Brin/FedWorld: Transparent Privacy

R. A. Hettinga rah at
Thu Aug 12 09:33:11 EDT 2004


Government Technology

Transparent Privacy
Who should be watching the watchers?
By Shane Peterson
 July 2004

Futurist, scientist and author David Brin has long studied what tomorrow
could hold for humanity. Several of his novels have been New York Times
best sellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. A 1989
ecological thriller, Earth, foreshadowed global warming and the World Wide
Web. Brin holds a bachelor of science from the California Institute of
Technology, and a master's in electrical engineering and a Ph.D. in space
physics from the University of California at San Diego. He also spent four
years as a research engineer for Hughes Aircraft Research Labs.

His 1998 nonfiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us
to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?, examines the ramifications of
technological advances on individual lives. He begins by presenting a
choice between living in two different cities of the near future. Each town
appears the same, except for one significant difference.

We have noticed something new about both of these 21st century cities -- a
trait that marks them distinct from any metropolis of the late
nineteen-nineties. Street crime has nearly vanished from both towns. But
that is only a symptom, a result. The real change peers down from every
lamp post, roof top and street sign. Tiny cameras survey traffic and
pedestrians, observing everything in open view.

 Have we entered an Orwellian nightmare? Have the burghers of both towns
banished muggings at the cost of creating a Stalinist dystopia?

 Consider City Number One. In this place, all the myriad cameras report
their urban scenes straight to Police Central, where security officers use
sophisticated image-processors to scan for infractions against the public
order -- or perhaps against an established way of thought. Citizens walk
the streets aware that any word or deed may be noted by agents of some
mysterious bureau.

 At first sight, things seem quite similar in City Number Two. Again, there
are ubiquitous cameras, perched on every vantage point. Only here we soon
find a crucial difference. These devices do not report to the secret
police. Rather, each and every citizen of this metropolis can lift his or
her wristwatch/TV and call up images from any camera in town.

 Over by the mall, a teenage shoplifter is taken into custody gingerly,
with minute attention to ritual and rights, because the arresting officer
knows the entire process is being scrutinized by untold numbers who watch
intently, lest her neutral professionalism lapse.

 In City Two, such micro cameras are banned from some indoor places ... but
not Police Headquarters! There, any citizen may tune in on bookings,
arraignments, and especially the camera control room itself, making sure
that the agents on duty look out for violent crime, and only crime.

 Despite their initial similarity, these are very different cities,
disparate ways of life, representing completely opposite relationships
between citizens and their civic guardians. Both futures may seem
undesirable. But can there be any doubt which city we'd rather live in, if
these two make up our only choice?

Q: It's been a few years since The Transparent Society was published. Has
anything happened since then to change your stance that the idea of a
freedom/security tradeoff is, as you've described it, "dismal and

 A: People tend to find evidence to support what they already want to
believe. So naturally, being human, I've seen plenty to support my notions.
But the important thing is always to question yourself and get used to the
idea that others will question you.

 Still, taking that into account, it does seem clearer every day that the
21st century simply has to feature positive-sum games -- or ways everybody
can benefit while minimizing the bad. Those prescribing the zero-sum
approach -- you can't get one thing without giving up another -- appear to
lose credibility every day. They preach a dreary world view that better not
be right, if we're to have any hope.

 I cannot prove with utter certainty that we won't face some genuine
tradeoffs between safety and freedom, but I am sick of hearing that it's
automatic -- assumed -- that they work against each other, that I must
choose between these precious things.

 I have concluded that those who say so are either lazy, liars or fools.

Q: The landscape has changed a little bit since your 1998 book came out.

 A: Although some readers point to page 206, where it says something like,
"What if terrorists ever, for example, topple the World Trade Towers? What
would the attorney general then ask for? How will people respond?" After
September 2001, that passage struck some as rather creepy.

Q: In one interview about The Transparent Society, you spoke of the need
for constant public supervision to enforce accountability on government --
metaphorically a "leash" to remind our guard dogs that they serve us. Does
the two-way aspect of information transparency create that leash?

 A: I did not say that to denigrate hard-working public servants. We need
government professionals to, among other things, peer ahead and anticipate
danger from all sorts of directions -- from crime and terror to conspiring
aristocracies. But deep inside, we tend to worry about placing all our
reliance in one group -- one paid elite, especially with so much coercive
power. Civil libertarians rightfully fret about creeping trends that might
lead toward Big Brother. That image bothers many -- perhaps most -- of us.

 But those civil liberties activists need perspective. The fact that George
Orwell's metaphor is so powerful in all our minds should merit notice.
Doesn't every movie, novel and song seem to preach suspicion of authority?
Each of us, right or left, rationalizes that we are lonely fighters
protecting freedom from some perceived threatening clique. Government is
just one potential breeding ground for Big Brother. It is not, by any
means, the only one.

 Heck, I'll bet even John Ashcroft sees himself as the hero in this drama,
part of a small, brave band, defending clueless citizens against the really
dangerous elites out there. He certainly never views himself the way, say,
the ACLU pictures him. Again, that's human nature. But the hard truth is
that all elites, including all would-be "protectors," can be dangerous ...
even -- especially -- the ones that appear to be on your side.

 Am I frightened by the Patriot Act, which attempts to expand the
government's ability to see while decreasing the public's right of
supervision over government? Very smart writers like Elaine Scarry express
dread toward both of these trends, but I am far more concerned by the
latter than the former.

 In fact, we won't stave off Big Brother by passing minor regulations of
what the Justice Department is allowed to see or know. For example,
bickering over minute details of search warrant policy, or when and how to
wiretap. With the new cameras, databases and other tools coming online,
that whole path is futile. Not one thing we do will reduce the growing
power of elites to look at us. Nor should that matter, or reduce our
freedom an iota, so long as we fiercely embrace the other solution.

 That solution is the one we've been using for generations. It is
empowering a sovereign citizenry to look back. Let the people supervise our
watchdogs, so even if they see us, they damn well better not harm us. And
we must be the ones who knowingly define "harm."

 There are dozens of potential ways to increase accountability, while at
the same time allowing our paid protectors to do their jobs better. But
these measures aren't on the table, because both sides benefit from this
loony notion of a tradeoff between safety and freedom.

Q: Why does that notion have so many proponents?

 A: Because they benefit! You can't count the number of times you've seen
on TV a debate between some civil libertarian and a "security expert" --
screaming at each other about this so-called "tradeoff." What you don't
notice is what happens when the camera light goes off and the network cuts
to commercial. How happy the producer is with this simplistic gladiatorial
show. Certainly both interviewees are delighted. They got to pose and preen
and shout like pro-wrestlers on TV!

 Meanwhile, they are spreading a poison. Forgive me for getting
repetitious, but nobody tells me I have to choose between safety and
freedom for my children. That's a nonstarter. The only thing demonstrated
by that silly dichotomy is that such people are too stupid to deserve
credibility in discussions of public policy.

 In fact, safety and freedom are synergistic. They go together. The simple
proof by example is us.

 In all of human history, no people have ever been so safe and so free.
It's a miracle called a "positive-sum game." We can have our cake, eat it
and watch it grow bigger while aggressively sharing cake with the poor. It
has worked so far -- imperfectly, but better than our ancestors imagined
possible. And it had better keep working because it is our only hope.

Q: I'm curious whether people want the kind of responsibility of
accountability that you're talking about. If you look at some of the
Founding Fathers and their plainly spoken suspicion of the common man, does
that suspicion carry forward to today?

 A: They were suspicious of the short-term passions of the common man. Fair
enough. People can act like shortsighted fools at times. They can even form
mobs. Certainly our tendency toward knee-jerk partisanship has been pretty
disgusting lately.

 Still, the founders were not suspicious of the people's long-term wisdom.
Our entire civilization is based on the premise that, if you delay a bit
and allow an educated citizenry time to ponder, to deliberate, they will
eventually come to the right decision.

 With slavery, it took us more than 100 years to see the light. With civil
rights, it took damn close to another century. But we got there. Now the
pace of fixing past mistakes seems to have sped up. People have to make
those good decisions quicker. Our parents and grandparents did what they
had to -- they dug ditches so we could be the most highly educated and
sophisticated citizenry the world has ever seen. If we can't become better
deliberators, better at arguing with each other patiently and
knowledgeably, better at running our own lives, then what was all that hard
work and sacrifice for? Why are we working so hard to make the next
generation even more capable?

 The most contemptible trait I see around me is one that every American
shares -- including me -- a reflexive need to feel contempt for "the
masses." (And yes, read that sentence a couple of times, for the irony!)
You can't find a person in any audience who will raise his or her hand when
you ask, "Are you one of the masses?" Everyone expresses some degree of
disdain for their sheeplike neighbors. But that doesn't make any sense,
does it?

 If none of us are sheep, then who are all those sheep everybody talks about?

 The roots of this tendency are fascinating. They're found in the most
relentless propaganda campaign of all time -- in every movie, novel and
song you've enjoyed. The message is suspicion of authority. Individual
eccentricity and tolerance are also major themes. But the core thing the
hero always has to do, in any film, is defy some center of authority.

Q: And this message has been effective?

 A: Wasn't it effective with you?

 Mind you, I deem this to be a good thing. I convey the same message in my
novels. But of course, I was raised to share that belief system. So were
most Americans.

 Alas, nobody credits their own suspicion of authority -- or tolerance or
eccentricity -- to this relentless campaign of propaganda. No one at all.
We all seem convinced that we invented it.

 I guess what I'm driving at is this. Try giving your neighbors a break.
Individually they may seem like dopes, but together, somehow, they are
making a civilization.

 Try this experiment. Stand on a street corner, and spend five minutes
doing a slow turn, taking time to notice all the things that work -- the
traffic lights, the sewers, the clean water, all the people being courteous
to each other and taking turns. The lack of things our ancestors took for
granted, like beggars and open sores and lords beating serfs. I mean try
looking. It's almost all functioning! If people were as dismal as we've
been trained to think, none of it could possibly work.

 Doing this slow turn one day, I finally reached a stunning conclusion --
one that everybody ought to murmur aloud, once in a while -- my neighbors
simply cannot be as stupid as they look.

Q: Your book talks about citizens becoming empowered through technology,
becoming part of a modern posse and going back to the older ideal of a
self-reliant citizenry.

 A: The 20th century has seen a monolithic, monotonic trend -- a trend
toward handing over to paid professionals things we used to do for

 To some degree, this is great! I have a vegetable garden, but I don't want
to be a farmer. I like buying cheap strawberries that were flown in to my
local market from Australia by paid professional pilots each winter. I love
stuff like that.

 I also like having skilled cops, who know they might be on video at any
moment, and therefore have decided to stop being paid thugs and instead be
the kind of great professionals we saw in fiction, say on Adam 12. It's
about time. Likewise, I hope the CIA gets as skilled as the best movie
agents. They should do a great, professional job of catching the next bunch
of terrorists. I hope.

 But let's face it. No matter how good the pros get, they're not always
going to succeed. They certainly didn't on 9/11. In a world growing
geometrically, exponentially more complex, we'd be fools to rely on that

Q: Because of the element of surprise?

 A: Right. There are two ways of dealing with the future: anticipation and
resiliency. Anticipation is the job of paid protectors. It's great, and
they're getting all sorts of new tools to become better at it -- software
tools, cameras, spy tools, biometric ID and surveillance -- tools that
might also become dangerous to freedom, if we aren't careful. But even
assuming they use these tools both honorably and well, there's just no way
anticipation will always work. Sooner or later, it fails.

Q: And that's when we fall back on resiliency?

 A: Exactly. The world was stunned by 9/11, but our enemies were all the
more stunned by how resilient so-called "soft and decadent" Americans
turned out to be. Stunned, the same way Stalin and Hitler were. Enemies of
freedom will always think cushy, pampered Americans would be pushovers.
Psychologically they have to think this. So every generation must prove
them wrong.

 So yes, we must have skilled protectors. But we must also be people who
can do without them if we must, as we did on 9/11, when not a single
professional action made any appreciable difference. Let's reiterate that
point. On that awful day, every measure that succeeded in palliating the
harm and striking back at our enemies was performed by private individuals
armed with the very technologies that dour pundits say will enslave us.

 The trend of the 20th century -- toward professionalization of everything
-- simply cannot go on. The 21st century has to be a time when people
gradually take back some control of their lives. The new technologies
should foster such a trend away from professionalization.

 I don't say this in an ungrateful way. The paid police, farmers, firemen
and spies can keep their jobs. If anything, they're going to need our help.

Q: When we talk about privacy and people's quest for privacy, I'm curious
as to your take on the other side of that coin -- people like Jennifer
Ringley, who created the Jennicam Web site. Such people use technology to
strip away personal privacy. How do you describe people like that who don't
mind that there's a Webcam trained on them that records everything they do,
every hour of every day?

 A: Lowbrow TV is filled with people getting their Andy Warhol 15 minutes
of minor fame. Do not expect an end to the capacity of people to behave
stupidly while playing for a bit of attention. Even Shakespeare spiced his
plays with gross jokes for the "groundlings." That won't ever change.

 What's important to notice is none of those lowbrow reality TV shows ever
have any actual victims. Everyone has signed a release -- eager for their
15 minutes on TV. The people out there watching -- even lowbrow couch
potatoes -- would never put up with real victimization. If anything, we're
daily becoming a vastly more moral and compassionate people. It's just that
we include and accept the right of any bunch of consenting adults to choose
to make utter fools of themselves. So Jennicams and Fear Factor shows,
however stupid, just don't worry me.

 What's of much more concern to me than exhibitionists grabbing a little
attention is the awkward position that new technology puts shy people in.
They didn't sign a release. How will they protect their precious space? We
need to find ways of ensuring that shy people can live in this coming
transparent society without becoming second-class citizens.

Q: You feel the key to having both effective government and freedom is to
emphasize supervision. Let government see what it must to protect us, but
fiercely watch the watchers, so they cannot misuse those powers of vision.
Can you cite some measures that we could take to increase accountability?

 A: I would keep pushing forward on measures that were already put in place
during the 20th century: open hearings, freedom of information, a diverse
press. Don't let those be diluted.

 But of course we should take new steps. Let me just give you an example --
it's called IGUS.

 That stands for inspector general of the United States. Why doesn't that
job exist? Every Cabinet department and military service -- almost every
agency -- has an inspector general, whose job is to make sure the law is
obeyed by those entrusted with state power. The infrastructure is there:
all the inspectors, rules, people on the ground. The one thing missing is a
head -- and a law. Something to make it all work, instead of a vast
exercise in futility.

 Right now, the IGs all report directly to their agency heads, Cabinet
secretaries and directors -- to the very people they owe their jobs. Talk
about a conflict of interest. Only the most brave become anything more than
friendly counsels, at best -- toadies, at worst.

 All it would take is a simple bill -- on one piece of paper --
establishing the position of inspector general of the United States. A real
general of a uniformed service like the Surgeon General, to whom all IG's
would thenceforth report, under a strict code of accountability. IGUS
herself would have Cabinet-level rank, would have the right to sit in
Cabinet meetings but not be beholden to the president. The sole job of IGUS
would be to see to it that laws are obeyed by those in power, not to
interfere in policy or politics. Just ensure the law is always there --

 That sort of measure would allow our paid professionals to do their jobs
without restricting their ability to see. And yet, it puts a leash on the
dog, reminding those in power that they may never be wolves.

 There are dozens of other possible measures we could take that, instead of
trying to restrict what government knows, would try to enhance what the
people know. But civil libertarians aren't interested. They would rather
"protect" the people than empower them to see.

Q: Is the cynical argument that they're not interested in letting people
see because then they, the civil liberties advocates, wouldn't have a
position any more?

 A: You can't blame the civil liberties guys for being elitist, putting
themselves forward as the people's protectors. Exactly the way the
government people picture themselves. Everyone is great at rationalizing
why they should be elites. Funny how it always boils down to protecting the
people by preventing them from seeing.

 But the real miracle of our civilization is that we're the only one in all
of history that ever had the knack of holding elites accountable. We've
done this, in part, by siccing our elites on each other, which is why
alliances between corporate, aristocratic and government power are
especially dangerous.

 The other way we've found of achieving this miracle is by learning to have
the habit of looking.

Q: Looking around us?

 A: Looking alpha monkeys in the eye. These people who suggest we're going
to save our freedom by blinding alpha apes -- by denying sight and
knowledge to big money, big government, big aristocrats -- they never
explain how! Try this experiment. Go down to the zoo, climb into the baboon
enclosure and try to poke a pointed stick into the eye of the biggest

 He won't let you.

 Elites won't let us blind them. All we'll accomplish by privacy
regulations, as Robert Heinlein put it, is to make the spy bugs smaller. In
that recent row over Total Information Awareness, the DARPA program, all
the ruckus did was drive the same research deeper into shadows, where we
know less about it.

 If there were a Big Brother, that's exactly what he'd want.

Q: When you speak about these small "spy bugs," I'm wondering about your
thoughts on privacy and the new wave of subdermal RFIDs that can be
implanted into people. There are good uses for them, medical histories and
the like.

 A: Subcutaneous tags are good for finding lost pets, and people will
routinely install them to protect their kids. Until the kids get big enough
and learn enough to cut the damn things out themselves. The next
generation's rite of passage, I guess. Their equivalent of long hair or
piercings. I want to forbid any tags that a teenager can't learn to safely
remove when the time is right.

 Hey, you can look at the future and shiver with fear, or you can peer
ahead and say, 'How can we maximize the good while minimizing the bad?'

 It's a question that dichotomy pushers refuse ever to ask, and it's the
only question that ever makes any sense. How can we get all the good stuff
without having any of the bad?

 The mere fact that some people consider that question naive is not proof
of the naivety of the question. It's proof that they've not even begun to
think. Because maximizing the good and minimizing the bad is exactly what
we do. It's why we fought for civil rights and the environment and
universities and free schools for the poor while getting space telescopes,
personal computers, 500 channels and 50 types of ethnic cuisine.

 Sure, we're only halfway to the efficient technologies and habits that
will let everybody on Earth share a cake that's growing without limits.
Still, more people have vastly more justice and freedom and safety and hope
and cool toys and education and compassion and even cooler toys than ever
before. The percentage of human beings who are healthy and happy has never
been higher. The positive-sum goal has been proved possible.

 Anyway, just ask the world's have-nots what they want. They want all of
that -- the universities and freedom and clean water and toys too.

 It's the only goal worth having. And we'll get there, if we cooperate and
compete fairly with open eyes.

Shane Peterson
Associate Editor

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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