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. ®


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