PART I: A NEW WORLD
ONE: THE CHALLENGE OF AN OPEN SOCIETY
The End of Photography as Proof of Anything at All
TWO: THE AGE OF KNOWLEDGE
Citizen Truth Squads
THREE: PRIVACY UNDER SIEGE
The Accountability Matrix
FOUR: CAN WE OWN INFORMATION?
An Open Society's Enemies
PART II: MINEFIELDS
FIVE: HUMAN NATURE AND THE DILEMMA OF OPENNESS
Essences and Experiments
SIX: LESSONS IN ACCOUNTABILITY
All the World Is a (Digital) Marketplace
SEVEN: THE WAR OVER SECRECY
The Problem of Extortion
PART III: ROAD MAPS
EIGHT: PRAGMATISM IN AN UNCERTAIN WORLD
The Plausibility Matrix
NINE: HUMILITY AND LIMITS
A Withering Away?
TEN: GLOBAL TRANSPARENCY
A Little Loyalty
ELEVEN: THE ROAD OF OPENNESS
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The Transparent Society
By David Brin
Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?
(C) 1998 David Brin
All rights reserved.
Read BW's Review of This Book
OF AN OPEN
Sacrificing anonymity may be the next
generation's price for keeping precious
liberty, as prior generations paid in
You're wondering why I've called you
here. The reason is simple. To answer all
your questions. I mean--all. This is the
greatest news of our time. As of today,
whatever you want to know, provided it's
in the data-net, you can know. In other
words, there are no more secrets.
THE SHOCKWAVE RIDER, 1974
This is a tale of two cities. Cities of the near future, say ten or
twenty years from now.
Barring something unforeseen, you are apt to be living in one of these
two places. Your only choice may be which one.
At first sight, these two municipalities look pretty much alike. Both
contain dazzling technological marvels, especially in the realm of
electronic media. Both suffer familiar urban quandaries of frustration
and decay. If some progress is being made in solving human problems, it
is happening gradually. Perhaps some kids seem better educated. The air
may be marginally cleaner. People still worry about overpopulation, the
environment, and the next international crisis.
None of these features is of interest to us right now, for we have
noticed something about both of these twenty-first-century cities that is
radically different. A trait that marks them as distinct from any
metropolis of the late 1990s.
Street crime has nearly vanished from both towns. But that is only a
symptom, a result.
The real change peers down from every lamppost, every rooftop and
Tiny cameras, panning left and right, survey traffic and pedestrians,
observing everything in open view.
Have we entered an Orwellian nightmare? Have the burghers of both towns
banished muggings at the cost of creating a Stalinist dystopia?
Consider city number one. In this place, all the myriad cameras report
their urban scenes straight to Police Central, where security officers
use sophisticated image processors to scan for infractions against public
order--or perhaps against an established way of thought. Citizens walk the
streets aware that any word or deed may be noted by agents of some
Now let's skip across space and time.
At first sight, things seem quite similar in city number two. Again,
ubiquitous cameras perch on every vantage point. Only here we soon find
a crucial difference. These devices do not report to the secret police.
Rather, each and every citizen of this metropolis can use his or her
wristwatch television to call up images from any camera in town.
Here a late-evening stroller checks to make sure no one lurks beyond
the corner she is about to turn.
Over there a tardy young man dials to see if his dinner date still
waits for him by a city fountain.
A block away, an anxious parent scans the area to find which way her
child wandered off.
Over by the mall, a teenage shoplifter is taken into custody
gingerly, with minute attention to ritual and rights, because the
arresting officer knows that the entire process is being scrutinized by
untold numbers who watch intently, lest her neutral professionalism
In city number two, such microcameras are banned from some indoor
places ... but not from police headquarters! There any citizen may tune in
on bookings, arraignments, and especially the camera control room itself,
making sure that the agents on duty look out for violent crime, and only
Despite their initial similarity, these are very different cities,
representing disparate ways of life, completely opposite relationships
between citizens and their civic guardians. The reader may find both
situations somewhat chilling. Both futures may seem undesirable. But can
there be any doubt which city we'd rather live in, if these two make up
our only choice?
Alas, they do appear to be our only options. For the cameras are on their
way, along with data networks that will send a myriad images flashing
back and forth, faster than thought.
In fact, the future has already arrived. The trend began in Britain a
decade ago, in the town of King's Lynn, where sixty remote-controlled
video cameras were installed to scan known "trouble spots," reporting
directly to police headquarters. The resulting reduction in street crime
exceeded all predictions; in or near zones covered by surveillance, crime
dropped to one-seventieth of the former rate. The savings in patrol costs
alone paid for the equipment in a few months. Dozens of cities and towns
soon followed the example of King's Lynn. Glasgow, Scotland, reported a
68 percent drop in crime citywide, while police in Newcastle fingered
over 1,500 perpetrators with taped evidence. (All but seven pleaded
guilty, and those seven were later convicted.) In May 1997, Newcastle
soccer fans rampaged through downtown streets. Detectives studying video
tapes picked out 152 faces and published 80 photographs in local
newspapers. In days, all were identified.
Today, over 300,000 cameras are in place throughout the United
Kingdom, transmitting round-the-clock images to a hundred constabularies,
all of them reporting decreases in public misconduct. Polls report that
the cameras are extremely popular with citizens, though British civil
libertarian John Wadham and others have bemoaned this proliferation of
snoop technology, claiming, "It could be used for any other purpose, and
of course it could be abused."
Visitors to Japan, Thailand, and Singapore will see that other
countries are rapidly following the British example, using closed circuit
television (CCTV) to supervise innumerable public areas.
This trend was slower coming to North America, but it appears to be
taking off. After initial experiments garnered widespread public
approval, the City of Baltimore put police cameras to work scanning all
106 downtown intersections. In 1997, New York City began its own program
to set up twenty-four-hour remote surveillance in Central Park, subway
stations, and other public places.
No one denies the obvious and dramatic short-term benefits derived
from this early proliferation of surveillance technology. That is not the
real issue. In the long run, the sovereign folk of Baltimore and
countless other communities will have to make the same choice as the
inhabitants of our two mythical cities. Who will ultimately control the
Consider a few more examples.
How many parents have wanted to be a fly
on the wall while their child was at day care? This is now
possible with a new video monitoring system known as Kindercam, linked
to high-speed telephone lines and a central Internet server. Parents can
log on, type "www.kindercam.com," enter their password, and access a
live view of their child in day care at any time, from anywhere in
the world. Kindercam will be installed in two thousand day-care
facilities nationwide by the end of 1998. Mothers on business trips,
fathers who live out of state, even distant grandparents can all "drop
in" on their child daily. Drawbacks? Overprotective parents may check
compulsively. And now other parents can observe your child misbehaving!
Some of the same parents are less happy about the lensed pickups that
are sprouting in their own workplaces, enabling supervisors to tune in
on them in the same way they use Kindercam to check up on their kids.
That is, if they notice the cameras at all. At present, engineers can
squeeze the electronics for a video unit into a package smaller than a
sugar cube. Complete sets half the size of a pack of cigarettes were
recently offered for sale by the Spy Shop, a little store in New York
City located two blocks from the United Nations. Meanwhile, units with
radio transmitters are being disguised in clock radios, telephones, and
toasters, as part of the burgeoning "nannycam" trend. So high is demand
for these pickups, largely by parents eager to check on their
babysitters, that just one firm in Orange County, California, has
recently been selling from five hundred to one thousand disguised cameras
a month. By the end of 1997, prices had dropped from $2,500 to $399.
Cameras aren't the only surveillance devices proliferating in our
cities. Starting with Redwood City, near San Francisco, several police
departments have begun lacing neighborhoods with sound pickups that
transmit directly back to headquarters. Using triangulation techniques,
officials can now pinpoint bursts of gunfire and send patrol units
swiftly to the scene, without having to wait for vague telephone reports
from neighbors. In 1995 the Defense Department awarded a $1.7 million
contract to Alliant Techsystems for its prototype system SECURES, which
tests more advanced sound pickup networks in Washington and other cities.
The hope is to distinguish not only types of gunfire but also human
voices crying for help.
So far, so good. But from there, engineers say it would be simple to
upgrade the equipment, enabling bored monitors to eavesdrop through open
bedroom windows on cries of passion, or family arguments. "Of course we
would never go that far," one official said, reassuringly.
Consider another piece of James Bond apparatus now available to anyone
with ready cash. Today, almost any electronics store will sell you night
vision goggles using state-of-the-art infrared optics equal to those
issued by the military, for less than the price of a video camera. AGEMA
Systems, of Syracuse, New York, has sold several police departments
imaging devices that can peer into houses from the street, discriminate
the heat given off by indoor marijuana cultivators, and sometimes tell if
a person inside moves from one room to the next. Military and civilian
enhanced vision technologies now move in lockstep, as they have in the
computer field for years.
In other words, even darkness no longer guarantees privacy.
Nor does your garden wall. In 1995, Admiral William A. Owens, then
vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described a sensor system
that he expected to be operational within a few years: a pilotless drone,
equipped to provide airborne surveillance for soldiers in the field.
While camera robots in the $1 million range have been flying in the
military for some time, the new system will be extraordinarily cheap and
simple. Instead of requiring a large support crew, it will be controlled
by one semi-skilled soldier and will fit in the palm of a hand. Minuscule
and quiet, such remote-piloted vehicles, or RPVs, may flit among trees to
survey threats near a rifle platoon. When mass-produced in huge
quantities, unit prices will fall.
Can civilian models be far behind? No law or regulation will keep them
from our cities for very long. The rich, the powerful, and figures of
authority will have them, whether legally or surreptitiously. And the
contraptions will become smaller, cheaper, and smarter with each passing
So much for the supposed privacy enjoyed by sunbathers in their own
Moreover, surveillance cameras are the tip of the metaphorical
iceberg. Other entrancing and invasive innovations of the vaunted
information age abound. Will a paper envelope protect the correspondence
you send by old-fashioned surface mail when new-style scanners can trace
the patterns of ink inside without ever breaking the seal?
Let's say you correspond with others by e-mail and use a computerized
encryption program to ensure that your messages are read only by the
intended recipient. What good will all the ciphers and codes do, if some
adversary has bought a "back door" password to your encoding program? Or
if a wasp-sized camera drone flits into your room, sticks to the ceiling
above your desk, inflates a bubble lens, and watches every keystroke that
you type? (A number of such unnerving techno-possibilities will be
discussed in chapter 8.)
In late 1997 it was revealed that Swiss police had secretly tracked
the whereabouts of mobile phone users via a telephone company computer
that records billions of movements per year. Swisscom was able to locate
its mobile subscribers within a few hundred meters. This aided several
police investigations. But civil libertarians expressed heated concern,
especially since identical technology is used worldwide.
The same issues arise when we contemplate the proliferation of vast
databases containing information about our lives, habits, tastes, and
personal histories. As we shall see in chapter 3, the cash register
scanners in a million supermarkets, video stores, and pharmacies already
pour forth a flood of statistical data about customers and their
purchases, ready to be correlated. (Are you stocking up on hemorrhoid
cream? Renting a daytime motel room? The database knows.) Corporations
claim this information helps them serve us more efficiently. Critics
respond that it gives big companies an unfair advantage, enabling them
to know vastly more about us than we do about them. Soon, computers will
hold all your financial and educational records, legal documents, and
medical analyses that parse you all the way down to your genes. Any of
this might be examined by strangers without your knowledge, or even
against your stated will.
As with those streetlamp cameras, the choices we make regarding future
information networks--how they will be controlled and who can access the
data--will affect our own lives and those of our children and their
A MODERN CONCERN
The issue of threatened privacy has spawned a flood of books, articles,
and media exposes--from Janna Malamud Smith's thoughtful Private Matters,
and Ellen Alderman and Caroline Kennedy's erudite Right to Privacy all
the way to shrill, paranoic rants by conspiracy fetishists who see Big
Brother lurking around every corner. Spanning this spectrum, however,
there appears to be one common theme. Often the author has responded with
a call to arms, proclaiming that we must become more vigilant to protect
traditional privacy against intrusions by faceless (take your pick)
government bureaucrats, corporations, criminals, or just plain
That is the usual conclusion--but not the one taken here.
For in fact, it is already far too late to prevent the invasion of
cameras and databases. The djinn cannot be crammed back into its bottle.
No matter how many laws are passed, it will prove quite impossible to
legislate away the new surveillance tools and databases. They are here to
Light is going to shine into nearly every corner of our lives.
The real issue facing citizens of a new century will be how mature
adults choose to live--how they can compete, cooperate, and thrive--in such
a world. A transparent society.
Regarding those cameras, for instance --the ones atop every lamppost in
both city one and city two--we can see that very different styles of urban
life resulted from just one decision, based on how people in each town
answered the following question.
Will average citizens share, along with the mighty, the right to access
these universal monitors? Will common folk have, and exercise, a sovereign
power to watch the watchers?
Back in city number one, Joe and Jane Doe may walk through an average
day never thinking about those microcameras overhead. They might even
believe official statements claiming that all the spy eyes were banished
and dismantled a year or two ago, when in fact they were only made
smaller, harder to detect. Jane and Joe stroll secure that their
neighbors cannot spy on them (except the old-fashioned way, from
overlooking windows). In other words, Jane and Joe blissfully believe
they have privacy.
The inhabitants of city number two know better. They realize that, out
of doors at least, complete privacy has always been an illusion. They
know anyone can tune in to that camera on the lamppost--and they don't
much care. They perceive what really matters: that they live in a town
where the police are efficient, respectful, and above all accountable.
Homes are sacrosanct, but out on the street any citizen, from the richest
to the poorest, can both walk safely and use the godlike power to zoom at
will from vantage point to vantage point, viewing all the lively wonders
of the vast but easily spanned village their metropolis has become, as if
by some magic it had turned into a city not of people but of birds.
Sometimes, citizens of city number two find it tempting to wax
nostalgic about the old days, before there were so many cameras, or
before television invaded the home, or before the telephone and
automobile. But for the most part, city number two's denizens know that
those times are gone, never to return. Above all, one thing makes life
bearable: the surety that each person knows what is going on, with a say
in what will happen next. And has rights equal to those of any
billionaire or chief of police.
This little allegory--like all allegories--may be a gross
oversimplification. For instance, in our projected city of "open
access," citizens will have ten thousand decisions to make. Here are just
a few examples:
* Since one might conceivably use these devices to
follow someone home, should convicted felons be forbidden access to the
* Might any person order up a search program, using sophisticated
pattern-recognition software to scan a throng of passersby and zero in on
a specific face? If such "traps" could be laid all over town, a lot of
fugitives might be brought to justice. But will individuals ever again be
able to seek anonymity in a crowd? Will people respond by wearing masks
in public? Or will safety ultimately come when people unleash their own
search programs, to alert the watched about their watchers?
* When should these supercameras be allowed indoors? If cameras keep getting
smaller and more mobile, like wasp-size drones, what kind of defenses
might protect us against Peeping Toms, or police spies, flying such
devices through the open windows of our homes?
The list of possible quandaries goes on and on. Such an endless
complexity of choices may cause some citizens of city number two to envy
the simplicity of life in city number one, where only big business, the
state, and certain well-heeled criminals possess these powers. That elite
will in turn try to foster a widespread illusion among the populace that
the cameras don't exist. Some folk will prefer a fantasy of privacy over
the ambiguity and arduous decisions faced by citizens of city number two.
There is nothing new in this. All previous generations faced
quandaries the outcomes of which changed history. When Thomas Jefferson
prescribed a revolution every few decades, he was speaking not only
politically but also about the constant need to remain flexible and adapt
to changing circumstances, to innovate as needed, while at the same time
staying true to those values we hold unchanging and precious. Our
civilization is already a noisy one precisely because we have chosen
freedom and mass sovereignty, so that the citizenry itself must
constantly argue out the details, instead of leaving them to some
committee of sages.
What distinguishes society today is not only the pace of events but
also the nature of our tool kit for facing the future. Above all, what
has marked our civilization as different is its knack for applying two
extremely hard-won lessons from the past.
In all of history, we have found just one cure for error--a partial
antidote against making and repeating grand, foolish mistakes,
a remedy against self-deception. That antidote is criticism.
Scientists have known this for a long time. It is the keystone of
their success. A scientific theory gains respect only by surviving
repeated attempts to demolish it. Only after platoons of clever critics
have striven to come up with refuting evidence, forcing changes, do a few
hypotheses eventually graduate from mere theories to accepted models of
Another example is capitalism. When it works, under just and impartial
rules, the free market rewards agility, hard work, and innovation, just
as it punishes the stock prices of companies that make too many mistakes.
Likewise, any believer in evolution knows that death is the ultimate form
of criticism, a merciless driver, transforming species over time.
Even in our private and professional lives, mature people realize that
improvement comes only when we open ourselves to learn from our mistakes,
no matter how hard we have to grit our teeth, when others tell us we were
wrong. Which brings us to our second observation.
Alas, criticism has always been what human beings,
especially leaders, most hate to hear.
This ironic contradiction, which I will later refer to as the "Paradox
of the Peacock," has had profound and tragic effects on human culture for
centuries. Accounts left by past ages are filled with woeful events in
which societies and peoples suffered largely because openness and free
speech were suppressed, leaving the powerful at liberty to make
devastating blunders without comment or consent from below.
If neo-Western civilization has one great trick in its repertoire, a
technique more responsible than any other for its success, that trick is
accountability. Especially the knack--which no other culture ever
mastered--of making accountability apply to the mighty. True, we still
don't manage it perfectly. Gaffes, bungles, and inanities still get
covered up. And yet, one can look at any newspaper or television news
program and see an eager press corps at work, supplemented by hordes of
righteously indignant individuals (and their lawyers), all baying for
waste or corruption to be exposed, secrets to be unveiled, and nefarious
schemes to be nipped in the bud. Disclosure is a watchword of the age,
and politicians have grudgingly responded by passing the Freedom of
Information Act (FOIA), truth-in-lending laws, open-meeting rules, and
codes to enforce candor in real estate, in the nutritional content of
foodstuffs, in the expense accounts of lobbyists, and so on.
Although this process of stripping off veils has been uneven, and
continues to be a source of contention, the underlying moral force can
clearly be seen pervading our popular culture, in which nearly every
modern film or novel seems to preach the same message--suspicion of
authority. The phenomenon is not new to our generation. Schoolbooks teach
that freedom is guarded by constitutional "checks and balances," but those
same legal provisions were copied, early in the nineteenth century, by
nearly every new nation of Latin America, and not one of them remained
consistently free. In North America, constitutional balances worked only
because they were supplemented by a powerful mythic tradition, expounded
in story, song, and now virtually every Hollywood film, that any undue
accumulation of power should be looked on with concern.
Above all, we are encouraged to distrust government.
The late Karl Popper pointed out the importance of this mythology in
the dark days during and after World War II, in The Open Society and Its
Enemies. Only by insisting on accountability, he concluded, can we
constantly remind public servants that they are servants. It is also how
we maintain some confidence that merchants aren't cheating us, or that
factories aren't poisoning the water. As inefficient and irascibly noisy
as it seems at times, this habit of questioning authority ensures freedom
far more effectively than any of the older social systems that were based
on reverence or trust.
And yet, another paradox rears up every time one interest group tries
to hold another accountable in today's society.
Whenever a conflict arises between privacy and accountability,
people demand the former for themselves and the latter
for everybody else.
The rule seems to hold in almost every realm of modern life, from
special prosecutors investigating the finances of political figures to
worried parents demanding that lists of sex offenders be made public.
From merchants anxious to see their customers' credit reports to clients
who resent such snooping. From people who "need" caller ID to screen
their calls to those worried that their lives might be threatened if they
lose telephone anonymity. From activists demanding greater access to
computerized government records in order to hunt patterns of corruption
or incompetence in office to other citizens who worry about the release
of personal information contained in those very same records.
Recent years have witnessed widespread calls to "empower" citizens and
corporations with tools of encryption--the creation of ciphers and secret
codes--so that the Internet and telephone lines may soon fill with a
blinding fog of static and concealed messages, a haze of habitual masks
and routine anonymity. Some of society's best and brightest minds have
begun extolling a coming "golden age of privacy," when no one need ever
again fear snooping by bureaucrats, federal agents, or in-laws. The
prominent iconoclast John Gilmore, who favors "law `n' chaos over law
'n' order," recently proclaimed that computers are literally extensions
of our minds, and that their contents should therefore remain as private
as our inner thoughts. Another activist, John Perry Barlow, published a
widely discussed "Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace" proclaiming
that the mundane jurisdictions of nations and their archaic laws are
essentially powerless and irrelevant to the Internet and its denizens (or
"netizens"). Among the loose clan of self-proclaimed "cypherpunks," a
central goal is that citizens should be armed with broad new powers to
conceal their words, actions, and identities. The alternative, they
claim, will be for all our freedoms to succumb to a looming tyranny.
In opposing this modern passion for personal and corporate secrecy, I
should first emphasize that I like privacy! Outspoken eccentrics need it,
probably as much or more than those who are reserved. I would find it
hard to get used to living in either of the cities described in the
example at the beginning of this chapter. But a few voices out there have
begun pointing out the obvious. Those cameras on every street corner are
coming, as surely as the new millennium.
Oh, we may agitate and legislate. But can "privacy laws" really
prevent hidden eyes from getting tinier, more mobile, and clever? In
software form they will cruise the data highways. "Antibug" technologies
will arise, but the resulting surveillance arms race can hardly favor the
"little guy." The rich, the powerful, police agencies, and a
technologically skilled elite will always have an advantage.
In the long run, as author Robert Heinlein prophesied years ago, will
the chief effect of privacy laws simply be to "make the bugs smaller"?
The subtitle of this book--Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between
Privacy and Freedom?--is intentionally provocative. As we'll see, I think
such a stark choice can be avoided. It may be possible to have both
liberty and some shelter from prying eyes.
But suppose the future does present us with an absolute either-or
decision, to select just one, at the cost of the other. In that case,
there can be no hesitation.
Privacy is a highly desirable product of liberty. If we remain free
and sovereign, we may have a little privacy in our bedrooms and
sanctuaries. As citizens, we'll be able to demand some.
But accountability is no side benefit. It is the one fundamental
ingredient on which liberty thrives. Without the accountability that
derives from openness--enforceable upon even the mightiest individuals
and institutions--how can freedom survive?
In the information age to come, cameras and databases will sprout like
poppies--or weeds--whether we like it or not. Over the long haul, we as a
people must decide the following questions:
Can we stand living exposed to scrutiny, our secrets laid open,
if in return we get flashlights of our own that we can shine on
anyone who might do us harm--even the arrogant and strong?
Or is an illusion of privacy worth any price, even the cost of
surrendering our own right to pierce the schemes of the powerful?
There are no easy answers, but asking questions can be a good first step.
THE PRIVACY WE ALREADY HAVE
Much of this chapter up to now appeared earlier as a published article
and has since been perused online by interested parties around the globe.
Their varied comments opened my eyes to a wide range of opinions about
freedom, privacy, and candor. From philosophers to steelworkers, it seems
that each person views such things differently. Especially privacy,
which, like the fabled elephant fondled by a dozen blind sages, is
described uniquely by each beholder.
Even legal scholars cannot agree what the word means. American
judicial rulings tend to treat privacy as a highly subjective and
contingent commodity, a matter of trade-offs and balanced interests,
whereas freedom of speech and freedom of the press are defended with
sweeping judgments of broad generality. Some reasons for this difference
will be discussed in chapter 3, where privacy is examined from many
angles and shown to be the exquisite desideratum that it is. Indeed,
without some privacy, we could scarcely function as humans. A chief aim
of this book is to explore whether--and how much--privacy can be
safeguarded in a coming era of cameras and databases.
Alas, although it seems intuitive to protect privacy by erecting
barriers to information flow, there may be good reason to question that
assumption. Although I shall put off a more involved discussion until
later, let me briefly illustrate with a restaurant analogy.
We all know it is possible to be alone, or hold intimate
conversations, in a public place, It bothers people to be stared at,
especially while eating, yet we dine in crowded restaurants all the
time, fairly secure that most of the eyes surrounding us aren't looking
our way, at least not very often. We don't achieve this confidence by
wearing masks, or because laws require other customers to wear blinkers
and blindfolds. Mutual civility and common decency play a role, but not
An added factor that helps deter people from staring is not wanting
to be caught in the act. The embarrassment accrued by a voyeur caught
observing you is greater than your chagrin at being seen by the voyeur
with asparagus in your teeth. Open visibility seems to favor defense over
All right, it's not perfect, but it works overall.
Now suppose we try to improve things by passing laws and sending forth
regulators with clipboards commanding all restaurants to erect a maze of
paper shoji screens to keep customers from ogling other patrons. Will
this prevent people from staring, or encourage them? Without any
plausible likelihood of getting caught, might voyeurs use technology, in
this case poking tiny holes, to penetrate the "protective" curtain? No
longer deterred, could peepers stare with impunity?
The restaurant analogy is just a thought experiment. But it suggests
that there is no dichotomy between accountability and privacy. Rather,
you may need one to get the other.
WHAT LIES AHEAD
We must cover important ground before getting to the kernel of the
argument over transparency. So chapter 2 begins by comparing the bright
new information age with other highly vaunted "eras" that left
disappointment in their wake. Cynical observers already predict the same
demise for the swaggering epoch of silicon and electrons, yet new
cybernetic tools may help bring a time of unprecedented opportunity,
assisting hard-pressed humanity with pragmatic solutions to many vexing
Chapters 3 and 4 explore the nature and practical limits of privacy,
how it is perceived by the law, and the looming question of whether
information is a commodity that can be owned, focusing especially on the
role of copyright protection to promote openness and creativity.
Ultimately, the big choices must be made by citizens, who will either
defend their freedom or surrender it, as others did in the past. Chapter
5 examines some peculiar traits of neo-Western civilization, a quirky and
amorphous global super society that fosters eccentricity and ego the way
other cultures have extolled obedience or physical courage, Chapter 6
then considers how lessons of accountability may apply to everyone from
cops to social rebels, as we learn to "watch the watchmen."
Along the way, in secondary interludes following each numbered
chapter, we will take a look at several topics of survival in the
information age, including the worrisome problems of photographic fakery
and computerized extortion, as well as the ongoing question of whether we
should concentrate on ideals, or on what works.
(End notes, references, and supplementary material for each chapter
can be found in a section at the back of this book.)
Chapter 7 gets into "nitty gritty" issues concerning encryption
(secret codes) and anonymity, two prescriptions that are highly touted by
some of society's best and brightest cyberphilosophers. Chapter 8 covers
some pragmatic problems, such as the controversy concerning names,
passwords, Social Security numbers, and national ID cards.
Any honest person must consider the possibility that he or she might
be mistaken, so chapter 9 is where I do that. Among other things, I
discuss whether mathematicians think encryption can really offer security
against data spying by the biggest government computers. The chapter also
covers a range of possible ways in which "transparency" might turn into a
nightmare, especially if my sanguine views of the advantages turn out to
Finally, chapters 10 and 11 will expand the context of discussion to
encompass the security of global civilization, pondering whether we at
last have the tools to avoid the errors that toppled so many societies in
But first, let's consider the nature of open societies.
THE GHOST OF PERICLES
We live in a time that spills over with contradictions. Extraordinary
wealth gushes alongside grinding poverty. Episodes of horrific bloodshed
contrast starkly with unprecedented stretches of peace, in which billions
of living human beings have never personally experienced war. Within a
single life span we've seen great burgeonings of freedom--and the worst
tyrannies of all time. To find another era with as dramatic a range of
highs and lows, you might go back twenty-five centuries, when another
"golden age" posed towering hopes against cynicism and despair.
Like the world of today, classical Athens featured profound bursts of
creativity in science, culture, and the arts. But above all, the vision
we tend to retain is that city's brief adventure in democracy, a brave
experiment that lasted just a little while and would not be tried again
in a big way for two millennia.
Even staunch fans of Athenian democracy admit it was imperfect by
present-day standards; for instance, women, slaves, and those not born in
the city had few rights. Yet its relative egalitarianism was impressive
in an age of hereditary chiefdoms and arbitrary potentates. Across
centuries of darkness, from that democracy to this one, the lonely voice
of Pericles spoke for an open society, where citizens are equal before
the law and where influence is apportioned "not as a matter of privilege,
but as a reward for merit; and poverty is not a bar...."
The virtues of this notion may seem obvious to modern readers. Today,
citizens of many nations--those that I call neo-Western--assume that
principles of equality and human rights are fundamental, even axiomatic
(though they are often contentious to implement in practice).
So it can be surprising to learn just how rare this attitude was,
historically. In fact, Pericles and his allies were roundly derided by
contemporary scholars. Countless later generations of intellectuals and
oligarchs called democracy an aberration, ranking it among the least
important products of the Athenian golden age. Even during the Italian
Renaissance, Niccolo Machiavelli had to mask his sympathy for
representative government between the lines of The Prince, in order to
please his aristocratic sponsors. After Athens's flickering candle blew
out during the Peloponnesian War (431-403 B.C.E.), none was more eager to
cheer the demise of democracy than Plato, the so-called father of
Western philosophy. He wrote:
The greatest principle of all is that nobody should be without a leader.
Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to do anything at all on his
own initiative; neither out of zeal, nor even playfully.... In a word,
he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting
independently, and to become utterly incapable of it.
Partly due to the influence of Plato and his followers--and for reasons
discussed in chapter 5 of this book--the democratic experiment was not
tried again on a large scale until the era of Locke, Jefferson, and
We all know in our hearts that freedom cannot survive such assaults,
unless it is defended by much more than good intentions. For a time, in
the middle of the twentieth century, it looked as if the Athenian tragedy
might happen again, when constitutional governments seemed about to be
overwhelmed by despots and ideologues. Writing under the shadow of
Hitler, and later Stalin, Karl Popper began The Open Society and Its
Enemies by appraising the relentless hatred for empiricism and democracy
that Plato passed on through his followers all the way to Hegel--a
philosophical heritage of self-serving, tendentious incantations (or
"reasoning") whose hypnotic rhythms were enthusiastically adapted by
innumerable rulers, from Hellenistic despots to Marxist-Leninist
commissars, many of them using contorted logic to justify their unchecked
power over others.
Looking back from the 1990s, when democracy seems strong--though hardly
triumphant--we can only imagine how delicate freedom must have seemed to
Popper, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and others writing in the 1940s and
1950s. Did they feel the ghost of Pericles hovering over their shoulders
as they worked? Would the candle blow out yet again?
Scanning history, those writers could see only a few other brief oases
of relative liberty--the Icelandic Althing, some Italian city-states, the
Iroquois Confederacy, and perhaps a couple of bright moments during the
Roman Republic, or the Baghdad Caliphate--surrounded by vast eras when
the social pyramid in every land was dominated by conspiracies of
privilege. Ruling elites varied widely in their superficial trappings.
Some styled themselves as kings or oligarchs, while others were priests,
bureaucrats, merchant princes, or "servants of the people." But nearly
all used similar methods to justify and secure the accumulation and
monopolization of privilege.
One paramount technique was to control the flow of information.
Tyrants were always most vulnerable when those below could see and hear
the details of power and statecraft.
Today, the light appears much stronger than in Popper's day, and new
technologies such as the Internet seem about to enhance the sovereign
authority of citizens even further. Yet the problem remains as
fundamental and worrisome as ever: What measures can we take to ensure
that freedom, instead of being a rare exception, will become the normal,
natural, and stable condition for ourselves and our descendants?
In fairness, this same unease motivates many of those who oppose the
notion of a "transparent society." They share the apprehension Orwell
conveyed so chillingly in Nineteen Eighty-Four: that freedom may vanish
unless people promptly and vigorously oppose the forces that threaten it.
So from the start, let me say to them that we are not arguing about
goals, but rather the best means to achieve them.
That still leaves room for disagreement, for instance, over whether
the sole peril originates from national governments, or whether dangerous
power centers may arise from any part of the sociopolitical landscape.
Moreover, we differ over which tools will best help stave off tyranny.
Metaphorically speaking, some very bright people suggest that citizens of
the twenty-first century will be best protected by masks and shields,
while I prefer the image of a light saber.
These glib metaphors may cue readers that I won't be presenting
an erudite or academic tome on the same level as Popper's The Open
Society and Its Enemies, and that is certainly true. I shall not claim
to prove or demolish any broad social rules. Above all, this book does
not push an absurd overgeneralization that candor is always superior to
secrecy! Only that transparency is underrepresented in today's fervid
discussions about privacy and freedom in the information age. My sole
aim is to stir some fresh ideas into the cauldron.
If we have learned anything during the hard centuries since Pericles
and his allies tried to light a flickering beacon in the night, it is
that we owe our hard-won freedom and prosperity to an empirical
tradition--in science, free markets, and the rough-tumble world of
democracy. Only mathematicians can "prove" things using pen and paper.
The rest of us have to take our ideas pragmatically into the real world
and see what works.
In other words, this is not a book of grand prescriptions (though some
suggestions are offered). I plan chiefly to discuss underutilized tools
of openness and light that have served us well in the past.
Before getting to those suggestions, we need to establish some context
about today's public debate over privacy. In keeping with the theme of
this book, I rank the players and their arguments according to what
effect their proposals would have on the flow of information in society.
Take Megan's Law, for example. Under a 1994 U.S. federal mandate, all
fifty states have begun publishing registers of sexual offenders, which
will lead eventually to a nationwide database. California provides this
information on a CD-ROM disk that can be viewed at most police
headquarters, letting parents, school officials, and other interested
parties survey over 65,000 names (and many photos) for "potential
molesters" who may live or work in their area. Activists supporting this
system portray it as a way to ensure accountability in an area of life
where a single mistake can lead to tragedy.
Foes of the measure, including the American Civil Liberties Union
(ACLU), claim that the rights of former prisoners are violated by this
registry, which can be regarded as a nonjudicial additional penalty
slapped onto the sentences of convicts who have already paid their debt
to society. Opponents also cite anecdotes in which individuals suffered
because they were erroneously listed, showing that innocents can be
harmed by hastily and overzealously opening spigots of potentially faulty
As far as this book is concerned, the relative merits of Megan's Law
are not at issue. Rather, this struggle simply serves to illustrate two
opposing traits that appear in countless other modern privacy disputes.
A. One party believes that another group is inherently dangerous, and
that its potential to do harm is exacerbated by secrecy. Therefore,
accountability must be forced upon that group through enhanced flow of
B. The other party argues that some vital good will be
threatened by heightened candor, and hence wants the proposed data flow
Watch for this pattern as we go along. We shall see that it is almost
ubiquitous when people take a stand on knowledge disputes. In chapter 7,
for instance, we'll discuss many and varied "Clipper" proposals that have
been floated by the FBI and other federal agencies concerned about the
potential of data and voice encryption to conceal criminal or terrorist
activities behind a static haze. Officials worry that widespread use of
electronic ciphers will thwart traditional surveillance techniques, such
as court-ordered wiretaps, enabling dangerous villains to conspire in
security and secrecy. They want to retain the level of vision and
accountability that they traditionally held in an era of crude analog
A coalition of groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation
(EFF) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), joined
numerous journalists and private persons to lambaste the Clipper
proposals, depicting them as encroachments by government on freedom and
privacy in cyberspace. Often, they couched the threat in dramatic terms,
as the opening move in a trend toward a Big Brother dictatorship. In any
event, they point out that the FBI seeks a data flow enhancement that
would go just one way, to government officials.
In this example, the FBI's proposal fits pattern A, while their
adversaries fill position B. But these roles are often reversed! Take the
ongoing struggle faced by anyone seeking documents from a federal agency
under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Although many officials are
forthcoming and cooperative, others react with hostility against any
attempt to enforce accountability. They drag their feet, cite national
security, and sometimes use privacy concerns to justify noncompliance.
It can be fascinating to watch the very same players take turns
performing roles A and B, without any apparent awareness of irony or
inconsistency. Some groups justify this conditional attitude toward
information flow by assuming that government will always and
automatically be wrong, whether it is trying to open a data spigot or
attempting to close one down
The same pattern can be seen in other areas of modern society. For
instance, when a corporation starts spying on its employees, tracking
every computer keystroke, timing each phone call, reading everyone's
e-mail, and logging trips to the bathroom, managers justify these actions
as essential for efficient conduct of business and to ensure staff
accountability. Opponents decry such practices as violating basic human
rights, calling for a shutdown of the offensive data flow.
Those same opponents then turn around and file suit to force release
of proprietary company documents--for the public good, of course--seeking
to widen the particular spigot that they choose.
These issues will all be discussed later. I am not making value
judgments at this point, only noting a consistent pattern that will help
us explore why we often take one-sided positions, self-righteously
demanding far more openness from our opponents than we want applied to
Matters of privacy, accountability, and freedom are often judged first
and foremost on the basis of whose ox is being gored.
In the following chapters, I use a catch-all phrase, "strong privacy
advocates," to label those who are most outspoken against
"transparency." From the start, let me state that this term
oversimplifies a wide range of groups and individuals. For instance, many
ACLU members do not share the generalized antipathy toward government
that is a common premise of "cypherpunk" activists like Hal Finney and
Tim May. Although liberals and libertarians both see themselves staunchly
combating dire threats to freedom, they often find themselves vigilantly
facing in opposite directions.
As we'll see later, the prescriptions proposed by those I put in this
camp also cover a wide range. For instance, some groups like the ACLU
lobby for new legislation to prevent misuse of private data by
corporations and snooping government agencies. This is sometimes called
the "European model," since members of the European Union have been
extremely active in setting up rules and regulations to govern who has
the right to collect, withhold, or control the use of personal
information. At one extreme of this trend are those who demand legal
recognition that individuals have a basic right of ownership over any and
all data about themselves: no one should be able to use any fact or datum
concerning you--not even your name--without your explicit permission.
Supporting a quite different approach are some of the most vivid and
original thinkers of the information age. John Gilmore, Esther Dyson,
John Perry Barlow, and others on the (roughly) libertarian wing were in
the vanguard fighting against both the Clipper proposal and the
Communications Decency Act. Seeing little need or value in new laws, they
hold that technology will be a key factor in defending liberty during the
coming era. Fresh tools of encryption and electronic anonymity will
protect individuals against intrusive spying by others, and especially by
the state. What they demand, therefore, is that government stand back and
not interfere as a myriad anonymous personae and enciphered secrets
throng across the dataways.
Taking this attitude to far greater extremes are the "anarcho"
libertarians, such as financier Walter Wriston, who take pleasure in
predicting a virtual end to all government, opening an age of unbridled and
Straddling the cypherpunks and lobbyists are some of the newer online
privacy groups, for example, EPIC and the Center for Democracy and
Technology, which support crypto-technologies while still seeking to
influence laws and regulations, a mix that sometimes leaves them seeming
to pull in two directions at once. Others, like the Privacy Rights
Clearinghouse (PRC), emphasize a strictly pragmatic approach. A book by
PRC project director Beth Givens offers copious practical advice about
how "little guys" can use today's legal protections to take some control
of their credit ratings, their medical records, or whether their names
will proliferate endlessly across countless irritating mailing lists.
This short compilation leaves out many other players, but it is enough
to illustrate a single trait shared by all, the belief that modern
concerns about freedom and privacy can often be solved by some specific
or general reduction in the flow of information, or by making the stream
flow in just one direction. Whether they advocate new laws, technologies,
or practical savvy, each would empower people and groups to conceal
things. For want of a better term, "strong privacy" will have to do.
In fact, I admire many of these advocates for their intelligence,
passion, and concern. We would all be a lot worse off if they weren't out
there, pitching their ideas.
In some cases, they are probably right.
But there is another side to the issue. One that needs to be heard.
I am not the only one speaking for transparency, the notion that we may
all benefit by carefully increasing two-way information flows. In
addition to the names mentioned earlier in this chapter, some others
should be noted.
Jack Stack, already a business legend for transforming his
manufacturing company from red ink to splendid profitability, hit
best-seller lists in the mid-1990s with his book The Great Game of
Business: Unlocking the Power and Profitability of Open-Book Management,
in which he advocates letting all of a company's employees view the
ledgers. By welcoming input and oversight from every level, he claims,
managers profit from a much wider pool of criticism and good ideas. This
doesn't mean giving up executive authority, but it does engender in staff
at all levels a sense of personal identification with team success--even
when the "team" consists of several thousand employees. Stack's simple
argument shrugs aside all theory. He makes no pretensions to ideology.
His basis for open-book management is pragmatic, It works in good times,
and especially well in hard times. It is a formula for success.
Unfortunately, as we'll see in chapter 5, it takes maturity and
willpower for any kind of authority figure to loosen the reins of
control, even when doing so clearly serves the greater good. Despite the
popularity of his book, Stack is swimming against powerful currents of
On the other hand, didn't I just spend the first half of this chapter
implying that transparency is inevitable?
Late in this book, we'll examine whether any single scenario about
tomorrow seems compellingly likely. Personally, I think the jury is still
out. But there is one celebrated author who contends that our fate has
already been decided. According to cartoonist-humorist Scott Adams, we
are destined for a world of universal vision, whether we like it or not.
In The Dilbert Future, Adams offers a look at the next century that is at
once both earnest and bitingly sardonic. Exploring many of the same
themes as this book--for instance, the notion that professional news
reporters will be replaced by swarms of amateurs with cameras--Adams takes
into account likely breakthroughs such as ubiquitous video, DNA matching,
and cybernetic scent-bloodhounds before reaching the following
"In the future, new technology will allow the police to solve
100 percent of all crimes. The bad news is that we'll realize 100
percent of the population are criminals, including the police."
Adams then makes the hilarious extrapolation that every human on the
planet will eventually land in jail for minor crimes, except the world's
smartest person who, since she was too clever to get caught, must
thereafter bear the tax burden of supporting everyone else in prison,
forever. Like Mark Twain and other great humorists, Adams uses outrageous
exaggeration to raise serious issues--in this case how we may respond when
our smallest peccadilloes become public knowledge. Will we become a
society of frantic finger-pointers and blamers? Or might we learn to
"chill out" when everyone realizes that people who live in glass houses
are unwise to cast stones?
At the opposite end of the "seriousness" spectrum from Adams, we find
Dartmouth physicist Arthur Kantrowitz and philanthropist-investor George
Soros, who have taken up the cause Karl Popper championed a generation
ago and are campaigning that an "open society" is healthiest when it
lives up to its name. Both men have been vigorous in promoting the notion
that free speech and transparency are not only good but absolutely
essential for maintaining a free, creative, and vigorous civilization.
Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired magazine, expressed the same
idea with the gritty clarity of information-age journalism: "The answer
to the whole privacy question is more knowledge. More knowledge about
who's watching you. More knowledge about the information that flows
between us--particularly the meta-information about who knows what and
where it's going."
In other words, we may not be able to eliminate the intrusive glare
shining on citizens of the next century, but the glare just might be
rendered harmless through the application of more light aimed in the
other direction. Nor is Kelly alone in this opinion among cyber-era
luminaries. Even some of the bright people I labeled earlier as "strong
privacy advocates"--Esther Dyson and John Perry Barlow, for
instance--have publicly mused that transparency might be preferable, if
only it could somehow be made to work. Said Barlow: "I have no secrets
myself, and I think that everybody would be a lot happier and safer if
they just let everything be known. Then, nobody could use anything
against them. But this is not the social norm at the moment."
If transparency is the requisite condition in science, democracy, and
free markets, it should come as no surprise that economists--who work at
the nexus of all three--find openness appealing. Many economists now
lean toward attributing most kinds of injustice, bureaucracy, and
societal inefficiency to asymmetric information flows--where one person or
group knows something that others don't. Pick an institution, and these
economists will talk about how the structure was chosen in response to
some information-related problem. When they examine causes of "market
failures" (things that make simple markets handle problems poorly) these
experts list uneven knowledge right at the top. Other reasons, such as
lack of complete competition, inability to commit, public goods, and
externalities, would be relatively easy to fix, via either contracts or
politics, if we all had symmetric information.
"In that case," says Robin Hanson, an economist at the University of
California, Berkeley, "we'd each know how much we expect to gain or lose
in a change. We could negotiate such changes in ways that made everyone
feel better off than before."
Hanson cites the following familiar problems: war, caused by one side
guessing wrong about the other's power or determination; lack of
trade, often due to buyers' unwillingness to admit how much they want
something; going to trial, like war, attributed to misreading what the
other side would settle for; law enforcement, costly and overbearing
because the police don't know who did what crimes; status consumerism,
buying visible but less valuable goods to show others that we can; the
collapse of mutually beneficial negotiations, being afraid that someone
else knows something we don't, and if they agree to a proposal, it must
be because it favors them in some way we haven't realized; monopoly,
causing losses because the monopolist can't discriminate price perfectly
and charge each person what it's worth to them; and rat races, working
too hard to convince employers that we really want success. All of these
problems arise because of limited or restricted information flows. With
improved knowledge on all sides, many governmental and nongovernmental
organizations might lose their purpose, lose their constituencies, and
possibly fade away.
Caltech professor John O. Ledyard points out that "asymmetric
information conveys a monopoly position on the holder of the information
that markets cannot easily overcome."
Although they generally favor transparency, economists warn that
information flows should be opened up evenly, lest one side or another
gain unfair advantage during the transition--a gradualist approach that is
supported throughout this book.
Finally, there are groups and individuals who believe in action,
rather than words, and providing the tools of transparency to those who
need it most. For example, the Witness Program donates video equipment
and training to human rights groups around the world, from Nigeria,
Rwanda, and Bosnia to Guatemala and Haiti. According to Witness cofounder
Peter Gabriel, "a camera in the right hands at the right time can be more
powerful than tanks or guns. Let truth do the fighting." Other groups
concentrate on U.S. inner cities, helping create neighborhood watch
programs to combat both crime and unprofessional police practices.
Meanwhile, Transparency International fights corruption by promoting open
legal and business practices around the world.
All of these efforts are aimed at making things better by increasing,
rather than decreasing, the flow of information and forging a path into
the future that takes advantage of light, as if the right to see will be
as vital tomorrow as the right to bear arms was yesterday. Nevertheless,
they would have little chance of success without help from powerful
social forces. Chapters 5 and 6 look at some trends in our strange,
quirky civilization that lean strongly toward rambunctious openness. If
transparency is not "inevitable," at least we are bound for interesting
THE CONCERNS OF NORMAL PEOPLE
Theory is fine, but in the long run society's course will be determined
by regular folks, whose concerns strike close to home. Here are some of
the apprehensions expressed by people who have written to me.
Is my boss recovering and reading all my deleted e-mail messages at work?
Is my supervisor metering my coffee breaks?
Will my medical records be shared with every insurance company and every
employer I submit an application to? Might my neighbors somehow snoop the
records of my therapist?
I'm worried about my dossier, kept by some secretive credit bureau. How
will reciprocal transparency protect me from the countless databases that
already have my name and Social Security number?
Can "openness" ever work both ways--applying equally against the
powerful--in a world that's suddenly filled with cameras?
Finally, there is the message I received from one woman reflecting a
somewhat different perspective.
I don't care so much about privacy. What have I got to hide that would
interest anybody? And even if they did learn everything about me, why
should I care? No, what bothers me is the same kinds of things that fret
most of the people I know. My family's safety, with crime all over. Not
knowing or having any say in what's happening each day to my kid in
school, if he's being beaten up or offered drugs. If I'm being robbed by
the companies and politicians, or if some maniac is going to swerve
around the next corner at ninety and splatter my brains. We live in
"gated-community" prisons, afraid of strangers, afraid to let our kids
play in the street. Ask me what I'd trade, to have these worries lifted
off of me!
All our fancy social speculations won't matter if we can't address the
concerns of people like this, who feel beleaguered enough to talk about
"trading" something for more security, or a little less fear. Later,
we'll talk more about this notion of trade-offs, one of the most
insidious, troubling logical fallacies of our day, the widely held idea
that danger is a price we all must pay for freedom. For now, lot me just
say that I won't exchange my liberty--or anyone else's--for security. I
surely won't give up essential privacy: of home, hearth, and the intimacy
that one shares with just a few.
But that is a far cry from maintaining a so-called right to skulk in
shadows and act against others anonymously--a fictitious right that
shelters nearly all the predators who make this a wary, suspicious age,
fueling both the growth of government and a rising obsession with
Suspicions that may snuff out the bright hopes of a coming "infotopia."
So much for practicing what I preach: letting the reader know what to
expect. I'll close this introductory chapter now with a final thought.
It is hard for recent cave dwellers to transform themselves into
smart, honest, and truly independent creatures of light.
For millennia, philosophers have told us we could do it by willing
ourselves to behave better, through faith, or by obedience to strict
codes of conduct. Those prescriptions never worked well, not all by
themselves, and they proved almost useless at thwarting truly malignant
men bent on harming others. But now, at last, we seem to have hit on a
pragmatic tool more in keeping with our ornery natures.
All right, it still has some kinks to work out. We cave folk are new
at this sort of thing--just a few centuries along the road of democracy,
and only decades exploring diversity as a paramount virtue.
It's nuclear, as yet, how far this road will take us. Nevertheless,
one fact should grow apparent soon.
We'll all stumble a lot less if we can see where we are going.