Home > Future of Privacy, Privacy, Video Surveillance > More Privacy through Maximum Transparency?

More Privacy through Maximum Transparency?

Banksy, kissing police man, photo (c) Pete Barr-Watson

I read an interesting interview in Wired online with David Brin, an award-winning sci-fi author who deals in his book The Transparent Society with how privacy in our society might look like in the future. His concept states that it is unrealistic to try to stop surveillance of all parts of our lives and privacy protection laws just create the illusion of privacy. Because by passing privacy laws you restrict access to surveillance information and have to trust powerful authorities to abide to these laws. However, the powerful have no incentive not to break the laws; there is no measure in place to avoid usage of the available data (though I think there are technological solutions to that) – this reminds me of yesterdays story of how the richer you are the more likely your are to break rules.

In order to offer true privacy, Brin states, everyone needs freedom of access to all information, i.e. to level the playing field. If everyone of us has access to all video surveillance feeds, to Facebook data, to phone data, all the time, everyone has the same level of privacy and the freedom to know everything. In a way, this is like everyone is your Facebook friend.

I find this concept fascinating but cannot picture how society might work if this actually happens. It would mean that anyone can spy on their neighbors, that you can never be sure if your neighbor watches you. This would create a state where each of us watches themselves because who knows who is watching (in the sense of Foucaults Panopticon). Further, criminals can use it to determine when to rob a bank or a store or break in a building. For this reason, in our society today, power is not divided equally (and access to information is part of this power). For example, not everyone is allowed to carry guns, but the police is. And this makes sense in a way, otherwise we cannot have an executive branch of our government if it does not have the power to execute laws. So in practice it might be quite difficult to implement Brin’s concept. It would require a complete shift of how our society works today.

By the way, the Wired article is from 1996, where David Brin states that “in a decade, you’ll never know the cameras are there”. Well, clearly 16 years later we still know they are there and CCTV use has not yet exploded the way he might have predicted. However, through new technology, his transparent society already happens in a way, e.g. during protests, where both protesters as well as police use cameras to record events.

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