Transparency: Is it so hard to understand?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAVariety, the news-zine of the entertainment biz, just ran a pair of articles on the pro vs con aspects of Google Glass.  Space was limited, but I conveyed the “pro” side.  or rather “It’s inevitable so let’s embrace the good aspects and use them to limit the bad.”  Sarah Downey Wrote about the potential dangers to privacy.  Alas, without offering any solutions.

No law or regulation  could possibly put this genie back into the bottle.  As nearly always happens, she addresses the thing in front of her — Google Glass — and makes no effort to look farther ahead, to when this hulking, borg-like contraption will shrink invisibly into the frame of a regular pair of sunglasses. Can anyone doubt this will happen?  Heck, I know folks who are already compressing many of these features into contact lenses. In such a world, laws banning Augmented Reality gear (like Google Glass) will only prevent average citizens from getting them. Luddism only ensures  a world where elites of government, wealth, criminality etc can survey us like gods, and we are powerless to look back.

 What hand-wringers never do is consider how technology can help us, rather than threaten us. For example, what if your own AR glasses can be programmed with an app to DETECT when other specs are staring at – or photographing – you?  To detect the voyeurs and peeping toms, empowering you to catch those who stare and thus deter them.  Is that so 

Indinationhard to imagine?  Isn’t that exactly what you do today, to deter those who might stare or eavesdrop in a restaurant?

People who use tech to bemoan the rise of tech that they will soon consider a regular feature of life… and who offer no alternatives, only hand-wringing … jehosephat. 

Read the essays pro and con… and weigh in on it! 

== Cogency on Transparency == 

TransparentSocietyTransparent Society Revisited, Arnold Kling’s July 1 (2013) featured article on the Library of Economics and Liberty site referred cogently to my book The Transparent Society, which he evidently both read and understood. Kling’s paraphrasings and interrogations of the concept — universal reciprocal accountability — were on-target. 

 Alas, I have found this to be rare, with most pundits skimming for a strawman caricature, such as “Brin opposes privacy.” Nothing could be more false.

Kling captures the notion of the Positive Sum Game… that not everything must be either-or.  Smithian enlightenment nations have benefited from so many win-win arrangements — in science, markets, democracy and so on — that the concept should be second nature.  Instead, it appears to be very hard to grasp.

Going back to our roots, Adam Smith did not demand zero government.  Indeed, he saw civil servants as one  counterbalancing force to set in opposition vs. the clade that truly repressed freedom and markets in 99% of human cultures: inheritance-based owner-oligarchy. Yes, civil servants can become oppressive too! Especially when captured by an owner-oligarchy.  Hence, the logic should be extended.  Keep erecting new, diverse, dispersed, opposing centers of perception, knowledge and power, so that we benefit from positive-sum, creative competition and do not fall for the failure mode of 6000 years — leadership delusion.

Getting back to The Transparent Society, my emphasis has been upon “sousveillance” or empowering citizens to look back at every sort of power or elite, from government and commercial to criminal, foreign, technological or oligarchic.  This has been, in fact, the very reflex that brought us to this festival of freedom and creativity-generated wealth.  Yet, it seems difficult to get people to parse HOW this is best achieved.  The reflex to seek power parity by blinding others — by limiting what elites can see or by cowering or encrypting or hiding from them — is so profoundly wrong-headed, yet it fills the punditsphere as handwringing commentators demand that government powers of surveillance be curbed… without ever explaining how this can be done, let alone showing one example from history when elites actually let themselves be blinded.

LibertyFlourishesRecall “Total Information Awareness”?  The endeavor of John Poindexter at DARPA to scan all the internet, all the time for signs of danger?  Public opposition shut it down right?  Only we find its parts simply found new shadows to root, and grow within.  

The opposite approach is what can, has and will work. Last year, in a civil liberties event vastly more important than PRISM and all that, federal courts and the Obama Administration declared it to be “settled law” that citizens have a universal right to record police activity on public streets.  Sousveillance triumphed… and hardly anyone commented. (Indeed, it will be a battle all our lives to prevent local cops from smashing our cameras “by accident.”) 

== And on to the the Ridiculous == 

Internet “security expert” Bruce Schneier is at it again, creating fabulous dichotomies that have almost no bearing upon the true dilemmas the lie before us.  He starts by laying out a genuine concern, that the FBI and other state agencies are striving to win maximal legal and technical access to the Internet – including all decrypted traffic – in order to do their jobs with maximal efficiency.  Bruce does some good work at the beginning, covering several hypocrisies and inconsistencies. Alas, then he goes on to say:  “The FBI believes it can have it both ways: that it can open systems to its eavesdropping, but keep them secure from anyone else’s eavesdropping. That’s just not possible. It’s impossible to build a communications system that allows the FBI surreptitious access but doesn’t allow similar access by others. When it comes to security, we have two options: We can build our systems to be as secure as possible from eavesdropping, or we can deliberately weaken their security. We have to choose one or the other.”  

losersWhere to begin? The government and other powerful elites are NOT intrinsically as transparent as we are. They can create intranets and keep them secure from the methods that let them spy on regular internet traffic.  Lots of agencies already do this.  Yes, their adversaries can also set up secure intranets — but if those loci are within US borders, the FBI can then legally (with warrants) break down doors.  Meanwhile, in any race for security and privacy through shrouds, we — you and me — are automatically destined to be the losers.  That is not a race we can win.  But we can change the race. 

The dichotomy is not between technologically secure and un-secure.  It is between letting elites exercise surveillance unsupervised or … supervised. It is whether we wise up and start demanding a price every time public agencies claim they need to see better, in order to protect us.  I see no point in investing all our strivings into blinding them, when the next major trauma will result in the next Patriot Act, giving them all the powers they claim would have prevented catastrophe. It is the ratchet effect and it dooms all such measures. 

inspectors-GeneralAnyway, I’m not sure I want our watchdogs blinded.  I care much more about retaining control over the dog… a choke chain of close supervision… to remind the dog that it’s a dog, and not a wolf.  There are measures we could demand, such as more powerful inspectors general.  Citizen inspectors (based on the old Grand Jury concept) vetted and cleared to enter any room (especially the surveillance control rooms) and ask any questions. There are many such measures that, instead of trying futilely to restrict what elites can see and know, instead fiercely clamp down on what they can DO with that information.

Ponder… information is slippery and infinitely copy-able.  But the actions of physical agents of authority — arresting you, slandering me, firing that dissident across the street… THOSE things we have a chance of detecting, deterring, controlling.  If we make the real world the thing that we care most about.  

That distinction – between what agencies and other elites can SEE and what they can DO — seems to utterly escape Schneier and most of today’s hand-wringers.  If we give in to their notion of a tradeoff between safety and freedom, then we all will inevitably lose, since we will have sacrificed the very notion of a positive-sum, win-win game.  

All of our radicalism should be aimed at forcing new, innovative and better forms of supervision and sousveillance upon powerful elites, instead of hopelessly trying to blind them.  

== To the creepy ==  

The NSA is quietly writing code for Google’s open source Android OS. Google says anyone has the right to do so. Read the aricle carefully because while nothing illegal was done, some care should be taken to parse consequences.  

I am less upset than you’d expect.  If the NSA experts are offering “Security Enhanced” systems for Android… and they are open source inspected by thousands of bright private individuals, then we can presume two things:1) Hackers and others will find it harder to break Android security. 2) If the NSA has inserted some kind of back door, it’s one that it considers so safe from discovery that it is not worried about the open source community. 

Number 1 sounds okay.  Number two is frightening, at first. But if they are that clever, they could have introduced it using one of their thousands of fronts and false identities in the hacker, open source or anonymous communities.

 In fact, what matters is not what the NSA sees.  That has never been the point.  What matters is not letting them look at us without being supervised by a diversity of adversarialy skeptical watchdogs!  Again, that distinction between what they might see/know and what they might do is crucial, though, alas, too few make it. 

Obsession with limiting the vision of elites is not only historically unprecedented and futile, it stymies clear thinking and perpetually stops us from talking about how to supervise them better.



Filed under science

2 responses to “Transparency: Is it so hard to understand?

  1. This is an upcoming video game that very much plays into your thoughts on Transparency & “sousveillance”. Granted, it’s only a videogame, but after PRISM comes very close to reality!

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