Techdirt Podcast Episode 1: Can You Increase Privacy With More Surveillance… And More Transparency?

from the off-we-go dept

For quite some time we’ve been talking about launching a Techdirt podcast. After a few aborted attempts, we’re finally off and running. This is the first episode, and we’ll be trying to stick to a weekly-ish schedule (no promises). We’ll be posting each episode here on Techdirt, but you can also find it and subscribe to it via Soundcloud and iTunes, or point your podcast player directly to the RSS feed (so what are you waiting for?). As I say in the intro, this is very much an experiment, and we’ll be learning and tweaking as we go (and, yes, we already know that the sound quality needs to be improved — we’re working on it). The plan is to in some ways mimic the Techdirt format with an essay (some might say a rant) up front, followed by a discussion, but with the topic areas to be less news driven, but rather driven by larger ideas/concepts that we think are worth discussing. In this first episode, we’re discussing privacy and surveillance, but coming at it from a different direction than most such discussions. I hope you enjoy it.

Thanks to Dennis Yang and Hersh Reddy for co-hosting with me on this inaugural podcast, and thanks to Dan Bull for supplying the music (I would have mentioned that in the podcast, but we hadn’t figured out the music at the time we recorded). The full text of the opening essay can be read below.

Can You Increase Privacy By Increasing Surveillance?

In 1996, David Brin wrote an article in Wired -- followed two years later by an entire book -- about ?the transparent society.? In it, Brin challenges people to effectively rethink the most common views on ?privacy? as a single monolithic ?thing? to be protected, and actually argues how we might actually better protect overall privacy by doing the very thing that most would quickly assume would decrease privacy: increasing surveillance cameras and technology.

His argument isn?t necessarily that we ought to do that, but rather that whether anyone liked it or not, it was coming. And his prediction from nearly two decades ago was clearly on target: surveillance cameras, both privately owned and by law enforcement, have become increasingly commonplace. Web cams now come standard on just about every computer (you have to work hard to find a computer without a camera). And, of course, in the last few years, we all have massively powerful cameras and recording devices in our pockets in the form of smartphones. And, that?s barely touching on the idea of the internet itself as a giant surveillance machine.

So how could this possibly increase privacy? Brin goes back to the idea of transparency -- taken to a radical level. If, rather than limiting access to what those things record (and what is reviewed) to just those who control the surveillance mechanisms, we open them up to everyone -- suddenly, the ability to abuse that surveillance is limited.

As we recently discovered, thanks to Ed Snowden, the NSA has a term for analysts who spy on love interests -- it?s called LOVINT, a play on the traditional role of the NSA in SIGINT or ?Signals Intelligence.? And, of course, it?s this kind of surveillance that scares people -- when someone with power over the surveillance apparatus spies on another for their own personal gain. But, that becomes significantly less possible -- or rather, less possible to do and get away with it -- when anyone can check in and see what happened.

The traditional question asked on surveillance is ?who watches the watchers? -- but Brin?s suggestion is that we?re all better off if everyone watches the watchers, and are thus watched themselves.

Would an NSA agent be as quick to snoop on a love interest?s phone records if he knew that she would be alerted to the search -- designating him as somewhat creepy?

While some have reflexively pushed back against this idea, in some areas we?re already seeing it happen in (limited) practice with impressive results: police cameras. In this era of militarized police and increasing stories of police brutality and arbitrariness, many police forces have started outfitting all officers with cameras.

The early results are impressive. In Rialto, California, by merely outfitting half of the 54 uniformed patrol officers with body cameras, the police department saw an astounding 88% decline in complaints filed against officers over a one year period (going from 24 complaints the previous year to just 3 when the force wore cameras).

Furthermore, the cameras appeared to act as real deterrents to police abuse: for the officers wearing cameras, every single case of physical contact was started by the public, while in the control group, who weren?t wearing cameras, 24% of the cases were initiated by police.

Other studies have shown similar results.

This is why there?s an increasing push for police body cameras to be used everywhere. Notably, in Ferguson Missouri, it was reported that the police did have dashcams for police cars but they were not installed. Since the events and protests from this summer however, police in Ferguson received a donation of body cameras and have been wearing them for the past couple of months.

There are interesting results to studies in other areas as well. A study by Washington University put bodycams on restaurant employees, showing that the cameras reduced theft by 22% (with the rate of theft decreasing even more over time). Perhaps much more interesting: body cams on restaurant employees increased total check revenue by 7%, drink revenue by 10.5% and tip revenue by a marginal amount.

But, of course, there?s reason to be concerned about that. Feeling ?watched? all the time can also negatively impact productivity. It makes people feel less trusted, and less able to make judgment calls in certain situations for fear of constant second guessing. It goes back to the era of ?Taylorism? in the work place, where certain employers thought they could get more productivity out of workers by monitoring every move. That was discredited, but with the rise of computers and the internet, some of those concepts returned -- with employers monitoring employee internet usage, blocking access to websites and punishing or firing workers who did too much ?personal surfing.?

But, again, this is a situation where you have asymmetric info. It?s a case where the surveillance is done by the powerful and no one is ?watching the watchers.? What if it were more open and such information was shared more widely? Would bosses be a lot less likely to accuse you of spending too much time on Facebook if their own time on Instagram was available for everyone else to see?

Similarly, as more and more companies are going down the road of collecting more and more data -- something that isn?t going to stop, no matter how many times people complain about it -- wouldn?t it be better off if they did so much more transparently, making it clear to everyone what data they were collecting and how it was used? Wouldn?t it both ease the concerns of users who do wonder about potential privacy violations, as well as help to create incentives for those companies to act within social norms?

This isn?t an easy question, and I doubt that there?s a perfect solution, but the fact is that Brin?s predictions from years ago seem to be pretty dead on, and perhaps it?s time we take more seriously his recognition that greater transparency can lead to greater privacy even when there?s greater surveillance...

Filed Under: , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Techdirt Podcast Episode 1: Can You Increase Privacy With More Surveillance… And More Transparency?”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

Thank you … looking forward to the podcast

I went to soundcloud, and scrolled down to the bottom of the page, and hit “Download Can You Increase Privacy By Increasing Surveillance?” ( and got a “login authentication method not supported” error (yes, old browser). Itunes does not work either. I might try installing Jdownloader to see if it can extract the audio/video stream from the webpages if there’s not a direct download link hiding somewhere. Or just wait until I get my Windows 10 computer, as everything should work then.

Anonymous Coward says:

Do you guys even read your own articles? You should know better then to do a PODCAST of all things.
Run! Run you fools! Techdirt is going to get sued… again!

Really though it’s great to be able to listen to Techdirt while concentrating on other tasks at the same time. Hopefully the cast picks up some steam and this becomes a regular weekly thing to look forward to.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“JavaScript required.”

There are sites like Keepvid that don’t require javascript, flash, or other plugins and will extract the audio and video from the original file-hosting/streaming web pages that have those requirements.

It’s kind of funny that you can use a usenet newsreader, IRC, or FTP client that’s 15 years old, and everything will always work. But try using a web browser that’s only 15 months old, and you can expect to run into many non-working downloads/streams (even with a spoofed user agent).

It’s understandable that many people want to monetize and/or lock up the content, so they’re stuck with using such sites. But these days even people willing to release content 100% free and clear tend to use those same popular sites that are fussy with web browsers.

Anonymous Coward says:

My main issue with Brin’s argument is the failure to address the power differential between governments and citizens. The state has the upper hand on violence and coercive force. Even though the actions of the state may be transparent, if citizens don’t have sufficient agency and means to check the power of the state, that transparency is less effective.

There’s nothing to guarantee democratic systems will remain in place and halt the eventual consolidation of power that has occurred in all societies.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Only when the majority doesn’t support the state should it lose that upper hand over the citizens.

Yes, but it’s easy imagine a scenario where a minority can control the majority by force and intimidation. Just look at most of the Arab nations pre and post Arab Spring. The majority may disagree, but would they be willing to sacrifice their relative safety for redress of grievances? This kind of transparency would ensure that after power is obtained and consolidated, defended by militarized police, any attempt to change that reality would be extremely violent and have a high human cost.

Annonimus says:

Suggestion for a person to participate in the podcast

Nash Bozard from Radio Dead Air, because when you started talking about the downsides of the current and future privacy tradeoffs you came up woefully short. This guy could have given you a full discussion on the topic just because he has a lot of experience with technological abuses and the darker side of human nature in general.

David Brin (user link) says:

DEavid Brin responds

A few points of response. The Transparent Society actually covers a lot of territory, e.g predicting – back in 1997 – this year’s sudden conversion of dozens of police departments from opposing cop-cams to assigning cameras to all their officers. And ghetto youths are starting to wear cameras, too.

But the core element is a concept — reciprocal accountability. RA…

RA is the underlying method that allowed our Enlightenment Experiment to function. All previous cultures became pyramids of oligarchic power, applying both authority and surveillance in one direction, top-down. Only in this experiment has a large and empowered middle been able to apply “sousveillance” or upward-supervision upon the mighty, and the outcome — competitive markets, democracy, science, creativity — has been prodigious. With many fine side effects… like freedom. And yes, another outcome has been far more privacy than any of our ancestors ever had.

Alas, our anonymous cowards in this comments section smugly assume they are smart… but like all anonymous cowards they simply do not get it. Yes, elites have more power than commonfolks! But that huge disparity of power is LESS now than it was any any of the preceding 99% feudal societies across 6000 years. WHY and how was that disparity reduced? There were and are methods — if only the snarkers would pause to study them.

It turns out that aggressive and assertive citizenship is not futile. Average folk have recourse. Never perfect! But it takes agility, refashioning sousveillance. The Press was part of the answer. (Now, the fear-mongering/pandering media is part of the problem.) The proliferation of cameras is doing as much to enhance our freedom as it enhances Big Brother.

Citizens can also join NGO orgs like the ACLU and EFF and many others, pooling their dues so that the NGO can then hire top investigators and lawyers. Yes, the anonymous coward snarkers never thought of this, nor have most of them ever paid dues to such orgs, even though EFF etc are exactly a method by which the disparity of power is whittled down.

But AC would rather gripe than actually DO anything. Like participate, or teach. Or even read a challenging book about all this.

With cordial regards,

David Brin
author of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?

Gary Gale (profile) says:

Overtones of "The Culture"?

There’s a strong parallel (to me at least) between the transparent and always monitored society posited in this podcast and that of the late, lamented, Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, where everyone could, if they wanted to, monitor everyone else and privacy was more a product of not being interested than concealing one’s activities (and no I’m not suggesting that the desire to conceal is a bad thing) or not having them being monitored.

To quote Wikipedia …

“At one point it is said that if the Culture actually had written laws, the sanctity of one’s own thoughts against the intrusion of others would be the first on the books.

This gives some measure of privacy and protection; though the very nature of Culture society would, strictly speaking, make keeping secrets irrelevant: most of them would be considered neither shameful nor criminal.”

Any podcast which makes me think is a good podcast and this was a great podcast.

Keep ’em coming!

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...