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|Science fiction is often a reliable predictor of the future, so it’s
no surprise that a noted science fiction writer would take to the
non-fiction “impact of technology” realm. It worked for Bruce
Sterling, so why not for David Brin.
Brin argues an interesting and controversial case about the nature of privacy and accountability in an era of widespread surveillance technologies. Unlike Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown, which recounted and examined the impact of 1990 law enforcement actions against the computer underground, The Transparent Society is more of a predictive volume.
Brin’s central point is that surveillance technologies will soon become all-pervasive and nearly undetectable, with platforms ranging from cameras in public places (as are being used presently in Baltimore and London) to bee-like drones with inflatable lenses. What is not so clear is whether these technologies will be controlled by the government or available for everyone to use as they see fit. The best scenario, according to The Transparent Society, is the widest possible deployment of surveillance tools so that anyone and everyone can be surveilled at any given time. And, yes, “everyone” includes the government, though Brin admits certain exceptions would need to be made.
Contrary to some views, the author argues that cryptography presents a barrier to universal openness. In particular, Brin takes on the “strong” case for cryptography by pointing out the following logical progression:
Or, as he says elsewhere in the book, “whenever a conflict arises between privacy and accountability, people demand the former for themselves and the latter for everybody else.”
The scenario under which Brin admits the desirability of secrecy by cryptography, countersurveillance technologies or what have you, is where a government demands openness on the part of its citizens but does not reciprocate. Given the track record of governments of all types, especially one where a relatively liberal president can be swayed so easily by arguments in favor of compromised encryption systems, I must admit I find this scenario the most probable of all. A basic principle of management, at least as it is practiced in Washington, is that the best plan is one no one else understands. After all, if no one else understands a course of action, they can’t counteract it effectively.
Brin’s arguments are nowhere as simplistic as I’ve portrayed them here; he goes into substantial detail on every point and makes his case effectively. What I like most, however, is his willingness to admit that his main scenario may not come about and to analyze the alternatives. Rather than destroying his credibility by sticking dogmatically to a single theme, David Brin has written a thoughtful book that should provoke serious debate in the policy community.
Curtis D. Frye (email@example.com) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.