EVERYONE IS LIVING IN A FISHBOWL
THE TRANSPARENT SOCIETY
Many people find this trend alarming, and they should. In its benign form, privacy abuse simply means a flood of junk mail. But there are also sinister ruses such as ''identity theft,'' in which tech-savvy criminals armed with nothing but your address and Social Security number acquire credit cards, bank loans, and even mortgages in your name.
Powerful digital encryption can bolster privacy--but that, too, is controversial. Law-enforcement agencies have labored to suppress cryptography for the masses, fearing a loss of ability to monitor criminals.
Three new books, taking drastically different approaches, highlight how our right to privacy has been compromised by the onslaught of advanced technology. And with varying degrees of success, all three try to tell us what to do about it. The Transparent Society, by physicist and science-fiction writer David Brin, argues that in a more perfect world, privacy might matter less than we think. Privacy on the Line, by computer scientists Whitfield Diffie and Susan Landau, asserts exactly the opposite: that privacy is critical to our way of life. And Protecting Yourself Online, by Internet activists Robert B. Gelman, Stanton McCandlish, and assorted members of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, takes a nuts-and-bolts approach, helping general readers understand privacy-related threats and nuisances so they can take measures against them.
Of the three books, Brin's is the most optimistic and most entertaining. In an exuberant romp across the digital landscape, Brin convinces himself--and almost convinced me--that openness is the antidote to threats against privacy.
The setup for this argument is a parable of two possible high-tech futures. In one, grim citizens of a fascist-sounding state are monitored by Police Central. In the alternative future, there's just as much monitoring. But it goes in both directions--by the police and of the police--without oppression or rancor. Both future societies are crime-free. Which one would you choose?
Brin's thesis, amplified in long, unhurried chapters, is that ''transparency'' and accountability are our best defenses against abuses. Cryptography, beloved by spooks, cyberpunks, and civil libertarians alike, is a useful tool, in Brin's eyes. But in an encryption arms race, the rich and powerful--meaning governments and big business--will always outgun ordinary citizens. In any case, Brin claims, snooping technology will advance more quickly than the tools to thwart it. You can digitally scramble a message. But how will you conceal your keystrokes from minuscule, insect-like, remote sensing devices that fly through your window and fix themselves to the ceiling?
New laws are no solution, Brin argues. Regulations will only create new layers of bureaucracy--and ultimately, such laws are unenforceable. Simplified to an extreme, his argument says that the authorities should be permitted to snoop, if that will help them fight criminal elements. But in return, he writes: ''We should make government come begging deferentially, and extract something in return each time. New kinds of supervision. New guarantees of openness. Snap inspections by teams of randomly chosen citizens.''
Brin's gift is his ability, honed by fiction-writing, to think through whole scenarios. He uses the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles to show how ''snooping'' fosters accountability--provided the cameras face both directions. Then, he extrapolates to a whole society based on such reciprocity. Sure, we lose some privacy. ''Anyone will be able to find out how much you paid for your nose job, or what salad dressing you buy,'' he concedes. ''And your reaction will be, 'Who cares?' It will be like having people know what color sweater you are wearing.''
Sadly, there are many jarring digressions, and Brin's prose is peppered with New Age-sounding homilies. What's more, while it is nice to know whose shoulders a writer stands on, Brin overquotes cybermavens such as Esther Dyson and Howard Rheingold, not to mention the Great Minds of times past. In chapter five, there are cameo appearances by Freud, philosopher Karl Popper, Plato, Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, and Hegel--all on the same page.
Diffie and Landau take a completely different tack in Privacy on the Line. They argue that privacy has been the rule throughout most of history. Prior to the 20th century, all face-to-face conversations were secure, as long as others were out of earshot. Modern communications changed all that, along with our core relationships. Now, our most intimate friends may be on the other side of the world--and anyone could be listening in on our conversations. ''If people are to enjoy the same effortless privacy that they enjoyed in the past, the means to protect that privacy must be built into their communications systems,'' they write.
The authors' solution is digital encryption. That's no surprise. In 1974, while at Stanford University, Diffie--now at Sun Microsystems Inc.--and two colleagues invented ''public key'' encryption, which is now widespread. In a nutshell, a person seeking privacy makes use of two separate mathematical formulas, or keys--one of them public and one private. The public key, available to anybody, is used only for scrambling messages, and the private one only for decryption. To receive private messages from friends, you have them encrypt their files with the public key that you supply them. Then you unscramble the message using your private key. Hackers can gain access to the public key, but that won't help them decrypt messages.
Mysteriously, Diffie and co-writer Susan Landau, a computer scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, come up short when addressing cryptography head-on. Early chapters engulf the reader in technical discussions that are less engrossing than what follows. My guess is that those who hang on through all the talk of ''multiple Vigenere systems'' and ''nonlinear shift registers'' may already know what these are.
Chapters on public policy and national security also drag. On the other hand, the authors give clear and authoritative treatments of wiretapping and digital telephony, the flap over the government's famed ''Clipper'' chip, and the legal framework for privacy protection, which is nowhere directly guaranteed in the Constitution. This book could use a few vivid, imaginative leaps of the sort David Brin offers in spades. But in the end, the authors prove their case that ''the preservation of privacy is critical to a democratic political process.''
Protecting Yourself Online is a breezy how-to book giving user-friendly explanations of where the Internet came from, how patents and trademarks work, how surfers should behave on the Net, and so forth. It has tips on spotting forged E-mail, coping with junk E-mail called ''spam,'' and dealing with programs called ''cookies'' that catalog your preferences on a Web site. The discussion never bogs down, and there are lots of Web links for further research.
These three books make a nice collection. Diffie and Landau provide a good reference work, and Protecting Yourself Online is well worth the hour it will take to read. But Brin will transport you to the most exotic intellectual locales. I especially enjoyed his depiction of ''flamers'' and other short-fused critics on the Net as ''human T-cells'' carrying out a critical role of error-correction in cyberspace. As long as there is free speech, he argues, we can rely on the Net's immune system to seek out evil and correct it. It's a sweet notion. If only the world really worked that way.
BY NEIL GROSS
Updated July 21, 1998 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1998, Bloomberg L.P.