Transparent Privacy

Who should be watching the watchers?

by / July 9, 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 loathsome"?

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 ourselves.

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 alone.

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 -- watching.

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 baboon.

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