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Data privacy

Will we live in a world of one-way mirrors, or windows?

Twenty years after its publication, "The Transparent Society" by Dr. David Brin is more relevant than ever before to discussions about privacy rights.

This year we commemorate the 70th anniversary of one of the greatest cautionary tales ever penned. With its bone-chilling portrayal of government surveillance taken to extremes, George Orwell’s “1984” is made all the more frightening now that we live in an age where technology really can enable the perpetual intrusion into our private lives that tyrants dream of.

A threshold moment in the novel occurred when Winston Smith, at the home of his assumed benefactor O’Brien, was lulled into a series of self-incriminations that would later be used to justify his arrest and torture. O’Brien, as an Inner Party official, amazed Winston with his ability to turn off the ubiquitous telescreen that constantly watched every party member. Believing their private conversation was protected from government snooping, Winston proclaimed his willingness to commit any number of atrocities in service to a revolution against Big Brother. What he didn’t know then and learned to his great anguish later was that he was being recorded nonetheless; it was the presumption of privacy that trapped Winston and eventually landed him in that chair in Room 101.

What Orwell showed us was a world where there was no winning, a future which as O’Brien put it was “a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” But let’s imagine a different scenario. One in which all the citizens of Oceania could watch every move that Big Brother made on their own screens. Every aspect of the Ingsoc government and its thought police under constant observation by a citizenry who could at a moment’s notice demand – and receive – justice.

That premise of the small watching the big – sousveillance – is the antidote offered by Dr. David Brin in his seminal work on privacy, The Transparent Society. The book was recognized by the American Library Association with its Freedom of Speech Award for contributing to the public discussion on technology and personal freedom. Now in its twentieth year of publication, Brin’s prescriptions for protecting our privacy by embracing greater transparency are timelier than ever.

Bob Schukai, Thomson Reuters global head of Design, Digital Identity Solutions, caught up with Dr. Brin, a Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author, security consultant, and fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, to discuss the implications of life in a world of big data. Dr. Brin shared his views on the potential effectiveness of privacy regulations, where technology might lead and what he sees as the most important U.S. civil liberties development in recent memory.


The below interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click here to listen to the expanded conversation.


BOB SCHUKAI: How do you anticipate the debate over privacy and transparency shaping up over the next five years?

DAVID BRIN: Almost monthly, we hear of another company or agency getting hacked or leaking, and that’s the tip of the iceberg, as most try to conceal when it happens. Gradually, people are starting to realize that no serenity or safety will come from depending on secrecy. Every year, the cameras get smaller, faster, better, cheaper, more numerous and mobile, at rates faster than Moore’s Law. And yet, it’s not hopeless to envision a future of freedom … even with a little privacy.

Yes, the tools of Big Brother are coalescing. But counter-examples also abound. The trick is to realize something that many elites don’t want us to discover – that light can shine in two directions. And when it does, the little guy is often empowered!

In 2013 both the courts and the Obama Administration declared it to be “settled law” that a citizen has the right to record his or her interactions with police in public places. I have called it the most important civil liberties matter in the U.S. in our lifetimes – certainly in thirty years – even though it was hardly covered by the press. The effects weren’t instantaneous. But every constabulary in America is now fretting over how to rid its ranks of the worst abusers, in a new, transparent era.

No single matter could have been more important because it established the most basic right of “sousveillance” or looking-back at power, that The Transparent Society is all about. It is also fundamental to freedom, for in altercations with authority, what other recourse can a citizen turn to than the truth?

Dr. David Brin, author of The Transparent Society
Dr. David Brin, author of The Transparent Society.

SCHUKAI: How would you characterize efforts like the GDPR to tighten down on privacy enforcement? Do you think they will be effective in the long term and even enforceable in places outside the EU, and is it really possible for governments to effectively legislate?

BRIN: To be clear, I think Europeans are the world’s leaders in identifying and worrying-over looming problems of the information age. They are right – as are US activists like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, etc. – to point at Orwellian implications that go far beyond mere cameras. For example, science now allows brain scanning that verges on the holy grail of all despots – the perfect Lie Detector. When that is achieved, what despot can ever be overthrown?

If those powers are monopolized by any elite, we’ll have Big Brother forever.

Where the Europeans – and other paladins of liberty – tend to be delusional is in thinking this can be prevented by closing or restricting information flows! With rules saying, “Don’t look at this or that!” I defy anyone to find one example, across all of human history, when that prescription worked well. Legislate against this rising tide? Do you know the legend of King Canute?

In a few years the cameras will be too small to detect: That woman’s earring. That fellow’s shirt button. Then, on the corner of every pair of sunglasses sold. Make it illegal? Then cops and the rich and criminals will still have and use them. Ban the face recognition databases? Then cops and the rich and criminals and techies and bureaucrats will see everyone around them equipped with name tags and captions … but you won’t, because you voted for a law that will only hamper you and average folks like you.

Now squint and imagine that we – the people – might be empowered with lie detectors that can be applied to the mighty – those politicians and moguls who croon soothing nostrums and urge our trust? Sure, there’ll be social ructions and broken marriages. (Several stories in the Chasing Shadows anthology describe this likely outcome.) But the most important outcome is simple: Big Brother never.

The irony is that this is exactly the method that brought us to our current renaissance of freedom. A big part of the U.S. Constitution is about dividing power and opening paths for accountability. Even parts – like the 4th Amendment – that restrict the government’s right to look are only of use if you have the power to look, and catch them snooping. And the most under-appreciated amendment – the 6th – underlies all of our freedom, by enforcing the right of the accused to demand to know.

SCHUKAI: Is a transparent society truly possible? Truly inevitable?

BRIN: If the technologies of light truly are on an accelerating curve, then there are only two possible outcomes. One, that these techs will be monopolized by some elite. Two, that we all share them and then negotiate among ourselves how to catch and cancel oppressors and cheaters, and then how to leave each other space to be ourselves. Already, around the world, despotic regimes are betting heavily on option number one, the path that is so in-keeping with 6,000 years of feudal power-pyramids.

But there remains the other possibility. And suppose we choose it! Suppose we get to see every politician’s finances and detect every mogul’s lie. Then we’ll be free … but there’s a secondary fear … a legitimate one! That the resulting democracy will be a soul-crushing, conformity-enforcing hell of majority rule, repressing diversity, eccentricity and all of that. It’s a reasonable thing to fear!

All I can do it point to current Western values, especially as conveyed in every Hollywood film, where the chief lessons preached are: (1) Suspicion of authority, (2) tolerance and (3) acceptance of eccentricity. Seriously, name a movie in which the audience isn’t invited to bond with the protagonist because she or he exhibits some eccentric trait? No, I expect that such a society won’t use transparency to enforce homogeneity.

What I can tell you is that there are no other end points. No paternalistic “info-regulations” can possibly work to restrict the power of elites. Indeed, that path plays into their hands.

SCHUKAI: Are you seeing calls for transparency outpacing calls for privacy?

BRIN: The very question answers itself.

So long as people think transparency is the enemy of privacy, then transparency has no chance of making a better world.

Look, human beings want some privacy! The Moore’s Law of Cameras ensures we will get none in the future – zero – unless we live in a transparent world where you can catch the voyeurs who violate your privacy. Yes, even mighty voyeurs. Governments, the rich, criminals, corporations. Seriously, you see another way to get them to leave you alone?

Alas, I have come to realize this concept is almost impossible to convey. It seems that it’s utterly counter-intuitive, even though it is exactly how we got every single freedom we now possess and every scrap of privacy we now enjoy.

SCHUKAI: Where do you see data privacy regulations headed? Do you anticipate a tightening or a relaxing of privacy regulations?

BRIN: I see them failing every single year, at which point earnest, well-intentioned activists will double down again and again and again on what did not work the year before, or the year before that. And when their rules and regulations fail again, they will go back to the same well.

The way of the future will emerge from a few brave nations willing to experiment with openness, like Estonia.


Learn more

For additional content concerning the use of personal data in the digital age, be sure to explore the rest of our multimedia series: A new dawn for data privacy and transparency.

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