Re: Brin on Privacy

Hal Finney (
Mon, 9 Dec 1996 17:28:01 -0800

From: (d.brin)
> >Hal Finney writes:
> >>Now Brin himself has come out seriously proposing that privacy is evil,
> >>and that we should restructure society to prevent it!
> This is, of course, a profoundly and willfully tendentious statement,
> diametrically opposed to what I really believe, and to what I said.
> One critical trait shown by mature disputants is a sincere effort to
> accurately paraphrase their opponents, showing thus that they understand
> what they are criticizing. Sadly, most self-righteous polemicists prefer
> exaggerating and demonizing instead, turning adversaries into carricatures.
> It feels good, you see. Ooooh, it feels so good.

My statement of David Brin's views was based on my sincere attempt to
understand them in our correspondence a couple of years ago. I am very
surprised to hear that my statements are diametrically opposed to what he
really believes. It is possible that he has changed his views since our
earlier discussion, or perhaps I misunderstood what he was saying before.

I do not have his permission to quote from the draft which David Brin
shared with me a few years ago, but here are a couple of paraphrases:

In discussing the pros and cons of privacy, Brin argues that there is
a dichotomy between privacy and freedom, that if we have the one, we cannot
have the other. He says that someday we may look back and realize that
this was the real choice facing us today, and that our efforts to preserve
privacy will actually cost us our freedom.

In discussing the Clipper chip debate, a still-active policy dispute over
the government's efforts to ensure that it can get access to the plaintext
of encrypted communications, Brin offers a "Third Option": neither allow
the government a monopoly on eavesdropping, nor let individuals and
corporations have the ability to send meaningless scrambled messages and
static. If the average person can't read the message, it should be
forbidden. Encryption must be banned!

Now he then follows this with some caveats related to the _practicality_
of the proposal, but not to the moral justification.

Brin concludes the draft of his book by clarifying that he personally
has a vested interest in what he is advocating. The widespread use
of crypto raises many difficult issues with respect to "intellectual
property": books, music, software, video, etc. With the ease of copying
and reproduction which computers provide, and the cloak of secrecy which
is enabled by privacy protecting technologies like cryptography, it
could become very difficult to prevent widespread piracy and unauthorized
reproduction. Someone who makes his living by writing, as Brin does (and
as I do myself, for that matter, being a programmer by profession), could
find it difficult to thrive in a world which had privacy protections.

While I find it admirable that Brin is willing to make this forthright
admission, it still makes me question his arguments. And now when he
says that his position is "diametrically opposed" to my characterization,
I can only wonder at why he would have found it necessary to make this
admission if I was so wrong in my reading of his views.

My real problem with David Brin's argument is not so much with the question
of whether privacy will be possible. I am content to wait and see how
the technologies work out. My views are different from his, but it doesn't
really matter because time will eventually settle the issue regardless
of what we believe.

What bothers me is when he departs from prediction and gets into advocacy,
as in the examples above. If he wants to prevent me from using encryption
on the net, or he tries to convince people that they face a choice between
privacy and freedom (with the implication that they must forbid privacy
in order to retain freedom), I see threats to my own freedom of choice
and action. I am not trying to demonize Brin or exaggerate his views.
I do, however, view his ideas as dangerous in their implications.