Re: Brin on Privacy

Hal Finney (
Thu, 12 Dec 1996 22:05:14 -0800

I will try to address directly one challenge which David Brin makes:

From: (d.brin)
> 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.

First, it would be interesting to hear what David has to say about this
in more detail. I would like to see some specific examples of this
100 percent correlation. Perhaps his forthcoming book will discuss this.

Let me briefly explain what I see as the relationship between the concepts
of privacy and freedom. This is not intended as an exhaustive or detailed
definition, but just a broad description. Privacy generally refers to
my having control over information about myself; freedom refers to my
control over my own actions. The two concepts are closely analogous, one
referring to the information world and the other to the physical world.
To me, then, privacy is really the extension of my own freedom of self
control into the information world.

Heading towards David's challenge, then, in fact I would be surprised if
David did not agree that historically, increased freedom and increased
privacy have generally gone hand in hand. This is actually a very
natural phenomenon and can be easily understood. In a history where
there is a constant struggle by one group for control over another,
often the most (or the only) practical way for someone to escape this
control was avoidance. They would move away, or adopt a low profile,
"go underground". They would avoid the soldier, the tax collector,
the census taker.

Doing this not only would gain freedom from control by others, but would
achieve greater privacy as well. Both of these occur as a result of
putting physical or informational distance between themselves and the
center of power.

The same effect occurs even today. People escape the unhappy confines of
a stultifying small town, where everyone knows exactly what everyone else
is doing, by moving to the relative anonymity of the big city. They gain
privacy, and as a result they gain freedom to live the lives they choose.

Now I don't think this kind of phenomenon was exactly what David had
in mind, since it occurs largely on an individual level. It does not
represent a historical advance on a large scale. Rather, it was the
result of millions of individuals taking the steps they could to get
more control over their lives. In the aggregate, though, I think the
increased privacy and corresponding increased freedom which people
achieved in this way was nevertheless very significant.

(Keep in mind, too, that by its nature, privacy enhancement tends not
to make it into the history books! A person who successfully achieves
privacy will not be a prominent public figure, he will be an "invisible
man", someone who does not come to the attention of either the authorities
or the historians.)

Another point I would make is motivated by John Clark's example of
Nazi Germany. This is an example where a loss of privacy led to a loss
of freedom. Jews were first identified, then exterminated. Opponents of
gun control fear the same thing, that identification of gun ownership,
a loss of privacy, will lead to gun control, a loss of freedom. At the
company where I work, we have frequently discussed the letters from
Burmese freedom fighters and other resistance groups around the world,
giving thanks for the availability of privacy protecting technology,
which they say has saved many lives.

This is not exactly what David was asking for, an example of privacy
leading to freedom, but if losing privacy leads to loss of freedom this
gives us equally good grounds to seek to retain our privacy.

The best example I can give to directly address David's point, a case
where I would argue that increased privacy provided the forces and
motivations for a significant increase in freedom, is the American
revolution. The English colonies in America represented an extreme
example of the avoidance phenomenon I cited above. Away from British
control, the colonists became accustomed to being left alone to fend
for themselves. When Britain tried to bring them back into the fold,
to reassert British rule, the revolutionary war erupted.

A key symbol of the revolutionaries was the rattlesnake flag, with its
slogan, "don't tread on me." This snake is not dangerous as long as you
keep your distance and leave it alone. It does not want to harm you,
but if you insist on meddling with it, it will fight very unpleasantly.
This culture of valuing privacy is one of the most distinctively American
traits, and we retain it even today.

It is true that these attitudes are part of a larger complex of beliefs,
including suspicion of government power, so we are never going to see
a pure example where privacy changed and all other variables stayed
the same. History doesn't work that way. But I do think this is a
case where the attitudes engendered by living successful, private lives
led to a significant increase in freedom for everyone, as the American
revolution became a model for people all over the world.