We need transparency more than privacy


When I start to rant about the NSA and its threat to the right of privacy, some of my friends point out that I already gave up much of my right to privacy years ago.

In return for a supermarket discount card, I let the supermarket monitor my purchase and (no doubt) sell the information to advertising agencies.  The same with my credit card company.  The same with Google.   There’s lots of information about me available on-line, and anybody with access to all of it can put it together to draw a picture of me—which may or may not be accurate.

Most of this doesn’t bother me partly because it doesn’t touch on the things I really want to keep private, but more importantly, it is largely harmless.  Amazon’s computer algorithm guesses what books I might like, sometimes correctly and sometimes not, but this is something that doesn’t affect my life.

On the other hand, when a credit rating agency compiles information about me behind my back, this can do me great harm, even if the information is incorrect.  I can image the NSA using algorithms similar to Amazon’s to guess what kind of political activity I might like.  All this affects my life, but in the case of the credit rating, it is very difficult to correct wrong information and, in the case of the NSA, I don’t even know what it is.

transparentsocietyAll this put me in mind of a book some friends told me about when it first came out in 1997—David Brin’s The Transparent Society.  I never read it, but I’m familiar with Brin’s argument.  He said that improvements in recording and information processing technology, plus the Internet, make it possible to discover more about what people are doing than ever before.

The question for Brin is not whether government and corporations know what we the people do as whether we the people know what they do.  Rather than engage in a futile effort to prevent the use of universally available technology, we the people should use it to level the playing field.

He gave the example of the surveillance cameras that are ubiquitous in Britain and more and more common in the USA.  Rather than get rid of them, he said, make the recordings universally available.

Brin coined the word sousveillance as an alternative to surveillance—scrutiny from below rather than scrutiny from above.   Imagine being able to access what the surveillance camera sees, in real time or on your smart phone.  Wouldn’t this contribute just as much to public safety as having somebody at a police station trying to monitor all the cameras?

As for myself, I think it is a good thing, not a bad thing, that there is a public record of what goes on in public places.  If I get into an altercation with someone, especially a police officer, and there is a dispute as to what happened, I am glad there is a public record so that the judge doesn’t have to decide whose word to take.

Barack Obama back in the days when he was an Illinois state senator got the legislature to pass a bill for videotaping of police interrogations to be made available to juries.  That’s a positive example of transparency.  Another is the citizens videotaping police when they make arrests.  It is a reasonable tradeoff that the police make their own videotapes, provided they are available to the public and especially to courts.

This is a deep and complicated subject.   Biven a choice, I would rather know what government and corporate officials are doing that affects me than to be able to hide from them.   I want to take down the one-way mirror through which they watch me, and replace it with a pane of glass through which we both can see each other.  What do you think?


On Transparency, Secrecy and Privacy by David Brin.

David Brin on the Path to Positive Sousveillance, an interview by Ben Goertzel for H-Plus magazine.

David Brin on Lessons for an Age of Transparency by Nelson Gardels for HuffPost Tech.

David Brin’s Transparent Society Revisited by Arnold Kling for the Library of Economics and Liberty.

Information Consumerism: the Price of Hypocrisy by Evgeny Morozov for Frankurter Allegemeine Zeitung  (Hat tip to Daniel Brandt).   Morozov says most of us willingly trade privacy for convenience.

CloudFlare’s Unamazing Growth by Daniel Brandt for CloudFlare Watch.  Brandt explores  negative aspects of Internet privacy.

The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: the Case of Wikileaks by Jaron Lanier.   He explores negative aspects of the quest for absolute transparency. [added 9/17/13]

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4 Responses to “We need transparency more than privacy”

  1. EthnicKonflict Says:

    I think you know what it means to be a Hero Without a Mask.


    • philebersole Says:

      If the villains were unmasked, the heroes wouldn’t need masks.


      • EthnicKonflict Says:

        Assuming the villians accepted your proposal (and this would have to come from Congress I think), you would have to admit that they must in fact keep secrets and harvest information in the interests of national security. Even if they believed in transparency as much as you do, nothing would change. This is what I believe, and it is what they wrote on their website. I think it is important to take people at their values and only to accuse someone of doing something in defiance of those.

        Who are the villains and how have they harmed you?


  2. philebersole Says:

    Knowledge is power. The power to gather knowledge in secret, use it in secret and to make it a crime to reveal how the knowledge is used is the power of a dictator.

    There are many ways that the NSA can misuse its power—to use its secret knowledge to blackmail politicians, to give advantage to favored politicians and businesses, to undermine lawful dissidents.

    I don’t know for a fact that the NSA has done any of these things, and it may well be the case that it hasn’t—not yet. I do know that NSA officials have lied about what they do, and that those who reveal the truth are treated as criminals.

    My knowledge of history, including the history of FBI wiretaps, and my knowledge of human nature, including my own nature, leads me to believe that power without accountability will inevitably be misused.

    You appear to think that the more power government has, the safer you will be from dangerous religious fanatics. I think that the history of Germany, Russia and other countries shows that no citizen is safe when the government has absolute power and zero accountability.

    Lenin wrote somewhere that the scientific definition of dictatorship is power without limit, resting directly on force and not limited by any laws or rules. I do not of course believe that the U.S. government is a dictatorship by that definition. I do believe that the United States is moving in that direction, and it is time to reverse course.


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