Transparency Isn't A Substitute For Privacy

from the power-imbalances dept

Slashdot points to a great Bruce Schneier article debunking the idea that "transparency" is better than privacy. People like David Brin argue that technological change is rapidly making the concept of privacy obsolete, and that instead of lamenting this fact, we should make sure that everyone, including the government, is subject to increased "transparency." But Schneier does a great job of explaining what's wrong with this theory: the less power you have, the more important your privacy is to you. If the government knows everything about you, and you know everything about the government, that's not a fair trade. The government can use its increased knowledge to coerce you in a variety of ways that you're not going to like. But even if you know about everything the government is doing, you're not going to have the power to stop it from doing things you don't like. Reduced privacy for everyone increases the power of those who already have power, and increases the vulnerability of those without power.

The other problem is that in the real world, accepting less privacy for ordinary citizens isn't going to lead to increased transparency in government. Government officials who might want to put more cameras up on public streets are not going to want cameras installed in police headquarters. The Bush administration wants our electronic communications to be more "transparent" to NSA eavesdropping, but they haven't reciprocated by giving us information about how those eavesdropping programs work. It's a mistake to equate government transparency with reduced privacy for private citizens because transparency of government activities and privacy for ordinary citizens are both ways of limiting the ability of the government to violate our rights.



Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Cynic, Mar 7th, 2008 @ 5:56pm

    Of course, I can't tell you how many people have said to me, in apparent total sincerity, "if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to worry about". That attitude, and its prevalence, scares me.

     

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  2.  
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    Hellsvilla, Mar 7th, 2008 @ 5:59pm

    Wait a minute..

    A guy who sells ads, trying to tell me he'll sell FEWER ads, as long as he's given a chance to make the ads MORE VALUABLE?

    That just completely defies logic...

     

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  3.  
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    Hellsvilla, Mar 7th, 2008 @ 6:00pm

    ....

    That's not the right article. Sorry to all.

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 7th, 2008 @ 6:03pm

    Heh - transparent and government in the same sentence
    Looks like an oxymoron to me. Here are some more
    http://www.oxymoronlist.com/

     

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  5.  
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    David Brin, Mar 7th, 2008 @ 6:20pm

    David Brin replies

    Alas... do try having a clue what you are talking about, before quoting people.

    You clearly never read The Transparent Society, nor have a twinkling what it means. In fact, the book contains a long chapter about how important privacy is to human beings and necessary! Though freedom must come first.

    My point is that freedom, and thus privacy, cannot be defended by people who are disempowered... or who have handed all protection duties over to some secretive elite. The enlightenment is an experiment in empowering citizens to make their own minds about market and political matters and to thus argue them openly.

    But in order for this to happen, most of the people need to know most of what’s going on, most of the time. Um... exactly as we are supposed to now.

    An accident that the most knowing people were the same people who invented modern privacy?

    .That still leaves room for some privacy... yes, it will be more narrowly defined in a transparent society. But in an open society, we will better be able to defend what’s left.

    But I am wasting my time. Subtlety is not in your purview. Go on with comfy oversimplifications and strawmen. They suit.

    With cordial regards,

    David Brin
    http://www.davidbrin.com

     

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  6.  
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    Hellsvilla, Mar 7th, 2008 @ 7:34pm

    Who let the troll in?

    I tried to take you seriously, David, I truly did.

    An accident that the most knowing people were the same people who invented modern privacy?

    But after I read that line, I realized it was impossible to take you seriously in this matter. Perhaps you are good at selling books, but that does not mean you actually understand what you write about.

     

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  7.  
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    George, Mar 8th, 2008 @ 4:17am

    Re:

    War is Peace
    Freedom is Slavery
    Ignorance is Strength

     

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  8.  
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    Paul`, Mar 8th, 2008 @ 6:12am

    Isn't that re reason guns are legal?

    Isn't the reason guns are in the US Constitution is so the public and overthrow the government if it's being naughty?

     

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  9.  
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    brian, Mar 8th, 2008 @ 6:55am

    Re: Isn't that re reason guns are legal?

    Exactly, but the 2nd amendment was not intended for just any group with an issue with the federal government it was intended for states. The US Civil War showed us the flaw in that approach given the constitution provides the federal government the means to put down an insurrection. Essentially the "... right to bear arms" to defend the freedom of citizens is moot.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 8th, 2008 @ 9:03am

    Do you think the govt. actually wants cameras on the streets? The people of Philadelphia were big supporters of "crime cameras" because Philadelphia is a very dangerous place (to say nothing of being a place that sucks.)

     

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  11.  
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    MIke, Mar 8th, 2008 @ 9:28am

    Too late

    This discussion is 10 years too late, they are already spying on their own people, have been for years, they are just now getting us used to it. The telecom scandal isn't even the first time they have done this either, Quest spied for them for years until they stopped paying, then they were shut out of government contracts... government using coercion and economic penalties against a company for non co-operation in an illegal operation? What you get on the news is a tiny piece of the actual reality of it. Both parties are involved, and since the US only allows for two parties, they are pretty much screwed. In ten years you will not recognise the country at all.

     

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  12.  
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    David Brin, Mar 8th, 2008 @ 11:50am

    Alas, a boring discussion

    Sorry guys, but silly name-calling aside, not one of you seems interested in the real issues.

    1) The blogmaster here outright fabulated that I call "privacy obsolete", either proving he never even glanced at The Transparent Society or making him a "fibber"...

    2) Yes, the mighty are looking at us ever-more. Extrapolate current trends and you'll get the one-way telescreens of Orwell's "1984". So... we all hate that. But how to fight it? By passing laws? Heinlein said "Privacy laws only make the bugs smaller."

    Schneier offers no solutions, but I do. It's called "sousveillance" or looking back to the watchers. It's what (imperfectly) we already do. In fact, Schneier even cited an example! (Missing the irony.)

    Tech empowered citizens who ASSERTIVELY demand the power to look back may get enough of that abilit (imperfect) to keep elites careful about pushing us too far. And if you sneer at that, then what's your suggestion?

    Mine? Try broadening your assumptions and reading a little, before leaping to cynical conclusions. The Transparent Society may infuriate you. But you'll know more after reading it. And page 206 is considered one of the top successful prophecies of the last 20 years.

    With cordial regards,

    David Brin
    http://www.davidbrin.com

     

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  13.  
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    Tim Lee, Mar 8th, 2008 @ 11:55am

    Re: David Brin replies

    Thanks for your comment. It's true, I haven't read your book. I relied on descriptions of your thesis by Schneier, Amazon.com, and others. For example, Amazon characterizes your position as: "people will have nothing to fear from the watchers because everyone will be watching each other." If that's not an accurate summary of your position, then I apologize for the misrepresentation. But I seem not to be the only one who's confused.

     

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  14.  
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    private citizen, Mar 8th, 2008 @ 7:14pm

    There is s simple fact for myself here. I know what i consider privacy and i know what i will and will NOT put up with from MY government. It is our fault that this issue is even considered because we refuse to use the tools we have at hand which is the right to vote and be represented. We allow the politicians to make laws that we dont agree with because they say it is for our own good...what a damn crock. I know that if my line of privacy is crossed i will fight to the death to push you back across that line...that is my line and THAT IS MY GIVEN RIGHT!

     

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  15.  
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    Anthony, Mar 9th, 2008 @ 2:06pm

    Re:

    Yeap, at school, i yell at people that say that. (15yrs old)

     

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  16.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 9th, 2008 @ 3:42pm

    @ private citizen...

    lol at your belief that your vote makes a difference with who get elected

     

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  17.  
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    Trvth Jvstice, Mar 9th, 2008 @ 5:43pm

    Token Red State View

    Conspiracy theories aside, the only reason the US government would want to scan your emails or telephone calls is to root out the evil terrorists and their supporters. As far as public security cameras are concerned, as long as they aren't pointed into one of your home windows, why would you care? As long as you live within the boundaries of the law, the US government doesn't care what you do.

     

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  18.  
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    DanC, Mar 9th, 2008 @ 9:21pm

    Re: Token Red State View

    the only reason the US government would want to scan your emails or telephone calls is to root out the evil terrorists and their supporters

    I would prefer not to take their (or your) word on that.

    Maybe they could spend the resources they're using to spy on Americans to fix their own email system so that potentially incriminating emails don't conveniently disappear.

     

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  19.  
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    Trvth Jvstice, Mar 9th, 2008 @ 11:16pm

    @ DanC- Then stop selling drugs or explosives or sending money to terrorist organizations. I have to assume you're doing something illegal, since you're so worried about this.

     

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  20.  
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    Killer_Tofu (profile), Mar 10th, 2008 @ 5:51am

    Re #19 Trvth

    It is that view that is sending America down the shitter.
    Marvin K Mooney will you please leave now.

     

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  21.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 10th, 2008 @ 6:20am

    Doesn't it ruin the whole idea of the article if the book was actually never read or apparently, paged through. Sad really.

     

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  22.  
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    DanC, Mar 10th, 2008 @ 6:48am

    Re:

    Then stop selling drugs or explosives or sending money to terrorist organizations. I have to assume you're doing something illegal, since you're so worried about this.

    Seriously? I have to thank you for that....I needed a good laugh. I was honestly hoping nobody bought into the "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" argument anymore.

    I will point you to an excellent essay by Professor Daniel Solve of the George Washington University Law School, where he does a very good job of explaining why this argument does not work.

    Essentially, the "nothing to hide" argument presumes that people only want to keep 'bad' things private, which is a narrow and incomplete view of privacy.

    I have to assume you're doing something illegal, since you're so worried about this.

    Assume away. I can tell you that you're wrong, but if this is the stance you're taking, I doubt you'll believe me. Personally, I value my right to privacy, and I fail to see why I should be required to give it up just because you don't value yours.

     

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  23.  
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    DanC, Mar 10th, 2008 @ 6:52am

    Re: Re #19 Trvth

    I'm hoping, with the "Token Red State View" that he's merely playing devil's advocate here. I'm just playing along with it because I enjoy the discussion.

     

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  24.  
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    Trvth Jvstice, Mar 10th, 2008 @ 10:47am

    DanC, It's very difficult to argue against the, "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear," state of mind. Can anyone post a serious argument without quoting someone, or going to extremes? Basically, all you can do is say that you disagree. Anyone that has this point of view will not care about what some professor said. After all, 99% of professors are liberals, right?
    "Essentially, the "nothing to hide" argument presumes that people only want to keep 'bad' things private, which is a narrow and incomplete view of privacy."
    Unless your peeping Tom neighbor is spying on you, and you are living within the boundaries of the law, you have total privacy, as far as you know.

     

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  25.  
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    DanC, Mar 10th, 2008 @ 1:24pm

    Re:

    Actually, I don't think it's actually that difficult to argue against that state of mind. I believe the real difficulty is actually convincing someone that has that state of mind that they are wrong.

    After all, 99% of professors are liberals, right?

    And yet it's the supposed conservatives that are supposed to champion limited government interference. They should be the ones arguing against it the most.

     

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  26.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 12th, 2008 @ 7:01am

    shouldn't a democratic government be transparent anyway?

     

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