Re: Brin on Privacy

d.brin (
Mon, 9 Dec 1996 14:35:01 -0800

>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.

>> I think it is such a totally
>>misguided notion that it was hard even to find ground to discuss it.

Note the difference between Finney's approach and Hanson's (below). Hanson
does two things that mature grownups do in conversation. (1) He tries to
paraphrase me accurately, even in those areas he questions or disagrees
with. (2) He asks questions and tries to narrow down specific points his
opponent (me) ought to clarify.

>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.

Alas, I find Robin's question opaque. I read it several times and can see
he was trying to set me a clear question, but it just doesn't register.
What, specifically, is he trying to ask. Help?

Let me try a couple of things and see if they satisfy him.

In fact, I have stated repeatedly and clearly that I love my own privacy
and strive to protect it. However I also see the inevitability of its
decay as the rich, mighty, and a techno-elite gain powers I can never hope
to match. Faced with the inevitable futility of wearing armor plate, I ask
to be armed with a light saber, for my own freedom and safety's sake.

Every tyranny in history based its power first and foremost on denying
outsiders the ability to see the in-group's machinations. We all
instinctively fear this, and so each political wedge in society strives to
deny secrecy to its foes, whom they perceive as scheming conspirators.
(Finney certainly feels this way about government agencies, for instance,
and supports all the secrecy-denying tools we have imposed on bureaucrats,
from the Freedom of Info act to open meetings laws, etc. He does not see
this as denying them 'privacy', naturally. They are his enemies and don't
deserve any!)

Likewise, a person of the moderate left, who worries about conspiratorial
oligarchs, might want similar windows into the secretive inner world of
corporate management, where cheating and capricious abuses of power are
rampant. Am I right in positing that Finney would defend to the death the
right of these lords of capital to evade scrutiny, even though
conspiratorial aristocrats destroyed more freedom in history than
bureaucrats ever have? Too bad, Ben. The recent Texaco Tapes scandal shows
that the electronic light is starting to shine into boardrooms, as video
cameras shine on cops, etc.

(In other words, the Transparent Society MAY happen without us having to do
anything at all. It may be inevitable. But I tend to be suspicious of
teleology, so let's continue.)

Oddly enough, the only power center to be COOPERATIVE about increased
openness has been the federal government, which yearly opens more of its
deliberations and processes to public view, an irony the cypherpunks seem
incapable of perceiving.

Their inability to see the hypocritical dilemma of privacy fetishism (i.e.
I get to look at my enemies but don't you DARE look at me!) is augmented by
the silliness of their claim to be brave, lonely rebels... when in fact
privacy fetishism is THE mass lemming political movement of the decade,
with nearly every self-righteous voice of left, right, up, down and silly
chanting the same rote mantra.

In fact, they cannot cite a single example from human history in which
freedom was enhanced by selling masks and chadors to the poor. But you
point to ANY occasion when freedom increased in the world, and I'll show
that it happened in direct correlation with increased ability by the masses
to see what the mighty were doing. Zero percent versus 100 percent is
pretty damn devastating. As a protection of freedom, secrecy is no match
for transparency.

In truth, I see myself as a moderate on this issue, raising questions and
suggesting only that candor and transparency be included in the discussion.
How sad that this mild approach makes me seen as an extremist! It shows
how tilted the debate has been until now.

Robin, I do not insist that these are the only choices. I maintain only
that the mighty have a window of opportunity in which they MAY be able to
set up barriers against light. Barriers that you and I cannot hope to
match, no matter how many PGP programs the cypherpunks tout. WE will live
in glass houses, like it or not. All I am asking is whether we should act
to make sure the powerful (of all types) do also.

I welcome further thoughts as the book develops. (I'll be on Wired Online
2pm pst December 12.)

Best wishes,

David Brin