David Brin’s “The Transparent Society”

It is important to familiarize ourselves with David Brin’s non-fiction book, “The Transparent Society”, as it drives the debate about openness versus privacy.  While an academic discussion, it is so pervasively used when talking about government surveillance, privacy policy, etc. that I felt it important to cover on this blog.

Someone has written an incisive, brief summary of Brin’s book on Wikipedia:

“Brin argues that true privacy will be lost in the “transparent society”; however, we have the choice between one that offers the illusion of privacy by restricting the power of surveillance to authorities, or one that destroys that illusion by offering everyone access (including the ability to watch the watchers). He argues that it would be good for society if the surveillance is equal for all, and the public has the same access as those in power. He bases this argument upon the claim that the most dangerous and corrupt abuses of power go hand-in-hand with a lack of accountability and transparency.”

Brin argues that we have more privacy now than in most of history:  we have property rights, more open communities not reliant on local gossip, and we have a justice system that holds bullies, criminals, stalkers, etc. accountable for violating our personal spaces.

There are key metaphors that Brin employs to help re-define privacy as something that is good, but not necessarily cryptographic or secret in nature, which is how we commonly view privacy.

For instance, he talks about how public privacy is akin to talking in a restaurant; you and your companion can have a conversation with an expectation that no one is listening — if they ARE listening, you can observe them doing so in many cases, thus privacy is observable and transparent and enforceable through moral norms.

Brin proposes a world where surveillance is shared with sousveillance, creating equiveillance.  That is, the maligned state of ubiquitous camera coverage currently utilized in London might actually be better for society if everyone is given access to the footage.  If citizens can watch each other (private establishments excluded) and can watch law enforcement and government, then a balance can be maintained; combine this with technology allowing individuals to record their own footage, and you have a transparent, accountable record of what’s going on.

The implications of Brin’s proposal have a lot to do with power.  Currently, he says, we live under the illusion of power.  We can try to be secretive as individuals, but companies and governments already know quite a lot about us, and that data will be saved even more easily now that data is moving to the cloud.

Privacy as we know it plays into the hands of those with legal rights to surveil us:  the NSA, the FBI, governments, financial institutions.  There is an asymmetry of information.  We have few ways to watch the watchmen.

Brin says that we must focus, as a democracy, on balancing citizens’ power with the power of those elected to represent us.

In similar terms, the internet has the potential to be the greatest democratizing force in history, and it can serve as the infrastructure to help us build a transparent society.

But is this the kind of society we want?  Is this the kind of society BRIC countries want?  Is it compatible with their cultures?  To find out, we must study them individually…