Brin on Privacy

Robin Hanson (
Mon, 9 Dec 1996 13:04:38 -0800 (PST)

Hal Finney writes:
>Now Brin himself has come out seriously proposing that privacy is evil,
>and that we should restructure society to prevent it! He has an article
>in the December, 1996 issue of Wired magazine pushing this idea. He
>believes that privacy and anonymity shield criminals, that they allow
>misbehavior by powerful elements in society, that they are more available
>to the rich than the poor and therefore are a destabilizing influence.
>He is also, as a result, against the use of cryptography and similar
>technologies to protect privacy.
>I exchanged a few letters with him on this topic two years ago, but neither
>of us managed to change the other's mind. I think it is such a totally
>misguided notion that it was hard even to find ground to discuss it.

Let me defend Brin. The main point he is making is that a huge loss
in privacy is inevitable, and we need to start addressing this fact ASAP.
Maybe crypto will allow certain kinds of privacy that weren't possible
before, but to see this as leading to a "golden age of privacy" is to
tragically miss the big picture.

Now let me criticize Brin. In his 12/96 Wired article Brin is not
sufficiently clear about what our choices are, nor does he
sufficiently defend his claims about choices. Brin says that it is
inevitable that most of us will be viewed by cameras while we walk
about in public, and "the proliferation of vast databases ... about
our lives, habits, tastes, and personal histories."

But he says we can still choose whether or not the public knows that
they are so watched, whether there are cameras in police stations, and
whether cameras are banned from many indoor places. Brin claims that
if we choose to have privacy laws, the consequence of such a choice
would be "to prevent you and me from learning anything about the rich
and powerful".

The obvious question is: why are these the choices? Why is the one
set open to change and the other set not? Without hearing some
reasoning in defense of this division, it is hard to take Brin's
analysis very seriously.

Robin D. Hanson