nettime's roving reporter on Fri, 15 Feb 2002 11:04:58 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> The problem with privacy advocates

POSTED: 2/13/02
Interview: David Brin's Naked Truth About Privacy

In a polarized environment where opinions on privacy are simplistically
reduced to "for" or "ignore," David Brin's concept of "The Transparent
Society" (the title of his 1998 book) is a nimble approach that appears
more relevant by the day.

Brin's cleverly-argued thesis is a spin on the arms race code of "Trust,
but verify." For Brin, the supposed trade-offs between liberty and security
are false dichotomies that could be resolved with, "Access, but

A scientist and sci-fi author as well as a non-fiction writer, Brin
prophetically envisioned in "The Transparent Society" that an act such as
the destruction of the Twin Towers by terrorists would usher in a new era
of government surveillance. "The important point is that once the
bureaucracy gets a new prerogative of surveillance, it is unlikely ever to
give it up again," he wrote. "The effect is like a ratchet that will creep
relentlessly toward one kind of transparency, the kind that is

Trying to prevent such government "sight" is pointless, according to Brin,
who maintains that it is much better to seek "oversight" to watch the
watchers, a pragmatic position at odds with many techno-libertarians and
privacy advocates.

Consider Brin's response to John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic
Frontier Foundation, who commented on the day of the Sept. 11 attacks that
the U.S. has "gradually, subtly, invisibly to most of us, become a police
state over the last 30 years. This morning's events are roughly equivalent
to the Reichstag fire that provided the social opportunity for the Nazi
takeover of Germany."

Brin praised Barlow's eloquence, but wrote, "Note how Barlow propounds that
everything has happened 'invisibly to most of us'... conveying the same
implicit contempt for the masses that nearly all ideologues foster, across
the entire political spectrum. It feels so good to be one of the few who
see The Truth - a sensation relished by our own native fundamentalists,
libertarians, Marxists, free-marketers, postmodern leftists, as well as a
great many regular Republicans and Democrats, differing only in who they
credit with sight and who qualifies as sheep!"

Stephen Keating, executive director of the Privacy Foundation, interviewed
Brin by e-mail and phone on Feb. 7.

PF: We're five months out from Sept. 11. What's changed in regard to
security and privacy in the U.S.?

BRIN: Panic, but not as much as some people feared. In fact, the new powers
of sight demanded and received by the FBI aren't all that awful. What bugs
me terribly is that there have been no accompanying and countervailing
powers of oversight, enabling citizen watchdog groups to observe how these
new powers of vision are used. That second half of the deal was never
offered to us. Nor did most of our protectors in the civil liberties
community even ask.

PF: What concerns you more: government surveillance trampling on civil
liberties, or government's inability to prevent terrorist attacks?

BRIN: The question itself is what concerns me most. All across the airwaves
we see security mavens demanding tighter restrictions on daily life "for
our children's safety," while civil libertarians preach that we should
accept risk and danger as a price for avoiding "Big Brother" and protecting
freedom for our descendants. In fact, both sides are foisting a poisonous
notion on us for their own self-interest. Both groups assume a fundamental
trade-off between safety and freedom, and derive economic benefit from the
fact that we swallow this awful notion.

But is such a trade-off real? I can tell you that I refuse to even let it
be a basis for discussion! Nobody tells me that I must choose between
safety for my children and their freedom. It's a non-starter.

Can we have both safety and freedom? The evidence can be seen all around
us. We are - even after 9/11 - toweringly safer and freer than any other
people in history. The two go together. All it takes is breaking the stupid
notion of dichotomies and trade-offs.

PF: Let's get down to cases. Wouldn't a national I.D. card be a trade-off
of privacy for security?

BRIN: The average American already has one: the driver's license. But it's
pathetically poor at delivering security benefits. We'll get a national
I.D. by a dozen different routes. A trusted flier program through the
airlines, for instance, will be much like supermarket check-out clubs, at
first. It will be an extra benefit for those who undergo the inconvenience
of background checks. But rapidly, like the supermarket clubs, it will
penalize those who don't have one.

Biometric-based I.D. cards for everybody are coming. Squint, look ahead 50
years and honestly tell me you can envision a world where such things are
not simply assumed. The important factor is not whether such cards exist,
but whether they are a tool for robbing us of things we want and need.

PF: Some would say that just the existence of a national I.D. card system
is problematic because it assumes a centralized database.

BRIN: The database need not be centralized. What if you could offer dozens
of competing cards? This kind of imaginative approach isn't even discussed,
so anxious are the leading civil libertarians to cry out against cards on
basic principle. It's a failure to examine whether it's possible to
eliminate the harmful effects while accepting the good.

PF: "Transparency" in Germany has come to mean intense scrutiny of
government surveillance activities, with strong data protection and banking
secrecy laws. A recent New Yorker article claims that also made Germany a
good staging area for terrorists. Your thoughts?

BRIN: The problem lies in how the question is parsed. I cannot believe how
many sincere civil libertarians have actually convinced themselves that
freedom is best preserved by blinding government. That has nothing
whatsoever to do with how we acquired our present liberties.

Government power is kept in check by stripping the powerful down and
subjecting them to scrutiny in the application of their delegated power, so
that abuse of the power can be caught and rapidly dealt with. We are
protected by enhancing our ability to see them, not by reducing their
ability to see us.

The proof, again, is all around us. In all of history, no government ever
knew more about its people than ours does - and no people have ever been so
free. The apparent paradox is just an illusion, clarified when we add a
third fact: no people ever knew more about their government.

In Germany they are rightfully concerned about the lessons of their past,
so there are extra measures in place to restrict government power. I
approve of this in principle. But they are the wrong restrictions. We
should worry less about what our servants know than about what they do.
That's what keeps them our servants.

PF: You wrote in "The Transparent Society" that, "Someday we may look back
on this era as a time when rational compromises might have enhanced both
security and liberty, but those compromises were refused because each side
was so busy self-righteously being right." What's your view today?

BRIN: When the government pursues new surveillance powers, our habit is to
kick and scream and moan and then watch helplessly while they get what they
want, as when something bad like 9/11 happens. A far more effective
technique is to demand fierce accountability measures in return for
granting our servants the tools they claim they need. That's how to keep
both safety and freedom.

Actually, I'm surprised at how little [Attorney General John] Ashcroft
asked for after September 11. Maybe he judged the mood of the American
people, which has been remarkably calm and free of panic. Maybe he's
waiting for the next shoe to drop. Then we might get a national I.D. card,
without the ability for oversight.

PF: What would that oversight look like?

BRIN: There's a whole shopping list we could ask for. The creation of a
true office of the Inspector General of the United States. It doesn't
exist. In each department, the inspectors report to the cabinet secretaries
that appointed them. It's incestuous, as ridiculous as Enron hiring their
accountants to be consultants. Autonomy would help. That's just one example.

This is actually an old approach! Every time our government has demanded
new powers of sight, we have sought new powers of oversight, such as the
Freedom of Information Act and open meetings laws. Inevitably, they turn
around and try to eviscerate the measures we've taken. We need not get
angry about it. We should refuse to let our leaders wallow in the
assumption that this republic is theirs. It's not. It's ours. Another idea
would be citizen overseers who have a right to walk in any door.

PF: You are critical of privacy advocates. Why?

BRIN: The world is a better place for having them in it. Their indignation
helps to catch abuses by the particular power centers they are tuned to
look at. But the last thing they would ever do is to look at themselves as
a power center. I just wish they weren't so contemptuous of the masses. If
they weren't, they would notice that people are very sensible. And what
people really want is to be empowered to catch the Peeping Toms, to hold
accountable any elite that might abuse power, whether corporate or
governmental or individual.

They are getting these tools through the very technologies that privacy
advocates fear most, such as video cameras. The number of cameras in
private hands is expanding vastly compared to the number owned by
government. There's an incredible Luddite tendency that binds our
intellectual aristocracy. People are profoundly more empowered by
technology than hindered by it.

PF: Who else holds your views?

BRIN: George Soros. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who wrote a small book titled,
"Secrecy," leaning in the same direction., which every year
buys up thousands of last year's obsolete video cameras to send overseas to
activists in the third world., which pushes for
legislation that will further protect people who reveal the conspiracies of
elites. In fact, though, those who preach freedom-through-accountability
are still rare. Freedom-through-secrecy is by far more common.

In the movie "Men in Black," Tommy Lee Jones's character says, "A person is
smart. People are stupid." Cute, but it's exactly the opposite. The
aggregate of people in a given community will catch the local thugs and
power abusers through small acts of revelation and investigation. It's the
aggregate that's wise. Alexis DeTocqueville was touring New England. He
attended town meetings and was appalled by the screaming and the
indignation. He wrote a typically French sneer about how silly and asinine
everyone had been that evening. Then, in the middle of the night, he sat
bolt upright in bed and murmured to himself, "Mon Dieu! They are governing

We are blinded by an American character trait, which is to feel contempt.
College sophomores are regularly asked every year, "To what do you
attribute your beliefs? Almost universally, they say, "I believe what I
believe because I've evaluated the evidence. My idiot opponent got their
evidence because of flaws in their character." This blinds us to the fact
that the aggregate of our fellow citizens has somehow made a pretty good
and wise civilization.

PF: How does that observation play into the post-Sept. 11 environment?

BRIN: In the 20th century we came to rely ever more on professionals. We
are not going to turn around that fact. I just finished attending a
conference on bio-terrorism. Dangers are going to increase at a rate at
which the experts cannot keep up with. The only way we'll have a chance is
if individuals, by holding their immediate environment accountable - by
handling some of it ourselves - help the thin line of professionals.

What happened on Sept. 11 was a failure of doctrine, in that pilots and
personnel on airlines were told to be passive, to accommodate terrorists if
they struck. The doctrine was revised and changed by an ad hoc committee of
a dozen Americans rebelling on Flight 93 within one hour of attack. No FAA,
no Senate Committee. It was done by an ad hoc committee. And no one has
questioned the committee's decision. That's power. Performed by amateurs.

PF: Any thoughts on that philosophy in Afghanistan?

BRIN: I would have dropped several million cheap cell phones that use relay
sites. Equip them with cameras. We could have gotten real-time images. The
ideal weapon against dictators. No bleeding-heart objections if we bomb
Iraq with cell phones!

PF: VeriChip and other companies are pitching the benefits of trackable
chip implants. Would you, or your children, get chipped? Why or why not?

BRIN: In theory, until age eight when a child is capable of finding her own
way home, there may be some benefits to chipping, as creepy as it sounds.
But I also believe in graduated civil liberties for children. Teens need a
sense of being able to get away. Really away. For myself, I would not be
the first. And I would not like to see some closed agency being involved in
this process.

PF: You write that, "When people feel safer, we will worry less about what
others know about us." Explain.

BRIN: Some "privacy advocates" neglect ever to rank their privacy concerns
along any kind of scale. To them, it's just as harmful for a supermarket to
know what salad dressing you bought as it is for a convicted abuser to know
the location of the battered wives shelter. But this is obviously absurd.
The public, in opinion polls, shows time and again that common people
understand a hierarchy of privacy needs based on real or plausible harm
that a piece of information might do.

I am actually a privacy moderate and do see many areas in life where some
kinds of personal secrecy are called for. I just believe we'll all be able
to enforce our own privacy much better if those few important secrets are
kept in a general ambiance of accountable openness, one in which there are
very few Peeping Toms because of a high probability that they'll get
caught. Privacy will be better protected in a generally open environment.

PF: What is the strangest, or most provocative, reaction you've gotten to
"The Transparent Society"?

BRIN: It's not so much strange as sad. I get indignant denunciations from
people who do not read the book and claim that I oppose privacy. In fact, I
see privacy and freedom as among the most important of all human values.
History shows that we got them by increasing the amount that each of us, as
a sovereign citizen, knows. We did not get them by frenetically trying to
police what other people know.

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