"The Transparent Society"

In The Transparent Society, science fiction author David Brin write about what he sees as the future of privacy.

Brin starts by assuming that technology will destroy the possibility of true privacy in the future. This may seem like an unreasonable assumption to some, but it's actually not that hard to believe. Each generation of surveillance devices gets smaller and cheaper. The technologies that destroy the privacy of everyday people just keep getting better and better.

Image a city with a camera on each and every city street, all recording. This is not science fiction-- this is science fact in cities like London. Even if technological progress stopped tomorrow, we would still have to deal with the realities of life in the digital age. The 20th century has brought us accurate sensors, cheap and efficient wireless data transfer technologies, huge computer power, and vast databases.

Given these facts, Brin argues, we have to decide between two possible futures. In one future, which he labels society A, massive data is collected about citizens-- but it is locked away, far beyond the reach of most average people. Only the powerful, the wealthy, and the well-connected can get access to it. There may be some effort to promote the idea that there isn't any surveillance going on, but surveillance will be more or less continuous, especially in public places.

In another society, which Brin calls society B, people have come to accept the omnipresent data collection tools like cameras and microphones, and the huge databases of personal information that they feed into. But instead of restricting access, the data is open for all to see. This is the "transparent society."

In a nutshell, Brin argues that the Transparent Society, while it regrettably gives up some of our customary ideas about privacy, preserves the essential features of democracy. With freedom of information, he argues, people are free to offer informed criticism about the government and other institutions. And perhaps the people themselves can spot petty crime and flag potentially dangerous situations before they become a problem.

Society A, by contrast, is authoritarian by its very nature, since it vests information (which is power) in the hands of the elite. And no matter how many laws are passed, it seems unlikely that politicians and government agencies will keep their hands off of this data.

Lately, it seems that the US government has dropped even the pretense of respecting the confidentiality of trans-national calls. I guess there is still some issue as to whether this will hold up in the courts. Even if it doesn't, though, does anyone really doubt that the DHS will have the final say on this matter?

I don't really know how I feel about the Transparent Society. At its heart, it seems like a good idea. If our privacy is really an illusion, why not destroy that illusion-- rip it away and reveal the true reality. But people cherish their illusions, especially in politics, and I don't think this idea will gain much ground.


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