DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

Review of Robert O'Harrow Jr.'s "No Place to Hide"

By David Brin, Ph.D.

One can all too easily get caught up in today's atmosphere of desperate worry. Countless Democrats and Republicans who disagree over details and specific culprits nevertheless share a perception of civilization plunging into crisis. Our post-9/11 unease goes beyond airport inconvenience, economic disruption and military conflict, all the way to jeremiads warning against waves of perturbing technological innovation.

Amid this gloom, I take solace from that most discomforting of symbols, the clock face emblem of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which helped crystallize an earlier generation's end-of-the-world fable. The day hasn't come when any combination of terror attacks could wreak as much harm as the lethal cargo of one ballistic missile submarine. So should not our worry level be lower than it was in, say, 1980?

But people don't use game theory in weighing their fears, and the new science of Threat Psychology tells why. If the Cold War was run mostly by professionals, terror attacks seem unguided by logic. It is the unpredictable and irrational threat, above all, that makes us shiver.

Does this explain why we hear so many recent commentators expressing fear of technological change? Take Johns Hopkins Professor Francis Fukuyama, whose The End of History and The Last Man (1992) suggested that the collapse of communism might be the final stirring event worth historical chronicling, before the whole world slides into blithe liberal democracy, happily ever after. Alas, short-lived jubilation swiftly gave way to gloom in Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (2002), wherein Fukuyama condemns a wide range of potentially disruptive biological advances. People cannot be trusted to make wise use of -- for example -- genetic therapy. Human "improvability" is so perilous a concept that he prescribes joint government-industry panels to control or ban whole avenues of scientific investigation. Nor is Fukayama alone, fretting over technological innovation gone amock. Popular authors Margaret Atwood and Michael Crichton have probably never voted for the same party or candidate. Yet their novels share a persistent theme with many other anti-modernists, of both left and right, who doubt our ability to solve problems or cope. To the challenges of tomorrow, they respond -- "don't go there."

No issue has helped stoke this ecumenical sense of alienation more than the Great Big Privacy Scare. While the Information Age seems at one level more benign -- (the Internet won't directly blast, kill, mutate or infect us) -- social repercussions of new data-handling technologies seem daunting. Pundits, spanning a spectrum from William Safire to Jeffrey Rosen, have proclaimed this to be our ultimate test. I don't disagree.

Every day, powerful, interconnected databases fill with information about you and about me, fed by inputs from every purchase and every telephone call we make. Cheap sensor technologies will add more cascades of detail, not just from a vast proliferation of cameras (getting cheaper, smaller, faster and more mobile every year) but also from radio frequency ID tags (RFID) that identify and track objects (and the people who happen to be wearing, riding, or chatting into them), along with biometric devices that identify us uniquely by our irises, fingerprints, voices, retinas or dozens of other unique quirks. The torrential output of all these devices will feed into the Internet's sophisticated successors -- government and corporate databases that hunt for connections and make inferences based on them.

(For more detail about the onrushing technologies of knowledge and surveillance, see my recent article in Salon Magazine, "Three cheers for the Surveillance Society!")

[image from Risk Management Monitor]

It all sounds pretty dreadful, and Washington Post reporter, Robert O'Harrow Jr., backs up this disheartening view with copious detail in his new book, No Place to Hide, offering one of the most thorough litanies of information and privacy abuse since Simson Garfinkel's Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century. In particular, O'Harrow's complaints about the behavior of voracious data-mining groups, like Axciom, LexisNexis, and Choicepoint, proved accurate and very well-timed. Just after this book's publication, several companies were caught either violating their own privacy-protection rules or their legal obligations to safeguard private data. Sudden leaks from both Choicepoint and the University of California exposed tens of thousands of records, including credit card information and social security numbers that customers, students and employees all hoped might stay secure.

As William Safire recently wrote: "The outfit that sells the ability to anticipate suspicious activity; that provides security to the nation's security services; that claims it protects people from identity theft -- has been easily penetrated by a gang that stole its dossiers on at least 145,000 people across the country." Whether accidental or the work of hackers, such events steadily erode trust while increasing the near-term danger that we all face from crimes such as identity theft.

Starting with historical context, continuing from Vance Packard's The Naked Society (1964) and Arthur R. Miller's The Assault on Privacy (1970), to post-Watergate reforms that were supposed to end surveillance abuses like COINTELPRO, O'Harrow shows that this is not a new concern. Indeed, many of today's arguments over the proper balance between citizen privacy and the needs of law enforcement are rooted in the pre-Internet era. Only now, the State is vastly better equipped with aptly-named tools like "Carnivore" and "The Matrix," which empower the agencies of our paid protector caste to penetrate everything from telephone lines to email traffic, to a myriad databases, sifting for anything that their constantly shifting criteria might deem threat-related.

The post-9/11 era, featuring angst over an amorphous and ill-defined enemy, has aggravated a political divide that was already severe when I wrote The Transparent Society, back in 1997. This chasm separates those who emphasize a need for enhanced security from opponents who urge that we accept a little added risk in order to preserve traditional liberties. Nowhere has this edgy debate swirled more bitterly than around provisions of the PATRIOT Act which, in response to the New York terror attacks, dramatically bolstered the federal government's wiretap/surveillance powers while shroudring law enforcement activity in a haze of heightened secrecy.

O'Harrow describes the evolution of this landmark law in New Journalism style, "through the eyes of" such adversaries as Senator Patrick Leahy and Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh, following them at breakfast, in the car and through the meetings at which adamant and highly principled (i.e. no-compromise) positions took form. Forsaking any pretence at impartiality, O'Harrow venerates the ACLU lobbyists, who "...grasped the difficulty of their position. They were trying to persuade Americans to hold fast to concerns about individual freedom and privacy while the vast majority of people were terrified."

No passage better illustrates O'Harrow's approach to this serious issue, typifying the snobbery of those on both right and left who share a common need -- to portray the American people as hapless sheep. Sheep who need protection from terrorists, or else sheep who need protection against overprotection. Only a few commentators, notably Elaine Scarry of the Boston Globe, have pointed out that, in fact, most Americans did not panic or act terrified, on or after 9/11. That day, while befuddled professionals waffled uselessly, every practical and effective action was performed by resilient private citizens -- amateurs empowered by information and armed with the very same technologies that dour pundits tell us will bring slavery. Indeed, the resiliency and courage shown by passengers aboard United Flight 93 may have been the top reason why further terror attacks were cancelled, or at least postponed.

(Read how the good news -- about an agile and alert citizenry -- has been hidden or suppressed: "The value -- and empowerment -- of common citizens in an age of danger")

[image from Issues Deliberation]

Other reviewers have touted the good news about O'Harrow's book. For example, if you want a detailed series of anecdotes showing how databases and data mining can be surreptitiously abused by smug or venal interests, by all means get No Place to Hide and find out how many groups, from industry to government to criminal gangs, are trying to gather every bit of information about you. Campaigns to control this trend -- e.g., when Congress stopped all DARPA efforts at achieving "information awareness" -- simply drive each targeted effort underground. Meanwhile, with apparent regularity, supposedly secure systems, like those at LexisNexis, leak (whether by intent or accident). And once information floats free, there is never any calling it back.

As we follow O'Harrow's real-life characters through meetings and rounds of golf, viewing both their quirky hobbies and their passionate battles for-or-against privacy, another commonality of theme emerges. All of them appear to accept the underlying premise of a zero-sum game, or a Great Dichotomy. The notion that we must choose between freedom and safety.

One can hardly blame O'Harrow for imbuing his book with an assumption that seems both widespread and intuitively obvious. A very smart person, Senator Russell Feingold, spoke of this tradeoff during the PATRIOT Act debates. "There is no doubt that if we lived in a police state, it would be easier to catch terrorists. If we lived in a country where the police were allowed to search your home at any time, for any reason... But that would not be a country in which we would want to live."

A truism, indeed. But truisms can lie. Our entire civilization has been based upon Enlightenment concepts that offer positive sum games. Win-win scenarios that have let us escape feudalism, poverty, oppression and ignorance. The very notion of a tradeoff inisidiously serves the interests of those who oppose freedom, because there will inevitably come days when parents worry foremost about security for their children, eagerly handing new tools to those who promise protection. Liberty will lose any resulting ratchet-effect... that is, if we buy into choosing between our childrens' safety and their freedom.

There is no room here to make the full counter-argument. Fortunately, that isn't necessary, for the dismal "tradeoff" notion is disproved by a single counter-example -- us. In all of history, no people were ever so safe and so free. A civilization of vigilant and technologically empowered problem-solvers can and should make those two variables co-dependent.

Are there solutions to the trends described in No Place to Hide? After chapters ranging from biometrics to overseas data laundering to Total Information Awareness, cataloguing what amounts to a tsunami of surveillance from all directions, you might expect the author to finish up by offering suggestions. If not solutions, then at least some palliatives to help us cope. Surprisingly, O'Harrow takes us from introduction to conclusion without proposing even one. Nor does he even hint that others may have proposed an idea or two. (See sidebar.)

When all is said, the book lives up to its gloomy title and premise. The implicit prescription is "grumble at the inevitable."

It did not have to be that way. Early in No Place to Hide, O'Harrow quotes from a prophetic speech in which President Dwight Eisenhower warned against "the acquisition of unwarranted influence... by the military industrial complex." (Former Clinton Administration privacy counselor Peter Swire has echoed this famous admonition by referring to a security-industrial complex -- an apt comparison.)

Then O'Harrow continues with an even more cogent excerpt from the same speech:

"Only an alert and knowledgable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."

There it is. The other suggestion. An alternative to grumbling and the Dichotomy of Gloom. Alas, O'Harrow offers the quotation and then moves on, never commenting or recognizing how Eisenhower's statement differs from nearly every other one in the book. For while warning of a danger, Ike also spoke of opportunity, offering pragmatic ingredients for a genuine solution. One based upon Americans doing what they do best. Both having their cake and eating it. Living both safe and free.

Our destiny is not predetermined by any of the burgeoning technologies that O'Harrow describes in morose detail. I agree that nothing we do will stop a burgeoning of databases and microscopic camera lenses, growing ever cheaper, faster and more numerous, proliferating across the land like crocuses after a spring rain.

And yet, I remain optimistic -- because educated citizens of a modern civilization may be capable of playing a different role than the one plotted out for them by smug elites. A role other than as bleating sheep.

The same role they played on that September day, when the entire protector caste failed, and all we had to fall back on was the resiliency of people. Americans. Our neighbors. Our bulwark and our only real hope.


See also: "Goodbye to Privacy" by WILLIAM SAFIRE, published: April 10, 2005. Safire also refers glowingly to another recent book: Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping, by Patrick Radden Keefe. "This third-year student at Yale Law School dares to make his first book an examination of what he calls the liberty-security matrix. Chatter focuses on government, not commercial, surveillance, and thereby misses the danger inherent in the sinister synergism of the two... This is no time for agnostics.

"For example, what to do about Echelon? That is supposedly an ultrasecret surveillance network, conducted by the United States and four other English-speaking nations, to overhear and oversee signals. 'We don't know whether Echelon exists,' Keefe writes, 'and, if it does exist, how the shadowy network operates. It all remains an enigma.' Though he cannot light a candle, he at least calls attention to, without cursing, the darkness."

Safire goes on to say, about the DARPA programs that have been driven underground: "Poindexter's slogan is being made clear: knowledge is indeed power, and more than a little power in unknowable hands is a dangerous thing."

Alas, Safire ignores the significance of the key word in his sentence... 'unknowable.' Like O'Harrow, he utterly misses the implicit lesson of a topic that he rails against incessantly. The lesson that all centers of power will try, as their first recourse, using secrecy to make life easier for themselves. And even the "good guy" centers of power simply should not be allowed to get away with it. For their own sakes, as much as for our own.