David Brin: state secrecy and science fiction

A decade ago, novellist and essayist David Brin said that surveillance of the state by the people was the best counterbalance to Big Brother. ZDNet UK caught up with him to see how his future has panned out
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

Nasa consultant, scientist and writer David Brin has long concentrated on the effects technology can have on people. In 1998, he wrote The Transparent Society, an award-winning book investigating privacy, surveillance, people's rights and the state.

Famously, he considered the solution to too much surveillance by the state was even more surveillance — but by the people, guarding their rights by checking up on the activities of the watchers.

Now we have police turning to Flickr to identify rioters, Anonymous disclosing user data, Google+ pushing users to prove their names and even Swiss banks giving up some of their famous secrecy. Given this, ZDNet UK asked Brin: Are we living in the transparent society now?

Q: Did you look at surveillance of the riots published online and recognise trends you'd predicted?
A: I lived in London in the mid-'80s, when Milton Keynes first started with the cameras. I started writing The Transparent Society because of what I saw going on. By the time I left, there were 150,000 cameras on the streets of Britain; well, that's a fingernail clipping compared with what Britain now has — something like 5 million cameras.

The reason people were less creeped out than they would have been had this been in Germany or some other country, is they feel a fair degree of faith in the social contract in Britain.

In the States, almost every city has same number of cameras, but a majority of them are privately owned. So if there is a disturbance or bank robbery, the FBI or local police have to knock on doors and say 'Can we see your footage?'

When the state has a monopoly on the cameras, it can use them as it wishes. When cameras are distributed, it doesn't totally control what the state can see, but some degree of public consent is involved.

In Britain, the government owns the cameras. But they nevertheless are going to the people and saying 'Can you help us spot this person?' This is temporary because very soon facial-recognition systems are going to be much more powerful. But it is essentially the same thing I was talking about.

The UK government discussed turning off social networks and mobile phone coverage to prevent riots. The transit authority in San Francisco actually did that.
Can the state proactively blind the people? I say no; I think that's terrible. The state has no right to do that.

What the state has a right to do is hold people accountable to the law. Using these new modern methods to get the faces of people who are actively looting, and calling upon the public to decide if they morally feel that looting is a bad thing and therefore to help police; this is all use of legitimate police power.

But the police do not have a right to shut down our ability to communicate with each other, even in the forming of flash mobs. This is them trying to monopolise the power to see. I don't mind the police seeing more and more and more. I will refuse to let them deny me the opportunity to see them — to watch the watchmen.

What are the implications of everyone watching each other? Does it always increase transparency?
When banks and credit card-processing agencies withdrew their relationships with Wikileaks, they were attacked by Anonymous. Then patriotic hackers retaliated against Anonymous, and you wound up getting into this tit-for-tat spiral; all of it by people refusing themselves to be subject to accountability, who do not see the irony of demanding openness and accountability for their enemy but refusing any for themselves.

Google is suggesting that the internet would be better with 'real names'.
What I think is valuable are pseudonymity companies, which enable you to take your real world-credibility and create a trusted pseudonym. If you have a dozen of these companies actively competing — trying to catch each other at something skullduggerous — there is a serious chance they are actually keeping with their fiduciary responsibilities and not hoarding names.

The only real long-term solution is for everybody to recognise that everybody is going to have to be accountable to everybody else. This is the key notion of the Enlightenment; reciprocal accountability. The reason markets and democracy and science all work — when they work — is people are capable of holding each other accountable. It's the evasion of accountability by elites that is the real danger.

The reason markets and democracy and science all work is people are capable of holding each other accountable.

We have a shared nightmare of Big Brother but a deep disagreement about how to deal with it. What's the scariest thing about 1984 and the telescreen? The real creepy aspect of it that makes it a tyranny is that it's one-directional; it's aimed only at the proletariat and the proletariat cannot look back at the elite. If it was completely universal, if everyone could look back at the party and the state and Big Brother all the time... sure, you'd start with an inhomogeneity of force, but that would get eroded pretty fast.

Don't you get an attention economy, where you're at a disadvantage if you don't have time to watch?
Every individual is at a disadvantage when it comes to such matters regarding the elite or the government, of course. But we have modern methods by which individuals have equalisers, like proxy organisations; you can be a member of the ACLU, you can be a member of a local club.

[There's] that one nerd in your neighbourhood who is up to date on the latest surveillance software and devices, who knocks on your door and tells you there's a suspicious transmission coming from your house, follows it and finds the little spy camera that a pimple-faced voyeur in the neighbourhood flew in through your window to watch in your bedroom; you follow the transmission back to his house and you tell his mom.

In the long run...

...we have to be responsible for defending our own freedom. Not everybody is going to be the nerd, not everybody is going to be well-heeled enough to hire a lawyer, but they can join a consortium that does.

If the information is flowing both ways, at least there's some intrinsic limit to how heinously they can treat you. If the camera is on the mighty, there's a limit to what they can do to you, even if the power is intrinsically inhomogeneous.

What about the danger of digital vigilantes? Will we have stronger privacy laws?
Throughout human history, power systems were pyramidal — mostly tyranny aimed downward — but the human instinct is nevertheless to appeal upwards to a benign leadership above.

You have problems, but they are the problem of oppression by potentially a billion Little Brothers.

European privacy commissioners appealing to laws to regulate the flow of information is still based on this; [it's] saying we're going to have benign leaders. But the flow is still passing through a trusted network, then back down to us.

Instead of surveillance from above, 'sousveillance' (Steve Mann at the University of Toronto and I helped coin it) is looking from below and the side.

If you have a world filled with light, we will not have Big Brother. You have problems, but they are the problem, maximally, of 'Little Brother'. Majority tyranny, oppression by potentially a billion Little Brothers. It's slightly less bad than Big Brother, because at least you're probably not being tortured, but still it's a potential form of tyranny.

But we're seeing more and more signs, especially in the new generation in their attitudes on services like Facebook, that the attitude is 'We had better defend the rights of people to be eccentric, because we have our own eccentricities and those might be the next thing targeted'.

Over the last 50 years, certainly in the US but also in Europe, the more the public finds out about a non-harm-doing minority group of eccentrics, the more accepting they are of them. This has happened with gays and lesbians, it's happened with minority groups... And yet this has not manifested in increased tolerance of those who are angry and harm-doing, like the Klu Klux Klan.

It seems to be the more we know about somebody the more tolerant we are of their eccentricity, unless they are hateful. If I'm right about that, then the Little Brother scenario also appears unlikely.

How do you have privacy and sousveillence together?
People say I'm against privacy, and that's a complete lie. What I say is we can't have privacy unless we have freedom. If we have freedom and knowledge, then perhaps we can enforce some privacy. It won't be the same amount we had in the 20th Century, but it will be redefined, and we'll have some.

Are you still exploring these ideas in your science fiction?
There's a lot about transparency and secrecy in my novel Earth, including the Helvetian war. It's the whole world against Switzerland, atom bombs end up getting used, but we finally get the bank records.

The new novel Existence is out in June 2012. It covers some of the same territory, though it's a little more broad themed. It's about the 100 or 200 pitfalls that might end human existence on our way to becoming a mature star-travelling civilization. We seem to be alone in the cosmos at present, and all the others may have already fallen into these pitfalls. We may fall into the same traps that killed them, or we may be the lucky ones. We may be the smart ones!

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