecdotal evidence abounds.

Nick LancasterMarch 11, 2008 10:23 AM

@ Phillip J. Birmingham:

The rest of the panel and most of the attendees disagreed with Brin. There were even a few boos.

I came away with the impression that Brin thought our safety and freedom couldn't be taken away by a handful of fear-mongering tyrants, and that saying 'We're Free!' is all that we needed.

CassandraMarch 11, 2008 10:26 AM

@Leo

There is a qualitative difference between people having a desire for excellence - a wish to excel in their chosen profession - and a desire for power for its own sake.

I have no problem with someone wishing to be an excellent politician - the problem is someone wishing simply to be powerful. Give me an excellent technocrat over a passionate ideologue any day.

Also, as Lord Acton said (and is often misquoted), “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” [The context in which it was written is interesting: it was as a Catholic protesting against the dogma of Papal infallibility]. I prefer my politicians to have power as an incidental attribute of accomplishment in some other field.

Cassie

Carlo GrazianiMarch 11, 2008 10:36 AM

The relationship between power asymmetry and liberty is too infrequently discussed, so thank you, Bruce.

In fact, operationally, one may say that liberty and symmetry of political power are essentially the same thing, at least insofar as tyranny is essentially radical power asymmetry.

The difference between Bruce and Brin is that to Bruce, monitoring protects liberty only when used as an active restraint on power, whereas to Brin, ubiquitous monitoring somehow serves as a passive power equalizer.

This philosophical difference is analogous to the one between American Constitutionalism and the Universalism of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The former is largely concerned with constraints on what government may do ("Congress shall make no law..."), the latter is about asserting natural entitlements such as national sovreignty, dignity, equality, etc.

The thing is, while the Declaration is more uplifting reading, it doesn't function as much of a legal guarantor of liberty. Historically, we've done better by placing specific constitutional legal restraints on what government may do (so long as we trouble to enforce those restraints, sigh...)

Similarly, an assertion that everyone has the right to everybody else's information is prescriptively pretty vapid. It's much more effective to discuss what the government must, may, and may not monitor, and write laws that prescribe precisely that.

dave XMarch 11, 2008 10:38 AM

I thought that Brin's argument for mutual disclosure was that the ones in authority will get the information one way or another, and that we need to demand accountability for it. The dash-cam on the cop's vehicle could recognize the license plate, look up the drivers with addresses that match the information, and display their DMV photos, while looking them up in the commercial databases. Even if we don't give the government the data explicitly, they can and will buy it from commercial aggregators.

The dystopia of the government or corporations being able to know many of the private citizen's secrets is coming, merely due to increased technology. I think Brin's argument was that if a Bank is going to use its ATMs to match faces with IDs and then potentially sell that information, we need to demand some accountability and reciprocity.

I don't think Brin claimed: "And because I know your secrets, you can't use my secrets as a weapon against me." Rather it was more like: "As a government or a corporation, you may not keep secrets from me."

AnonymousMarch 11, 2008 10:46 AM

@Cassandra

"I prefer my politicians to have power as an incidental attribute of accomplishment in some other field."

It is the general lack of true merit in the selection process that is the issue here. All of the examples given above the candidate is chosen based mainly on a track record of success: a CEO is not just picked off the sidewalk, Linus Torvalds isn't the Commander in Chief of Linux because he has a nice smile.

But so as long as "politics" is just a glorified popularity contest, where ideology is weighted far more than observed physical reality, where an ignorant dimwit can be given a silvered appeal and attain high office, I have no trouble at all with changing the system to just a simple lottery.

And it's not like it is completely unprecedented either: we already have a widely deployed system where 12 randomly selected people can, if asked, sentence someone to death.

jedMarch 11, 2008 10:49 AM

Karellen, the point here is contrasting Brin's theoretical transparent society with what happens in practice. Even here in the U.S., where govt. power supposedly originates with the people, there is significant disparity in most encounters between an individual and an agent of the state. The agent has powers of arrest, for example, and an enforcement budget. Comparatively few individuals have similar economic power for defense. Defense against abuse by an agency of the state is made even more difficult when that agency has siezed and/or frozen your assets, and incarcerated you. An individual has no such powers to wield against an abusive govt. agency.

InfospongeMarch 11, 2008 11:17 AM

Advocates of complete transparency as guaranteer of freedom don't seem to understand peer pressure or persecution of minorities all that well.

If someone belongs to a despised minority group--for instance is gay or atheist--but lives among Southern Baptists, total transparency will severely reduce their security and wellbeing. There is a lot more danger attached to everyone knowing that person X is part of a despised minority group than is attached to everyone knowing that person X is a member of the majority.

If anything, total transparency among individuals is a force for conformism. Forced conformism is the antipathy to freedom.

JeremyMarch 11, 2008 11:24 AM

Damn straight! The theory of complete transparency is like the nothing to hide argument that I hate so much.

MikeAMarch 11, 2008 11:24 AM

@cassandra:
In some people's experience, the mere act of asking someone in officialdom for their ID signals to the official in question that you are 'trouble' and need to be 'put in your place'.

I'll second that. Fortunately, it has not happened to me, but it has happened to (at least) two friends. Asking to see a cop's badge got one a beating, while the other was "merely" left with a disabled (by the cop) vehicle in a "bad neighborhood". I'm sure both cops felt they were "doing their job".

BTW: both were middle-class mid-20's white men. I shudder to think what would have happened to those whose demographics are _really_ targetted.

NickMMarch 11, 2008 11:45 AM

One problem with this is that you can't implement ubiquitous surveillance all at once. Each additional surveillance system has to be installed incrementally and at each step there will be a shift in power that one party or another is going to be opposed to. Even if there is a degree of ubiquitous surveillance which would provide a fair balance of power, the intermediate steps are going to be unbalanced.

KarellenMarch 11, 2008 12:06 PM

"You have to trust the government and everyone else to abide by the rules of transparency -- that this cop and his buddies are not maintaining the Secret Terrorist List as a piece of paper, tacked to a particular tree."

Well, OK, that's technically possible.

But I think that the main problem with governments, privacy invasion and trust is that technology acts as a force multiplier, and that databases, computer-controlled surveillance systems, and other *technological* systems are the main threat to privacy.

Sure, a cop and his buddies can keep a list on a piece of paper, but they can't disseminate it really widely and have it kept even remotely up to date if there's more than a few dozen names on it, and more than a handful of people editing it. Paper just doesn't scale well.

All the serious privacy threats are due to technology's lever. But we can't realistically ask the government not to use technology to help make their job easier. Therefore, we need to use technology to help counter its privacy-invading effects, even at the same time that it makes them possible.

If we require that the technological systems the authorities use can track its use such that *any* citizen can check if the systems are being abused, then that does level the playing field somewhat. Even if you have been thrown in jail for a bogus reason, if you friends/family/lawyers have complete access to the arrest report and the ability to look up and correlate the past behaviour of the cop who's got it in for you. And bring it to the attention of the authorities. Or the press. Or Amnesty International. Or whoever. Debugging your local (or national) police department is probably parallelizable. :)

Then those wishing to get away with such abuse are only left with the option to keep the separate paper-based database you suggest. And, as you say, cops have had that option for ever. And *that* has been a manageable problem until now.

Eric FinleyMarch 11, 2008 12:06 PM

As I understand it, David X has Brin's point correctly, and is the only one here to indicate it thus. Brin's not particularly advocating an increase in transparency for private citizens; he's arguing that it's essentially inevitable up to extent Q, and that we should demand at least Q openness from those who we give authority in any form.

This need not perfectly correct behaviour or prevent power asymmetries. Yes, information/transparency acts as a power exponent. But that exponent is, currently, itself a function of power - if power is x, information access makes its impact run as x^f(x), and both f(x)>0 and df/dx>0. Brin's argument is simply that if we reduce df/dx, preferably to zero (information accessibility flat regardless of power), then we have at least improved matters over where we stand now.

So if what Bruce is trying to say is that "it doesn't work perfectly", then sure. Power asymmetries remain. But if he's trying to say "it doesn't work at all", then I must say that he'd need a stronger argument than this piece to support that. If it helps some, that's still an improvement over nothing at all - which is what we're enroute to get now.

PaulMarch 11, 2008 12:17 PM

"And it's not like it is completely unprecedented either: we already have a widely deployed system where 12 randomly selected people can, if asked, sentence someone to death."

The pool from which jurors are called may be random, but it is from a non-random list of registered voters, property owners, those with drivers licenses, etc.; the selection of jurors from the resulting pool in the courtroom is not random either.

MailmanMarch 11, 2008 12:19 PM

> Another example: When your doctor
> says "take off your clothes," it makes
> no sense for you to say, "You first,
> doc." The two of you are not engaging
> in an interaction of equals.

Priceless.

Kai MacTaneMarch 11, 2008 12:38 PM

@Nick Lancaster: I'd like to know more about Brin's appearance at this 2002 WorldCon panel. I don't suppose you have any links to transcripts or other writeups?

Thanks in advance if you do. (I've tried some Googling already.)

RoyMarch 11, 2008 12:46 PM

The government that insists that the public surrender their privacy at the same time conducts the public business in total secrecy.

ice weaselMarch 11, 2008 12:48 PM

Interesting how this might apply to the credit reporting agencies.

A private enterprise/s collects data on private citizens then sells that data to companies who use it for a wide variety of purposes (from getting a job to buying a house). I can see my credit record but only if I pay for it and I can appeal to amend said report but that's very difficult to do and it is regularly regarded that there are frequent instance of these reports being inaccurate or containing out of date data.

While I can appreciate the service credit reporting agencies perform for the retailers, lenders and employers I'm not sure how transparency would help me. Given the way our systems work, I don't want that data floating around, it could be used to hurt me. The other side is, I want easy access to that data and a reasonable means of assuring its accuracy because it hurts me directly if it is inaccurate.


SteveJMarch 11, 2008 12:58 PM

One significant question about a transparent society is, assuming we want one, how do we get there from here?

I think that Bruce is quite correct to say that in order to get benefits from marginal increases in transparency, *from the situation as it is now*, it's those in power who must first give way. Indeed, whatever the scoffers might say, the general trend of the last few decades has been towards increased government transparency in Western democracies.

Sure, the TSA keeps secret no-fly lists, and the NSA monitors domestic communications, but the government has always been committing one such crime or another, and in other areas freedom of information, and scrutiny/audit of government and law enforcement, are improving. It's easier to detect a public embezzler than ever before (although prosecution is another matter entirely, especially if they are, for example, a multi-national corporation with close links to the Vice President).

It would be sheer suicide on the part of the citizenry to say, "we accept, as a principle, that we want a transparent society, and so we are prepared to unilaterally surrender to surveillance". Give the government an inch and it will take a mile, and this would be giving them a mile.

So, whatever one might think about transparency in principle, I think it would be tactically weak to surrender individual privacy unless necessary to gain public transparency. And it isn't necessary, because the two are not inter-dependent. For example, whether we are filmed everywhere we go has nothing to do with whether policemen are filmed everywhere they go while on duty. Whether elected officials' income is subject to public scrutiny (perhaps to detect bribes) is nothing to do with whether my income is subject to public scrutiny (perhaps to detect proceeds of crime).

We don't have to do that kind of deal with government: if we want more government transparency then that's what the ballot box is for. We can worry about whether we, as private citizens, want transparency among ourselves once we've dealt with the systematic abuses.

paulMarch 11, 2008 1:28 PM

You can go back before Brin to David Gelernter's little-read Mirror Worlds, which advocated computerized access to everything as a counteragent to government (and possibly corporate) power. The idea that if you just make a really really good map it will eventually become the territory has been around for a long time.

GLKMarch 11, 2008 1:30 PM

=-) Don't worry. In the future after science becomes the accepted religion gene splicing will create identical flawless human specimens and a utopia of perfect sameness will render debates such as these moot. All sickness and conflict will become the barbaric remnant of a bygone era and as such surveillance will become unnecessary. Everyone will eventually conform because whomever argues against science argues against the welfare of their children. Welcome to the future, where you'll live to be 1,000, there is no neurosis or disease, everyone gets along in orderly harmony, and for the greater good your penchant for original thoughts and opinions will be erased from your DNA. The benefits will be too great not to acquiesce.

RobMarch 11, 2008 3:42 PM

One thing I think is missing from the discussion is that this is all somewhat predicated on Brin's stated assumption is that eventually, surveillance of any and all activity will be pervasive and inescapable; cameras will be too small and clever to be removed easily; records of everything we have done from birth to death, from every angle, will exist in some form or other. If it's not the government, it's organized crime, or foreign governments, or any other entity with enough resources, which he asserts (and not unwarrantedly, IMO) will be incredibly cheap. What we *want*, in his notion, is irrelevant; he thinks this will happen, and asks how we should deal with it. The Transparent Society argues that completely giving up privacy is necessary in this case, as regardless your privacy is illusory at best. In Brin's hypothetical, regardless of your acceptance, the government has everything already, and if you don't want Brin's Transparent Society, well, I suppose you can get the government's promise that they won't surveil you, while being simultaneously assured by past performance that they are.

jlMarch 11, 2008 3:58 PM

The lewrockwell blog just posted about a website where people can rate the cops they come into contact with. The police of course want the site squashed because--well, because it evens things out a bit, I guess.

The site is ratemycop dot com.

Jon MannMarch 11, 2008 5:41 PM

Mr. Schneier,

I agree that, "Ubiquitous surveillance programs that affect everyone without probable cause or warrant, like the National Security Agency's
warrantless eavesdropping programs, or various proposals to monitor everything on the internet, foster control.".

Personally, I have nothing to hide, but there is always a danger that people in positions of power will abuse and violate privacy. The
opportunity to prevent crimes, and apprehend terrorists, etc., may not be worth the tradeoff.

I do feel that spying on the government will prevent some of these abuses, but there are times when matters of national security require
secrecy. Nevertheless, I like the idea of being able to listen in on high government officials planning ways to subvert the constitution.

Cordially,
Jon Mann

InfospongeMarch 11, 2008 5:57 PM

Joe Mann,

If you have nothing to hide, then post your credit card details and bank account numbers here. If you have *nothing* to hide, you shouldn't have a problem doing this.

Everyone has something to hide. The only question is what and how much. You probably draw the line at revealing your financial information. I draw the line a little higher.

djuniaMarch 11, 2008 7:25 PM

Brin's assertions are great if everyone in the culture has the same values and same level of understanding. The assumption that people are smart, unemotional, and non-vindictive is naive. It can be good fiction, but it would create chaos rather than open government.

It also assumes that there are no criminals, no liars, no one who would use information in the ubiquitous monitoring to damage others. I thought we had all learned the lessons of the damage done by constant mutual surveillance from novels like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. I don't think people have noticeably changed since then.

I am glad to see the illogic of safe universal ubiquitous monitoring addressed. It feels like whistling past the graveyard. "They can hurt me, but just watch, I can hurt them, too." Nope. No you can't.

As to the rate-a-cop site, it is likely a good idea, depending on how it is used. If you look at it alongside sites like Badneighbor, you can have the mess of bad data along with the mess of lack of control of information. Doing a bad thing (collecting information from questionable sources and making it difficult to change) to someone with power doesn't make the other bad things (overuse of state power) go away.

GiulioMarch 11, 2008 8:20 PM

Dear Bruce, I don't want to comment on the contents of the article itself (your articles are always interesting and food for thought) but on something else I noticed: I don't know if it's a coincidence, but in this post I'm commenting and in the one about "Security Products: Suites vs. Best-of-Breed", you let yourself go to jokes which are funnier than usual (the Doc and the Elven king's security powder). Not that your articles aren't usually a pleasure and sometimes even fun to read, but I think that adding that extra joke or fun satiric comment goes a long way to make the reader really grasp what you are trying to tell him and also to remember vividly the concept behind the joke; it's the power of the laugh which you might know a lot more about than I do. So please, keep including at least one really fun joke, anecdote, example in your articles: it will be a lot easier to remember and explain the (sometimes) complex concepts behind your writings next time I will try to talk about it with family, friends or whoever cares to listen. Thanks.

DavidTCMarch 11, 2008 9:06 PM

Rob's right, everyone else here, including Schneier, has missed the premise of Brin's Transparent Society.

He didn't argue we shouldn't have any privacy, he argued we *wouldn't* have any privacy in the future. At all.

There's no way to stop people from photographing us, we're about a decade away from useful real-time facial recognition, we're about two away from real time genetic analysis where you can follow some by their DNA. We've got cameras that can see through clothing and sensors that can detect chemicals. And they're just getting smaller.

It's not something he's arguing 'should' happen, but something that *will* happen. Within a few decades, the crime rate will have dropped to almost zero, thanks to near-complete location tracking and recording of every person in public.


What he *does* argue is that the important, future-of-the-human-race question that faces us, the one that almost everyone has the wrong answer to, is: Who gets to look at the cameras?

He says that if everyone does, it will be a hell of a lot better than if only the 'authorities' do. Sure, we might be reluctant to let our next door-neighbors find out where we are at any given moment, preferring to only let the police know that, but this 'privacy' is a trap. It will result in massive levels of blackmail and police payoffs. It will result in abuses left and right, privacy violations for political reasons, stalking of people, all sorts of badness.

We need to let everyone, even non-police, know where everyone, even police, are, what they are doing, etc. If we don't do that, we have a pretense of privacy that is subject to extreme levels of abuse by the government. If we do, we have no pretense of privacy, but not only can we not be abused by the government, we can find out who the abusers are because we're watching *them*.

Brin isn't arguing, in any way, that we should have more surveillance. He's trying to stop people from attempting to keep a pretense of privacy when we inevitably have near-total surveillance by limiting the access to just 'the authorities'.

SteveJMarch 12, 2008 5:17 AM

"Brin isn't arguing, in any way, that we should have more surveillance. He's trying to stop people from attempting to keep a pretense of privacy when we inevitably have near-total surveillance by limiting the access to just 'the authorities'."

I don't want David Brin to read my email. David Brin can't read my email. Where's the "pretense" of privacy?

bobMarch 12, 2008 7:46 AM

There should be a Miranda v2.0 to keep up with technology: "Any interrogation made will be videotaped and any statement made by you which is not on tamper-resistant videotape will not be admissible in court".

DavidTCMarch 12, 2008 8:55 AM

SteveJ
'I don't want David Brin to read my email. David Brin can't read my email. Where's the "pretense" of privacy?'

Brin argues that, in the future, cameras will be so ubiquitous and tiny that some of them almost certainly will have landed on your clothing and be inside your house.

I am not sure that is true, I think we can maintain a zone of privacy in our own house, and thus it will be possible to have private conversations.

But, again, Brin isn't arguing for or against any of this. He's saying 'Privacy will completely disappear, and letting everyone have access to all information is the only way to have a just society once it does. Letting only the authorities have access leads to total fascism.'.

Nick FortuneMarch 12, 2008 9:27 AM

I have two problems with Brin's transparency.

The first one is a problem it shares with most utopian schemes. The hard part is how to get to that state in the first place. Cops and spooks and politicians are always going to find a compelling reason why certain of their activities should, nay must, be exempt, and that exemption will surely be abused.

The second problem is that too many people take Brin's vision and use it as an argument for passively accepting each new intrusion into our privacy, on the basis that it all tends toward a Brinnian Transparency. Which would be OK, but as explained above, I don't think we're ever going to get there, which means Brin's words are being used a manifesto for the surveillance state.

cMarch 12, 2008 9:29 AM

Bob:
"There should be a Miranda v2.0 to keep up with technology"

Come back here when you are the (in)direct victim of a violent crime and even though they caught the guy, they couldn't get a tamper-resistant videotaped confession.

I'm all for taping police officers, as long as we can shoot criminals dead for more offenses.

AnonymousMarch 12, 2008 10:17 AM

@DavidTC

"But, again, Brin isn't arguing for or against any of this. He's saying 'Privacy will completely disappear, and letting everyone have access to all information is the only way to have a just society once it does. Letting only the authorities have access leads to total fascism.'."

Wasn't it Karl Polanyi who argued that when some institution becomes an onerous burden, or a threat, society as a whole will organize itself to eliminate it? I think he used a few examples, but the one I remember was the emergence of so-called "free markets" and the modern nation-state to temper it's excesses.

In essence, people are people and generally prefer not to live in a sewer, be it a real or sociological one. So I think we can accept that Brin's dystopia, if it ever appears, will be short lived.

Ken KennedyMarch 12, 2008 11:18 AM

I'd suggest those of you who haven't actually read "Transparent Society" actually do so before joining the pile-on. Many of the objections here are against straw-men versions of his thesis in that book. His points aren't perfect, and the book has faults, but it's a powerful argument.

I have a well-worn copy of TS that I will be happy to lend to anyone from here who asks. My contact info is at my website. I'd appreciate it back, but I think it's important to have both sides of the debate available, so I'll take the risk. Feel free to email.

Note: I'll agree that Brin can be...hard to take at times. I hate to hear about the offensive comment to women, though. That's horrible.

But it shouldn't mean his entire body of work is without validity. RMS is hard to take at times as well, but it doesn't mean that everything he says is worthless.

RobMarch 12, 2008 11:21 AM

@Nick Fortune: The Transparent Society is not a "utopian" scheme. The intent is not to build the perfect society. It is built around the premise that, no matter how much you might like to, you cannot realistically escape surveillance by many groups at all times. Brin is very clear that the TS concept is the most pragmatically desirable option for society *given that premise*.

@Anonymous: I think what you're missing is that the Transparent Society is only partly to do with what we want. The prediction is that, eventually, the cost to place and operate surveillance will be less than the cost to neutralize it. Once that state is met, given any differential of power, the more powerful can watch the less with impunity with the assurance that the surveilled will bankrupt themselves before they escape their view.

AnonymousMarch 12, 2008 11:31 AM

@Rob - It's an idealized society, in the sense that it's an ideal that cannot (imho) be actually attained in practice. Even David Brin concedes that much. Most uptopias would work perfectly well if you get them set up in the first place. The problem always lies in getting to that point.

And I'm well aware of Brin's premise. My only argument with it is when people start saying "oh, let the government spy on us all they like - it'll all turn into a Brinninan Transparency and then we'll be able to spy on them too". And I don't think the second part necessarily follows.

Nick FortuneMarch 12, 2008 12:03 PM

@rob - sorry missed off my name from the above.

Also it should read "it's a utopian society in the sense that it's an ideal..."

AnonymousMarch 12, 2008 12:06 PM

@Rob

"The prediction is that, eventually, the cost to place and operate surveillance will be less than the cost to neutralize it."

And the counter-prediction is that society as a whole will increase the cost to "place and operate surveillance" by whatever means. We do not endure a life where people can be murdered willy-nilly due in part to the extremely high price society imposes for killing people. The same could be done for surveillance devices and such: for example, laws that permit the summary destruction of surveillance device factories. Agencies dedicated to the detection and destruction of pervasive surveillance devices. "Toner Wars", to borrow from another science fiction author's idea-set.

But even if Brin is correct and the global fishbowl is completely inevitable, then I see no compelling argument why the government or anyone else will give us any access to their surveillance equipment simply because we ask or demand it. Knowledge is power and they will simply say "no" and that's that.

DavidTCMarch 12, 2008 12:11 PM

'And I'm well aware of Brin's premise. My only argument with it is when people start saying "oh, let the government spy on us all they like - it'll all turn into a Brinninan Transparency and then we'll be able to spy on them too". And I don't think the second part necessarily follows.'

Yes. Brin didn't think that necessarily followed either, which is why he had to write a damn book encouraging it. It is incredibly stupid to encourage the authorities into spying on people more.

What needs to be done, right now, is encouraging watching the authorities. I learn about this problem with failing to record interrogations quite a ways back. You would not *believe* how much law enforcement resistance there is taping all interrogations, which is why local governments are having to pass laws requiring it.

Push for that if you understand 'The Transparent Society'. Let us start looking at them, _before_ we can reach the fascist point described in Brin's book.

People saying 'It will all work out in the end' are like people who think we should have a court system, so are okay with people being detained (without them being charged with anything or a court existing at all) because detaining people is part of a court system, and eventually we'll magically get trials.

They're not quite grasping the concept that Brin said that the lost of privacy was inevitable, but that a transparent society was very very evitable and we'd have to work to get there instead of totalitarianism, which is pretty automatic otherwise.

SteveJMarch 12, 2008 12:20 PM

@David TC: "[Brin] is saying 'Privacy will completely disappear, and letting everyone have access to all information is the only way to have a just society once it does."

Well that's fine, but if that's his premise, then the conclusions have little or no relevancy to today's privacy debates. The fact is that privacy has not (yet) disappeared.

I can measure my privacy as I go: of course I know that although Brin can't read my email, the government can. At the point where Brin can read my email, I will react accordingly. At the point where nanocameras start to get everywhere, I will likewise react.

I don't think the inevitability of nanocameras in some form, should mean that I should necessarily decide now that my reaction will be to use them myself and accept their use against me. I could perhaps enter an arms race in which I try to develop devices to locate and destroy them, and someone else tries to develop cameras which can evade my devices.

I haven't read the Transparent Society, but I have read Brin's response to Bruce, and he is just as guilty of straw-mannery as anyone else. He posits a false dichotomy between an open restaurant, and one with paper screens. But Bruce doesn't recommend paper screens, as far as I've ever seen. He recommends if you want to have a conversation without being overheard, *don't have it in a restaurant*. Build yourself a sound-proofed room and have it in there.

For Brin to assert that eventually it will not be possible to build a sound-proofed room is firstly an unproven assertion, and secondly irrelevant, since for the forseeable future it will be entirely possible.

Doug CoulterMarch 12, 2008 12:31 PM

@DavidTC

Anyone who thinks they can maintain privacy of any sort in their "own" home is hereby invited to contact me and pay my expenses to sit outside for awhile with whatever equipment I choose to bring.

You're in for a very rude awakening. It's just a matter of wanting the information badly enough to apply the techniques. As Bruce has written elsewhere it's all a matter of cost/benefit ratio trade-offs.

And your own home isn't! Various officials have access anytime they want, with or without a warrant.
And your home can be simply taken for any of a variety of reasons. Check some history on the DEA for more on this. I could add burgling of course.

I'll skip listing all the relevant technology for now to keep this short, but of course anyone conversant with what can be done bouncing lasers off windows, terahertz through-scans, passive IR, and TEMPEST will know what I am talking about.

It's just a matter of wanting to badly enough to pay whatever it costs to collect whatever information is desired.

The real question is "what do THEY have to hide" -- why do they want all this information about (and power over) everyone?

Are they afraid of a homegrown resistance that needs to be nipped in the bud? Why would anyone resist something that was unequivocally good? If "they" believe they are not good themselves, and therefore fear rational resistance, isn't that the real problem, true or not?

Not that a lot of good couldn't be done with all that information -- companies use a lot of information about themselves to improve management, for example. I still await any example of it being done in a widespread sense by a government, though, with other than basic census types of data.
Abuses seem far more common.

RobMarch 12, 2008 12:34 PM

@Anonymous: Who has actually argued that simply allowing the government to spy on us could bring us to that state, however? I'm thinking that the Transparent Society reference should really be peripheral to the discussion, in that Schneier brought it up as an example of such arguments when it is not an example at all.

RobMarch 12, 2008 12:55 PM

@the other Anonymous who is not Nick Fortune :): "And the counter-prediction is that society as a whole will increase the cost to "place and operate surveillance" by whatever means."

The problem here is that you are simply negating the premise and saying Brin's scenario is not possible; Brin's premise relies on it being impossible to raise the cost enough to offset the benefit, as the greater a group's power to increase that cost, the more incentive to secretly do it themselves anyway. It's certainly an arguable premise and you're welcome to do so, but at that point you aren't even addressing the concept of the Transparent Society in the first place.

"But even if Brin is correct and the global fishbowl is completely inevitable, then I see no compelling argument why the government or anyone else will give us any access to their surveillance equipment simply because we ask or demand it. Knowledge is power and they will simply say "no" and that's that."

Brin even addressed this alternative, and the entire argument is that the Transparent Society model is preferable to this sort of totalitarian control.

RobMarch 12, 2008 1:03 PM

@SteveJ:

"Well that's fine, but if that's his premise, then the conclusions have little or no relevancy to today's privacy debates. The fact is that privacy has not (yet) disappeared."

I'm of the opinion you're correct; I think Schneier brought it up without really understanding it.

"For Brin to assert that eventually it will not be possible to build a sound-proofed room is firstly an unproven assertion, and secondly irrelevant, since for the forseeable future it will be entirely possible."

You're right, it's *not* a proven assertion. It's a prediction. It's irrelevancy, however, is debatable, and simply because you do not foresee it does not mean it won't happen. I would prefer we be thinking about how to address such scenarios before they occur with the knowledge that all of them can't, rather than be caught flatfooted because we refused to think at all.

AnonymousMarch 12, 2008 1:38 PM

@Rob

"The problem here is that you are simply negating the premise and saying Brin's scenario is not possible [...]"

Damn right. If David Brin started warning us of invisible space alien technology taking over the world -- think about that! -- well, what of it? Do we give up whatever is left of our privacy because of an imaginary threat?

Even if the threat was credible to begin with, if someone parked a SIGINT truck in front of your house, would you just sit there, resigned to the "inevitability"?

"Brin even addressed this alternative, and the entire argument is that the Transparent Society model is preferable to this sort of totalitarian control."

Yes, well, but once again, whatever you prefer is beside the point. When the Duly Elected Men With Guns refuse your polite request, what are you going to do? DavidTC is already telling us -- accurately -- of the extreme difficulties with just getting cops to videotape interrogations.

Now if we can pass laws or whatever to force the government to open it all up (and trust them they did so), then I fail to see why we can't pass a law that shuts it all down (and trust them to do so).

But I suspect that it would be easier to "trust, but verify" the latter scenario, since massively pervasive surveillance would be almost impossible to conceal (http://cryptome.org/nsa-sweeps/nsa-sweeps.htm), while concealing a few, easier to implement and arguably more powerful secrets would be a piece of cake -- consider, as an example, the current situation in most governments today.

Because of all this, I recommend just ignoring Brin's argument. You probably have some smoke detectors that need to have their batteries replaced...

RobMarch 12, 2008 2:02 PM

@Anonymous:
"Damn right. If David Brin started warning us of invisible space alien technology taking over the world -- think about that! -- well, what of it? Do we give up whatever is left of our privacy because of an imaginary threat?"

Personally, I don't find Brin's hypothetical that outlandish, if he is correct in interpreting the trends in surveillance. Maybe he's wrong, but simply stating it's the equivalent of "invisible space alien technology" seems overly dismissive.

As to whether we should allow this to happen, probably not, but what if it is inevitable? Do you simply refuse to think about it?

"Yes, well, but once again, whatever you prefer is beside the point. When the Duly Elected Men With Guns refuse your polite request, what are you going to do? DavidTC is already telling us -- accurately -- of the extreme difficulties with just getting cops to videotape interrogations."

You're right, which is why we must force them to open up those interrogations by law as is suggested by Brin's argument.

"Now if we can pass laws or whatever to force the government to open it all up (and trust them they did so), then I fail to see why we can't pass a law that shuts it all down (and trust them to do so)."

I'm astonished you'd think the latter is easier to verify, considering the former is simply a matter of going on the public datafeeds and looking! They can't hide anything in this scenario--every keystroke is logged, every movement videotaped, every password in the clear. Sure, they could attempt to set up a charade, but that seems even more costly than compliance, as you'd need either actors which would have to lead entirely double lives, or an incredibly advanced simulation capable of fooling everyone. A "piece of cake" indeed.

Also, how is the fact that a massively pervasive surveillance system is known proof in any way that a massively pervasive surveillance would be almost impossible to conceal?

marbledclayMarch 12, 2008 5:35 PM

The interactions of private companies with government agencies can complicate information access, transparency, and privacy issues. Government moves to provide services through private companies are not always based on sheer necessity, but are often undertaken in ostensible pursuance of “conservative” objectives of keeping government as small as possible, holding costs down, and being friendly to free enterprise.

The World Wide Web is very useful for providing unrestricted access to government information, but it can be just as useful for providing restricted access, and there's a lot of the latter. Electronic gateways even force some of the public to seek out print copies of documents that are not disclosure-restricted by law. Transparency and hindered access can concur, as is the case with access to the legal code of some states of the USA.

A state's legal code is by law accessible to anyone; it is transparent, and the bound code volumes can be found in some libraries. Forcing electronic visitors to access a state's legal code through a private company's electronic gateway, as some states have begun doing by arrangement or contract with LexisNexis, blocks access for some, and forces others to decide whether to give up privacy by subscribing to GALILEO or some similar service through a public library. Ironically, the path to learning what state law says about open records and open meetings is not wide open everywhere.

Ian HolmesMarch 12, 2008 8:48 PM

Bruce's and David's essays seem to be on different topics. Brin's reply doesn't actually use the word "surveillance" once, except to caricature it as "sousveillance" in a bizarre paragraph that seems to equate cellphone cameras with Total Information Awareness.

I concur with Nick Lancaster. Brin seems to be on a different planet. I agree we should demand more accountability but this theoretical transparent society sounds like a libertarian fantasy...

SteveJMarch 13, 2008 9:04 AM

@Rob: "I would prefer we be thinking about how to address such scenarios before they occur with the knowledge that all of them can't, rather than be caught flatfooted because we refused to think at all."

I don't mind thinking about it, so that if it happens we have some knowledge what sort of things we should do. I value speculative fiction, especially where it genuinely tries to engage with real issues. What I mind is letting speculation take priority over real threats: Brin with his restaurant analogy is in danger of abandoning the current battlefield before we even know we'll lose.

Fortunately, I can think faster than the government can invent nanocameras. So if I want to defend myself from the government, I think it makes sense to think mostly about current and near-future threats. It's less sexy, and probably doesn't make for such interesting science fiction, but I'm more interested right now in real monitoring of my telephone calls than imaginary filming of my home. The fact is that there are real government mass-surveillance programs in operation, and they can do quite enough damage with current technology if we let them.

A sensible approach to security will deal with new technologies as and when they are invented - at which point we'll have enough information to work out whether or not they can be countered. At current technology levels, I think a private society is preferable to a Transparent one, because in practice we actually can curb the government's use of surveillance. As an author, Brin has the advantage of saying, "if technology were like this, then society would have to be like that". Fine. Bruce has to contend with the way technology actually is, which is a very different mode of thought.

If we're all that worried about "inevitable" advances of technology, we should in any case be working on turning ourselves into AIs so we can survive the Singularity - all current certainties including privacy are off then anyway...

SteveJMarch 13, 2008 9:14 AM

@Doug Coulter: "Anyone who thinks they can maintain privacy of any sort in their "own" home is hereby invited to contact me and pay my expenses to sit outside for awhile with whatever equipment I choose to bring."

Well, that's rather the point. Without doing much at all, I can make it so expensive for you to pry into my business that you won't bother. To have privacy I don't need for it to be impossible for me to be observed, I just need to in fact not be observed.

That's a win for me. That's what the security business *is* - make it not worth the other guy's while to do whatever it is you don't want him to do.

If I were an international drug dealer, then obviously it would be rather more worth someone's while to invade my privacy, so I'd have to spend more on it to stop intrusions. I might even try to arrange it so that people would have to risk their lives in order to get at my secrets. But the same principle still stands - if your opponent can't defeat your security without making a loss, whatever he thinks loss and gain are, then he won't do it and you've won.

So, yes, you *could* come around my house with wiretaps, laser mikes, hidden cameras, and Tempest devices. But you won't, and if even I thought you (or someone else) would, there are still things I can do to stop you, especially if I were granted the unlimited budget you seem to think you'd need to attack me.

bobMarch 13, 2008 10:14 AM

@c: No problem, ill just shoot the perp myself while he is committing the felony and save the system a lot of time and effort.

Besides if they have to beat a confession out of him he probably wasn't the one who did it anyway; so safety has not improved just by the fact they got a confession. And taxes went up because somebody in jail who didn't do anything isnt paying taxes anymore.

from PAMarch 13, 2008 11:39 AM

I read your recent article for Wired, "The Myth of the 'Transparent Society'," and I appreciated your perspective.

The notion that "forced openness in government … is generally good" while "forced openness in laypeople … is generally bad" is a fundamental premise that I wish more policy-makers would embrace. Pennsylvania recently passed a new Right-to-Know Law, an effort that I very closely observed. It is not a perfect RTK law, but it is a big step forward from where our state is today. Throughout the process, it never stopped surprising me how often government types would ask "why should we make that kind of record public?" rather than "why should we NOT make that kind of record public?".

rcamansMarch 13, 2008 12:56 PM

Bruce –

First off, your writing is great. But you actually missed an important point in your latest Transparency article.

Transparency not only is restricted to nearly equal people, it only works if those people are operating under the same laws, codes of conduct, rules, guidelines, and contracts. Police, military, politicians, lawyers, Judges, (Special People) etc all operate under a far different set of codes and laws. Many of them operate on the edge of, or over the edge of, all codes and laws, feeling that, as long as they can get away with it, they can do anything they want. This does apply to the TSA, airport security, homeland security, etc. These people are putting into place laws which they call rules and regulations, and enforcing them on people with arbitrary fines and punishments (missed planes, confiscations, detainment) which have no exposure in the legal system at all. Most of the Special people have a different set of laws that are enforced on them occasionally, and a different set of laws that they enforce on people. Since the specials are far more powerful, and operating in a completely different system, isolated more and more from the real people, there is no possibility of transparency being applied. More importantly, people’s rights, and security, are more and more at risk because of this differential structure. And above all, do not get caught discussing these special rights, special laws, and special punishments, especially in these people’s power centers (airports, white house, court rooms, etc.

Ross Amans

WilliamMarch 13, 2008 3:58 PM

Hi, Bruce. I'm very fond of your work, and was surprised that you missed something important in your recent Wired piece.

To me, there are three key elements to a "Transparent Society" approach:
* near-zero cost for surveillance
* symmetry of access powers
* tracking of the use of information

Take the case of the cop asking for ID. Yes, he has more power. He should, at least of a certain sort. But in a fully transparent approach, I'm happier giving him my ID than now because
* I am recording the interaction too,
* He is publicly wearing an ID tag that I and others can use to correlate material about him, and
* His use of my ID info, including his searches, is publicly available.

This allows the public--who by definition outnumber the powerful--to act as a check on the powerful. Your example of the guy with the recorder is a step in that direction. So was that Baltimore cop who got caught being a dick on YouTube, which led to people finding other material about his bad behavior, too.

Personally, I would love to find a hole in Brin's core thesis, which is basically that privacy is screwed, and that our choices are Orwell or near-total transparency. So please keep poking at it. But so far, I think it still stands.

NewAnonMarch 13, 2008 5:18 PM

@William

"Personally, I would love to find a hole in Brin's core thesis, which is basically that privacy is screwed, and that our choices are Orwell or near-total transparency. So please keep poking at it. But so far, I think it still stands."

The fact that people think there is/will be a choice baffles me. Knowledge is power. If we're accepting that in the future the government will be trivially able to know everything about you, what is their motive in moving away from Orwell towards Brinnian Transparency? There wouldn't be a magic transition date where all of a sudden persistent, omnipresent surveillance exists. The first people to develop the infrastructure and technology (most likely government) would hold power over everyone else. And assuming it's the government, they would be tailoring laws to monopolize this power, if organized crime and private citizens really could utilize it to their own benefit.

There may be more of us than there are of them, but many of "us" are all too happy to listen when authority says "do this and everything will be ok" or "you can trust us, we'll protect you". And for those who know better, they're not the ones who make the laws. Nor are they the ones with fully automatic weaponry.

So basically, if Brin's assumptions about future privacy are true, there will be no choice between Orwell and Brin. It wouldn't make logical sense. The only path ahead is to fight ubiquitous surveillance.

jayhMarch 14, 2008 8:50 AM

There was an interesting proposal from the police of a nearby town which had problems with vandalism. They want to install lives security cams, but instead of wiring solely to the police department, they will be on the internet where anyone can watch.

AnonymousMarch 14, 2008 8:29 PM

@jayh

It's interesting until the criminals figure out they can use the system to monitor the cops and plan and coordinate their crimes accordingly.

Can anyone offer even a borderline plausible argument why the government would agree to hand over access to their surveillance systems to the public at large?

Ab fabMarch 15, 2008 5:03 AM

I agree 101% to your point of view about how the difference of power must be considered when thinking about mutual privacy.

So I don't understand why you sell your very impressive skills and perceptiveness to BT Counterpane which works for the more powerfull agents, which makes the power difference greater than it is already.

jayhMarch 17, 2008 8:18 AM

"Can anyone offer even a borderline plausible argument why the government would agree to hand over access to their surveillance systems to the public at large"

I can think of a couple.

Vandalism is often done by kids, parents and neighbors might see and identify individuals.

More eyes presumably means more effective monitoring... it costs little police time.

In any case I strongly doubt it will interfere with patrols, etc. Marked/uniformed patrols will be just as visible as normal, and undercover patrols will not really be compromised.

Jon MannMarch 18, 2008 10:34 PM

Infosponge, it's Jon Mann, not Joe Mann, If I am unafraid to reveal my real name, please get it right.

When I say I have nothing to hide, I mean nothing criminal... In a world where where spybots are ubiquitous, everyone must behave in a circumspect manner, although even an awareness of electronic survelliance did not prevent the ex-governor of New York from being careless... .

I believe there will be adequate safeguards for electronic information (perhaps enough to even hide illegal transactions?-) but I am not an expert on the subject.

You say everyone has something to hide? Tell me then, how high do you draw the line?

RichardJanuary 1, 2013 7:43 PM

In December 2012, Richard Stallman wrote an essay about reciprocal surveillance not resolving the issue of privacy to the extent that one might think (Stallman's essay was in response to an essay from David Brin.) In particular, Stallman's essay is somewhat shorter than Schneier's though it may be easier to understand on the issue of power imbalances. For instance, Stallman mentions that a boss can easily use surveillance to uphold a policy whereby an employee must not go to bars, but the ability for the employee to know that the boss went to a bar does not really help the employee.

ApocryphonMarch 17, 2013 2:14 PM

Having read the rms' article and the exchange between him and Brin in the comments, I can't help but to think that both authors are talking past each other. Brin's radical vision of a future where surveillance technology has progressed to the point where the "common man" can snoop on the "elites" would likewise come with radical social changes. Presumably, that technology would empower the employee to discover evidence that the boss had committed malfeasance over the firing. It seems as if Stallman is suffering from a lack of imagination in this particular situation.

KarenApril 16, 2014 2:07 AM

I completely agree with you. This is a great analysis. I really appreciate your thoughts on the subject. 

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