DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

A Parable about Openness: Followed by Some Thoughts on Privacy, Security, and Surveillance in the Information Age

By David Brin, Ph.D.

Ancient Greek myths tell of a farmer, Akademos, who did a favor for the sun god. In return, Apollo granted the mortal a garden wherein he could say whatever he liked, even about the mighty Olympians, without retribution. Inspired by this tale -- the earliest allegory about Free Speech -- citizens of Periclean Athens used to gather at the Academy to openly debate issues of the day.

Now the fable of Akademos always puzzled me at one level. How could a mortal trust the storied Greek deities -- notoriously mercurial, petty and vengeful -- to keep their promise? Especially when impudent humans started telling bad Zeus jokes? Apollo might set up impenetrable barriers around the glade, so no god could peer in. But Akademos would have few visitors to join him, cowering under sunless walls.

The alternative was to empower Akademos with an equalizer, some way to enforce the gods' promise. That equalizing factor could only be knowledge. But more about that in a moment.

How did the Athenians fare in their real-life experiment with free speech? Alas, democracy and openness were new and difficult concepts. Outspoken Socrates eventually paid a stiff price for candor in the Academy. Whereupon his student, Plato, took paradoxical revenge by denouncing openness, calling instead for strict government by an "enlightened" elite. Plato's advice served to justify countless tyrants during the millennia since.

Now the democratic vision is getting another trial run. Today's "academy" extends far beyond Earth's major universities. Throughout the world, millions have begun to accept the daring notion that disagreement isn't toxic. Free speech is increasingly seen as the best font of criticism -- the only practical and effective antidote to error.

Let there be no mistake; this is a hard lesson, especially since each of us would be a tyrant if we could. (Some with the best intentions.) Very little in history -- or human nature -- prepared us for the task ahead, living in a tribe of six billion equal citizens, each guided by his or her own sovereign will, loosely administered by chiefs we elect, under just rules that we made through hard negotiation among ourselves. Any other generation would have thought it an impossible ambition -- though countless ancestors strove, getting us to the point where we can try.

Even among those who profess allegiance to this new hope, there is bitter struggle over how best to resist the old gods of wrath, bigotry and oppression -- spirits who reside not on some mountain peak, but in the heart of each man or woman who tries to gain power at the expense of others. Perhaps our descendants will be mature enough to curb these impulses all by themselves. Meanwhile, we must foil those who rationalize robbing freedom, claiming it's their right... or that it's for our own good. In other words, we still face the same dilemma that confronted Akademos.

According to some champions of liberty, shields of secrecy will put common folk on even ground with the mighty. Privacy must be defined by rules or tools that enhance concealment. One wing of this movement would create Euro-style privacy commissions, pass a myriad laws and dispatch clerks to police what may be known by doctors, corporations, and ultimately individuals. Another wing of Strong Privacy prefers libertarian techno-fixes -- empowering individuals with encryption and cybernetic anonymity. Both wings claim we must build high walls to safeguard every private garden, each sanctum of the mind.

This widespread modern myth has intuitive appeal. And I can only reply that it's been tried, without even one example of a commonwealth based on this principle that thrived.

There is a better way -- a method largely responsible for this renaissance we're living in. Instead of trying to blind the mighty -- a futile goal, if ever there was one -- we have emphasized the power of openness, giving free citizens knowledge and unprecedented ability to hold elites accountable. Every day, we prove it works, rambunctiously demanding to know, rather than trying to stop others from knowing. (Isn't it far easier to verify that you know something, than to verify that someone else is ignorant?)

It's called accountability -- a light that can shine even on the gods of authority. Whether they gather in the Olympian heights of government, amid the spuming currents of commerce, or in Hadean shadows of criminality, they cannot harm us while pinned by its glare. Accountability is the only defense that truly protected free speech, in a garden that stands proudly, with no walls.

Quis custodient ipsos custodes?

[image from Wikipedia]

Some Unconventional Thoughts About Privacy, Security And Surveillance In The Information Age

The modern debate over information, and who controls it, begins with paradox.

  1. Each of us understands that knowledge can be power. We want to know as much as possible about people or groups we see as threatening -- and we want our opponents to know little about us. Each of us would prescribe armor for "the good guys" and nakedness for our worst foes.

  2. Criticism is the best antidote to error. Yet most people, especially the mighty, try to avoid it. Leaders of past civilizations evaded criticism by crushing free speech and public access to information. This sometimes helped them stay in power -- but it also generally resulted in horrific blunders in statecraft.

  3. Ours may be the first civilization to systematically avoid this cycle, whose roots lie in human nature. We have learned that few people are mature enough to hold themselves accountable. But in an open society where criticism flows, adversaries eagerly pounce on each others' errors. We do each other the favor of reciprocal criticism (though it seldom personally feels like a favor!)

Four great social innovations foster our unprecedented wealth and freedom: science, justice, democracy and free markets. Each of these "accountability arenas" functions best when all players get fair access to information. But cheating is always a problem because of (1) and (2) above. It's a paradox, all right.

While new surveillance and data technologies pose vexing challenges, we may be wise to pause and recall what worked for us so far. Reciprocal accountability -- a widely shared power to shine light, even on the mighty -- is the unsung marvel of our age, empowering even eccentrics and minorities to enforce their own freedom. Shall we scrap civilization's best tool -- light -- in favor of a fad of secrecy?

Across the political spectrum, a "Strong Privacy" movement claims that liberty and personal privacy are best defended by anonymity and encryption, or else by ornate laws restricting what groups or individuals may be allowed to know. This approach may seem appealing, but there are no historical examples of it ever having worked.

Strong Privacy bears a severe burden of proof when they claim that a world of secrets will protect freedom... even privacy... better than what has worked for us so far -- general openness.

Indeed, it's a burden of proof that can sometimes be met! Certainly there are circumstances when/where secrecy is the only recourse... in concealing the location of shelters for battered wives, for instance, or in fiercely defending psychiatric records. These examples stand at one end of a sliding scale whose principal measure is the amount of harm that a piece of information might plausibly do, if released in an unfair manner. At the other end of the scale, new technologies seem to require changes in our definition of privacy. What salad dressing you use may be as widely known as what color sweater you wear on the street... and just as harmlessly boring.

The important thing to remember is that anyone who claims a right to keep something secret is also claiming a right to deny knowledge to others. There is an inherent conflict! Some kind of criterion must be used to adjudicate this tradeoff and most sensible people seem to agree that this criterion should be real or plausible harm... not simply whether or not somebody likes to keep personal data secret.

Here are a few themes discussed in The Transparent Society:

  • Cameras and surveillance devices swarm our technological world, multiplying and getting harder to spot each day. Is there a Moore's Law for Cameras? The trend during the last decade has been for cameras to decrease in size, double in acuity and speed, become cheaper and more mobile, all along a curve that tracks the similar technology of personal computers. At this rate, cameras will pervade the world, inexpensively and almost invisibly, and there seems little likelihood that any kind of intervention will prevent it. Should we even try? Robert Heinlein said: "Privacy laws only make the bugs smaller... and limit their use to some elite." But there may be ways to limit the harm that a sea of cameras will do, while acting calmly to maximize the advantages.

  • Knowledge is the ultimate drug, and forbidden knowledge is craved above all. Credit companies, banned from holding bankruptcy records beyond seven years, now ship the taboo information to offshore 'data havens.' Shall we create an underground economy in contraband information, as we have done with drugs? Who will benefit?

  • One wing of the Strong Privacy crusade wants Euro-style privacy commissions with a myriad laws and clerks to police what may be known by doctors, corporations, and individuals. Dataflow controls may indeed be needed at times! And yes, some will be necessary for the sake of personal privacy. But secrecy-oriented solutions should be a last resort, not the first place we turn.

  • Another wing of wing of Strong Privacy likes libertarian techno-fixes -- empowering individuals with encrypted cybernetic anonymity. But scientific and social flaws may render these panaceas no more effective than 'ghost shirts.' Even if they can be made to work, it may just empower a new elite -- those who best know how to use the new masks and armor.

  • Is government the chief enemy of freedom? That authority center does merit close scrutiny... which we've been applying lately with unprecedented ardor. Meanwhile other citizens worry about different power groups -- aristocracies, corporations, criminal gangs, and technological elites. Should 'suspicion of authority' apply in all directions? Can anyone justifiably claim exemption from accountability?

  • Privacy and personal safety are better safeguarded by catching peeping toms. Freedom thrives when we turn 'henchmen' into whistle-blowers. Elites will always have some advantages, but we're all better protected by knowing than by forbidding others to know. (It is far easier to verify that you know something, than to verify that someone else is ignorant.)

  • Why do our "accountability arenas" work so well? Science, justice, democracy and free markets are direct products of openness... most of the people knowing most of what's going on, most of the time. Even individual eccentricity seems to flourish best in light. Closed societies have always been more conformist than open ones.

Many of these points may seem counter-intuitive... but so is our entire rambunctious, argumentative, tolerant, eccentric, in-your-face culture! The Transparent Society explores underlying issues, from the technological (cameras, databases and the science of encryption) to the startling (why all our films preach suspicion of authority), helping foster a new appreciation of our unique civilization.

Defying the temptations of secrecy, we may see a culture like no other, filled with boisterous amateurs and individuals whose hunger for betterment will propel the next century. This will happen if we stick to a formula that already works... most of the people knowing most of what's going on, most of the time.