The beauty of a world without privacy

Author David Brin discusses why a lack of privacy won't be so bad. In fact, our future may be better without it.
Written by Robert Lemos, Contributor
Noted science-fiction author David Brin -- winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for outstanding speculative fiction -- says that privacy could be the ultimate danger to our society.

In his new book "The Transparent Society," Brin argues that calls for more privacy protection are wrong-headed at best, and at worst, could end up protecting only the powerful, leaving normal citizens without a defense. He cites the United Kingdom, where more than 300,000 cameras have been placed in high-crime areas to catch criminals in the act, saving the cost of patrolling while reducing crime. In Glasgow, Scotland, a 68 percent reduction in crime was attributed to such cameras.

Brin predicts the trend is unstoppable: Cameras will be everywhere. If privacy advocates insist on putting walls around information, only the powerful will have any privacy. Everyone else will only have the illusion.

Brin answered questions from ZDNN Senior Writer Robert Lemos both over e-mail and in a telephone interview.

ZDNN: Your book is about how society becomes transparent, meaning that there are no blocks to information. Does that mean no privacy?
Brin: That depends on how you define privacy. If it means anonymity -- walking in public with a blithe assurance no one knows who you are -- forget it.

Cameras are proliferating like locusts. In Britain they've tied in face-recognition systems to scan pedestrians in search of wanted criminals. Nothing you or I do will stop this. No law will prevent it. Banning the cameras will only drive this technology underground and ensure it's monopolized by some elite group.

But there's another kind of privacy. The security of your home. Your personal safety. The feeling that no one can persecute you, even if they know what goods you buy and where you've been. This kind of privacy has always depended on knowing more -- on being able to see and catch any Peeping Tom, on knowing the secrets of the elite so they don't dare persecute you, on being left alone because you are a free, knowledgeable and sovereign citizen, and therefore too powerful for anyone to capriciously abuse. Attempting to blind your enemies will fail, especially if they are mighty.

ZDNN: So less privacy is better? How does that work?
Brin: Those abortion activists are an example. [The 'pro-life' activists that are posting pictures of people going into abortion clinics.] Banning them from doing what they are doing won't work, because either their cameras will be made smaller or, if it is true tyranny, they will refuse to be banned.

Nobody ever thinks of the reciprocal transparency solution to these problems and that's taking cameras and shining it back on them. I mean, look, people are more forgiving of abortion doctors than people that go around and kill abortion doctors. These guys want their addresses known less than the abortion doctors want their addresses known.

The whole Clinton thing is the case of people learning the hard way that people who live in glass houses really shouldn't be the ones throwing stones. I mean, that's what Larry Flynt [publisher of Hustler who forced Speaker of the House Bob Livingston to resign] has been trying to show. Who'd ever imagine he'd play a role. I mean, look at the self restraint he showed this week when he said he's not going to reveal to the rest of the Congress what he discovered with his million dollars. Because they're not hypocrites.

We are going to have to learn something we knew in the old villages, and that's courtesy. For our own safety's sake. We aren't going to be able to hide anything. We'll be safe because our enemies won't be able to hide anything either. But does that make it pleasant if everybody knows everything? The only thing that will make it pleasant is if we grow up a bit.

ZDNN: Then, is this our deal with the technological devil? Better technology for less privacy?
Brin: It's not a matter of tradeoffs. These things are coming, whether we embrace them or not. If we drive them underground, we'll have no say in how they're used.

But the cameras and databases are doing something epochal. They are expanding human vision and memory prodigiously. Soon you'll be able to see anyone on Earth, and 'know' their reputation -- credit rating or criminal record. Yes, we could outlaw this 'advance' and thus ensure only elite use it. If we don't outlaw it, what will be the result?

We have the image of the "good village," where no one locks their doors, everyone cares, deals are made with a firm handshake. Yet, we also have the "bad village," where gossips snooped and swarmed over every personal eccentricity, suppressing individualism, and the newspaper and sheriff were in the pocket of local patrician families. We're nostalgic for the good village and scared stiff that we'll return to the bad one.

But it won't do any good evading this choice, cowering in the cool shadows offered by city life. The city's anonymity won't protect us much longer. The village is coming back. There is, however, still a chance to choose which one. The crucial decision is -- will only gossips and patricians be able to see? Or will we all be able to look back, and force them to be polite?

ZDNN: How did you form this idea of transparency?
Brin: It is an outgrowth of the Karl Popper's "The Open Society and its Enemies" that helped us win the Cold War and retain our freedom back around 1948. He said many of the same things, except in a more complicated way -- it was less accessible.

Look, I don't know that I'm right. I'm really a moderate on this issue. I think there are some times when secrecy will be called for, and encryption and anonymity. The point is that I see both the left and the right in our civilization running like lemmings for a cliff. They are assuming that you protect freedom by restricting information flows, when everything in our civilization has proven the opposite.

ZDNN: How will life in that future be different than today's?
Brin: Many of the things that we now assume that people don't know, (in the future) we will assume that they know. What brand of salad dressing you bought is going to be just like what color sweater you are wearing. In both the good and the bad village you simply assume that people know stuff. The difference is that in the bad village, they not only can use it against you, they do use it against you.

We don't have a choice. The city is going away. The village is coming back. Because the technologies are coming: The cameras are getting smaller, the databases are getting more pervasive; the technologies for spying are getting more profound.

ZDNN: So is this the ideal society?
Brin: One of the drawbacks of transparency [is] a civilization in which everyone knows about everyone else but doesn't become tolerant. Instead, a majority tries to enforce conformity on the minority. That could very well happen.

Is such a society likely, if people know more about each other? It is very likely if you have the bad village, in which there is inequality of information. But how likely is it, that you are going to have so much intolerance in a situation in which there is equality?

In modern day America, so many people are eccentric in one way or another. So many people treasure being different from normal in one way or another. That the majority values the tolerance of harmless eccentricity. Movies that had black characters were largely responsible for the end of racial prejudice.

The more that we are exposed to information and the more that we learn about harmless eccentrics, the more we tolerate them. But this effect does not hold with haters. The more we learn about people who hate -- about people who are destructive -- the less we tolerate them.

This twin fact is the reason why I have hopes that the inevitable age of transparency won't turn into a dictatorship.

ZDNN: What about scrutinizing only those in power and letting private citizens be? Is making the government weaker, less able to suppress its citizens the cure?

Brin: You known what, we need the mighty to hold some of us accountable. A weak government is often prescribed by some people in our society as the best way to guarantee freedom. Well, tell that to Italy in 1926. Tell that to Germany in 1933. Tell that to Russia in 1917. Or China in 1948.

A weak government is not a guarantee of freedom. It is a guarantee of chaos that will be followed by tyranny. What we need is a strong government that is totally subject to scrutiny so that every mistake that they make will be pounced upon.

ZDNN: That's a pretty strong statement. Many would disagree.
Brin: Look. It always upsets me when people are pushing a point of view and they don't say, "I might be wrong." Transparency is coming. If we fall for the trap and try to stop it, then it will be one-way transparency, like all the traditional domineering societies. If we make it two-way then we will be free, but we could be driven by homogeneity and we could hound our neighbors for being different. Yet, everything I have seen indicates that people can learn their lesson and be part of the good village.

And in the good village, you can listen to other people's conversations on the party line; you can snoop around their window; you can walk right into their houses when they are awake and there are no locks on the doors. And you know what, you don't.

You don't because one out of a hundred times you going to be caught and you don't want your mother to know what you did.

That courtesy is the most powerful weapon we are going to have against people who oppress us for our eccentricity and our differences.

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