The Transparent Society revisited
Watching the watchers, ten years on
CFP 2008 A little over ten years ago, science fiction author David Brin stood up at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference and delivered the first draft of some of his 1998 book The Transparent Society. The crowd, he said Thursday, was "both helpful and actively hostile".
The resulting book was, as Michael Froomkin noted, widely laughed at and reviled. Yet a decade later it's still in print, frequently cited in legal and communications work, still rebutted and defended, and still very much a part of the mental landscape surrounding privacy issues. Few, Froomkin added, admit publicly to agreeing with it.
Brin's central thesis: The cameras are coming. Rail against them or join your billions of neighbours in controlling them. Give everyone access to everything. Secrecy protects the elite and powerful; openness benefits the rest of us. Privacy is a matter of taste and fashion.
Last Thursday, the 2008 edition of CFP took another look. Ten years on, the book seems more nuanced. Then, the Net was still full of libertarians, privacy passion was shifting from the waning crypto wars; and pre-9/11, mass CCTV deployment and data-sharing were only security service wet dreams. Is it plausible, Froomkin asked, to believe that radical transparency will help us now?
Daniel Weitzner argued that Brin was right about the need to create mechanisms of accountability. These have not developed since 1998; what good are privacy rules without them? People should not be expected to make decisions at the point of collection about information whose future flow and usage is unknown, but they should be able to access and correct information used to make decisions about them.
The Canadian privacy activist Stephanie Perrin was against giving up on privacy just because regulations do not work perfectly. It is far, far too soon in the history of technology to expect good controls or privacy-enhancing technologies, and the notion that privacy is just for old fogeys and kids don't care about it is just another of those things kids haven't matured to understand yet.
Still, consider Brin's idea of watching each other: the government of Ontario is spending millions of dollars putting security cameras in buses and Metro trains, when at any given time of day or night there are at least a dozen passengers with camera phones available to take pictures if something bad happens.
Alan Davidson, associate director at the Center for Democracy and Technology, pointed out that 9/11 encouraged government to embrace secrecy rather than transparency and accountability. In that sense, society has gone a long way away from Brin's key idea of reciprocity and back towards enclosing elites.
If anything, Brin concluded via cell phone, we should "fight for a civilisation that chills out". The more today's kids post stuff that will embarrass them later, the more they will have to create a civilisation that forgives when they become adults.
Debate to resume ten years hence. Froomkin's prediction: there will be more change between now and 2018 than there was between 1998 and 2008. ®
@Jimmy - State + Business vs People
"So it's not all bad news on the cctv front, until you come to consider gray areas ... and how it can be accessed by commercial bodies seeking to make a profit."
... And when commercially useful monitoring is legitimised in order to finance the extension of state surveillance then the interests of most ordinary folk tend to come a very poor third. Rather than 'enhanced transparency', which overall might be beneficial, there is a significant increase in asymmetry of power in the triad of state, big-business and the people.
"God is everywhere and soon your local police will be too."
Yeah, OK. Trying to find a policeman round here (they're all guarding the Carling Academy from being stolen....) is an excercise in futility matched only by phoning them and asking for help:
-If you have information about teh terrirests, press 1.
-If you have information about illegal mp3 distribution, press 2.
-If you have seen someone exceed the speed limit and have their licence plate number along with a photograph, press 3.
-If you are a MP and require a bodyguard detail to accompany you for a kebab, press 4.
-If you know a good donut shop, press 5.
-If you know how to work this new technical thingie we've just been issued, press 6.
-If you have seen someone smoking in, or near, a location where this is prohibited, or you believe smoking should be prohibited, press 7.
-If you believe someone has imbibed more than the government's new recommended weekly intake of alcohol, press 8.
-If you have seen someone appear to think for themselves, rather than staying at home and watching reality TV, press 9.
-For all other enquiries, including murder, rape, assault, burglary, arson, criminal damage etc, please hold until a badly-trained member of our civilian support staff gets back from their coffee break and disconnects you.
Black helicopters, cos I fall under at least a few of those, and THEY ARE WATCHING!!
The Flip Side....
"The whole notion that you can make governments accountable is really very silly. They've got the well-organised trained killers and we don't. They might toss us a few scraps, such as the Freedom of Information Act, but changing the number of scraps tossed does not alter the relationship" .... By Spleen Posted Tuesday 27th May 2008 10:51 GMT
With everybody getting SMARTer, it is always best not to abuse well-organised forces, thinking that they are not intelligent enough to think they are abused.