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David Brin on Privacy 365

David Brin is interviewed and provides some strong words on modern conceptions of privacy and why they're off-base. Brin asserts - and argues well - that a land with little privacy is a freer land.
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David Brin on Privacy

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  • by fluxrad ( 125130 ) on Thursday February 14, 2002 @09:04AM (#3006357) Homepage
    e.g - who cares who's watching me smoke marijuana, so long as i have the freedom to smoke it.

    of course, this all begs the question: which came first, the paranoia of not wanting to be watched, or the laws that we're all trying to hide from?
  • by RC514 ( 546181 ) on Thursday February 14, 2002 @09:10AM (#3006387) Homepage
    Allowing some entity to know almost all about you is fine as long as people roughly have the same idea of what you can and can't do. As soon as the government decides to go another route, their power of knowledge is going to hurt anyone in their way. Technology allows a decreasing number of people to control many and that technological power is necessarily concentrated in relatively few people. No matter how much you control them, when they decide to leave you behind, they can and will do that.
  • by Charm ( 313273 ) on Thursday February 14, 2002 @09:12AM (#3006395)
    I think that the view that democracy and freedom protects us is flawed. Rather it is the beuracracy that we lay in the path that slows down corruption we should consider. Such beuracracy slows down the right people from changing the root laws as it does the evil. The best chance then is for a society to start with good root laws and layer them with a defensive structure of beuracracy. This stands the test of time and a revolution every 500 years is better than every 50.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 14, 2002 @09:19AM (#3006426)
    I believe the best chance for the general-public getting its hands on survalence data, is to generate it ourselves. Create gnu survalence system where its users point there web cameras out the window. All data is uploaded to a central server where face recognition software tracks the whereabouts of everybody. With a simple query of the live database Joe Sixpack can find out the whereabouts of prez.

    Moores Law Makes it Possible, in a few years.
  • by sphealey ( 2855 ) on Thursday February 14, 2002 @09:24AM (#3006441)
    I was reading a newspaper article a few months ago (can't remember if it was WSJ, NYT, or Chicago Tribune) about the FBI's use of private databases to dig up information on suspects. The reporter called the database company and ordered searches on the Director of the FBI, John Ashcroft, Bill Gates, Laura Bush, and a few others in similar positions of power. He received a reply of "sorry - we don't sell information on those people" from the database company.

    So if living one's life in full view is such a great thing, why do the powerful arrange things so that they (and their families) don't?


  • by Elbow Macaroni ( 315256 ) <> on Thursday February 14, 2002 @09:24AM (#3006443) Journal
    I think there would be less of a call for privacy if morality laws would be revoked.

    Some states say you can only have sex in certain ways whether or not you are a consenting adult. I believe some states even outlaw homosexuality.

    There are just too many really stupid and unenforceable laws out there for people to feel comfortable. For example: Why is it legal to pay someone to have sex on camera but illegal to pay someone to have sex with you unfilmed? Hmmm....

    And the absurd war on drugs -- people would probably use less drugs if they were legal. The laws against drug use #1 assume that the citizens don't have the ability to use them intelligently and #2 force us to go to a doctor, even if we don't need or want to. I mean why should I go to a doctor to get medicine for things that are obvious? Example: head lice - uh hello, it's a bug and it's in my hair...duh.....if I can't read the outside of the box why would I be able to read my physicians handwriting???

    Another problem with having no privacy is sales people. Just like Verio phoning up all the new clients in the DNS records, noone wants encyclopedia salesmen to know where they live or what their phone number is, etc. If we want to buy encyclopedias we'll call them.

    And last but not least it is the power people can have over you. Mostly this is the government. I don't want the government to be able to profile me and others like me and make us the target of whatever. This wouldn't have to be just the government either it could be Jeffrey Dahmer or some other entity or individual.

    There is just no way that I can see that less privacy would make American's more free. That's really impossible. Our privacy lets us speak out without fear of reprisals just like I am doing right now.

    If I knew that everything I just wrote would be immediately forwarded to the FBI along with my name, and social security number, menses cycle, age, weight, color, financial status, dob, hair and eye color, copy of fingerprint, and the last 20 posts I did, last 100 web searches, & etc. Do you really think I would have written it?
  • by volts ( 515080 ) on Thursday February 14, 2002 @09:27AM (#3006448) Homepage
    I bought Brin's book (ISBN: 0738201448) when it came out in '99. I was struck with his sense that surveilance in the larger sense was technologically inevitable- not only cameras, but every expenditure, even RF tags on your money . He argued that it was impossible to supress this capability; that doing so would simply give those in power the ability to take unfair advantage; so we should make everything completely transparent. If we all have the legal right to spy on each other, the little guy can't be sanctioned for finding out what the bigs guys are up to - kind of a pessimists take on "information wants to be free".

    Maybe I'm failing to adapt to change, but the prospect of what he proposes makes me really uncomfortable and could lead to a level of social conformity that most of us would find stiffing. Also, I don't know that I have that little faith in our (western civilization's - I'm Canadian) ability to govern our behaviour and that of our institutions.

    The book is worth a read - I may just haul it out and take another look.

  • by nomadic ( 141991 ) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (dlrowcidamon)> on Thursday February 14, 2002 @09:30AM (#3006462) Homepage
    Or the 9th...

    What we really need is a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to privacy; the only problem is the Constitution places limits on the power of government, not private individuals/corporations. So while it would be nice for it to be easier to prevent the government from spying on us, we still have the problem of corporations eager to figure out what breakfast cereals we prefer.
  • Listen to this man (Score:5, Interesting)

    by SlashDread ( 38969 ) on Thursday February 14, 2002 @09:32AM (#3006471)
    David is dead on.

    "Information wants to be free"

    Apply this to information about YOU.

    My point is, most of our actions are done in the public sphere, and can be observed by ANY casual observer. In theory, what anyone does in a public space, cannot be private by definition. Is it bad that people track you for your personal buying habits?

    I dont think so, because I _could_ have spotted you buying it anyway.

    Now, the problem is in WHO can see that data. F.E. if the governement or anyone really, has data on me, Id sure want to know what. So I should be granted access to that data. If only to correct errors made.

    "Information is power"

    It sure is. Just ask the MPAA.
    Now who should have this power? Everyone. That way we can garantee supervising the supervisors.

    So.. Privacy doesnt really exists, but that does not scare me. Information exists, and what scares me if the powers have infomation, that the public has no access too. That way the balance is off.

    Gr /Dread
  • Re:Nice try (Score:3, Interesting)

    by JordanH ( 75307 ) on Thursday February 14, 2002 @09:32AM (#3006474) Homepage Journal
    • The problem is oversight of people with power.

    That's the problem. Laws designed to protect people's privacy are always abused by people in the public sphere to do dirty dealing in private.

    We don't need Campaign Finance Reform. What we really need is for all of the political deliberations and contributions to be publicly available. Then, we could choose which politicians to support based on which special interests they listen and act upon.

  • by greensquare ( 546383 ) on Thursday February 14, 2002 @09:52AM (#3006558)
    250 Years ago, before the American Revolution, the founding fathers of America realized that the gov't they were living under was broken. They found it to be unacceptable. Thus began America.

    Our ( America's) new gov't was framed in the idea that gov't can't be perfect, and that if it gets really screwed up, citizens should have the power to revolt, and to create a new gov't. This, I believe, is the root behind the 2nd amendment. Regular common people, it was written, should have the right to bear arms, form up a non-state controlled militia, and fight for their rights if they need to. ( Of course they never dreamed how of the twisted ways liberals would try to interpret the second amendment. If only they would have been a little more specific.)

    I agree with the author. We SHOULD be fighting intensely for rigorous oversight of the Gov't in the cases where we can't stop them from taking our freedoms.. But we should NOT embrace the erosion of our freedom. Freedom is not just "freedom from attack by foreign bad people." Freedom is also "freedom from your own gov't." As we let the gov't be more in control, and in the know regarding each of our lives, we really are setting ourselves up to be citizens of the Big Brother country of the future, where it will be totally impossible for people to revolt if the USA runs astray.

  • by sphealey ( 2855 ) on Thursday February 14, 2002 @09:55AM (#3006573)
    They probably don't want to open themselves up to be liable or responsible for providing info that could be the ticket to getting them kidnapped or murdered. I bet you couldn't buy info on most public people, government or otherwise. It could be suicide for the company if one information puchase could be linked directly to some terrible event.
    But it is perfectly OK for the same company to sell information to someone who desires to steal my identity, or violate my constitution rights (the FBI was using the private database company because they claimed that such information was not subject to FOIA requests or subponeas)?

    Where exactly in the US Constitution does it say that there is a protected class of people, say goverment employees, who get additional protection over and above the law? Does the Constitution not in fact explicity forbid granting of titles of nobility?


  • by SerpentMage ( 13390 ) <> on Thursday February 14, 2002 @09:57AM (#3006577)
    Last year at an Apache Conference I heard David Brin talk. Really interesting! And then I bought his book at the conference. He has a lot to say and definitely worth the read.

    The problems that he outlines are very legit and there is only his solution as a way out. For example he says secrecy laws like in Europe are DUMB. Living in Europe I thought they were good, but he put in further terms.

    Data is immortal. Hence with data secrecy laws what ends up happening is some people have power and others do not. And having run conferences and mailing lists that is the exact problem. Once I ok the use of my data I cannot control it. For example lets say I want a mortgage. In Europe I sign a sheet saying yes the bank has the right to look at all of my data. But the question what data will the bank look at? And how will they use that data? The secrecy laws do not address that issue. That is the crux of the problem with or without data secrecy laws. I have no idea how the data is being used.

    David Brin argues you can give out all the data you want, but you have control on what is being seen and manipulated.

    My favourite part of his book is the following (it starts off with that). We have privacy in public. For example lets say that you go to lunch with people. Do other people listen in on your conversation? No because people mind their own business. The reason is because people can see when you are not minding your own business. And that is the crux of his argument regarding privacy laws. We cannot tell companies or governments to mind their own business!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 14, 2002 @10:01AM (#3006602)
    You are correct in that our notions of a Constitutional Right to Privacy are based on the Griswold case. However, it doesn't end there. That case was not decided unanimously, and the lead opinion on it speaks of this "right" only in incredibly vague terms: "penumbras" that "eminate" from the fourth amendment. A very strong and vocal opponent of the Griswold decision was Robert Bork, who nearly became a Justice back in what, '87 or so? And who could have possibly called for the ruling to be overturned.

    What we consider a Right to Privacy stands in incredibly shaky ground, made all the more shaky by the many people who assume it's more well-grounded than it actually is. I would love to see an actual Constitutional Right to Privacy, which exactly what that means spelled out in detail, but it of course will never happen. And it certainly won't happen in the current climate where, unless you're the Vice President, if you have something to hide than it's clearly something evil and wrong.
  • by Crixus ( 97721 ) on Thursday February 14, 2002 @10:01AM (#3006603)
    Brin may be right, or he may be wrong.

    The fact is that most Americans don't care if they have the government oversite that he speaks of. They TRUST their government.... after all, we're the GOOD guys. We would NEVER do anything wrong.

    I saw Phil Zimmermann speak a few years ago and Phil spoke about how technical infrastructures rarely go away. There are no laws mandating 120 volts @ 60 cycles in the US. It's just an infrastructure that's in place, that will likely not go away, ever.

    The same will be true for the spying infrastructures that we're allowing our government to install.

    Brin's argument assumes a truly awful government will never be elected or take power by coup. Apparently he knows nothing about history.

    Installing these infrstructures is a terrible mistake that we will one day regret.

  • by AndyS ( 655 ) on Thursday February 14, 2002 @10:08AM (#3006638)
    Is this about the Data Protection Act?

    Over here, it means that we get the right to control who gets access to data about us, and we get the right to view data held upon us.

    So, for example, it is a requirement to ask me if they want to sell my details to spam me (although of course, they usually try and hide it), and that, if say, the government, or my doctor, or my employer has information on me, for a small fee (the cost of looking up the information), I can demand access to it.

    Sounds like a good law to me.
  • A bit Naive. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by modipodio ( 556587 ) on Thursday February 14, 2002 @10:10AM (#3006649)
    " I just wish they weren't so contemptuous of the masses. If they weren't, they would notice that people are very sensible."

    I do not think the problem is that the majority of people are stupid more that the majority of people are apethetic and lazy about issues which could effect them in both the long/short run, and unless something is shown to have a very direct immediate negative effect on there day to day lives ,in general the majority of people do not care about it and will not do any thing signifigant about it.

    "Government power is kept in check by stripping the powerful down and subjecting them to scrutiny in the application of their delegated power, so that abuse of the power can be caught and rapidly dealt with. We are protected by enhancing our ability to see them, not by reducing their ability to see us."

    The whole issue of who funds party's running for Government needs to be addressed before we will see truly open and observable government and business .Until this happens I do not believe that the public will be given, "fierce accountability measures", in fact I think that in most cases whatever laws or legislation that get's passed will most likely come out heavily in favor of big busines and not the general public.

    People will not wake up one morning and suddenly find all there rights taken away and a secret police officer at there door enquiring about the printed copy of the anarchists cookbook under there bed .What is more likely to happen is a slow eroision of rights that the general public take for granted and are to apathetic to do anything about and by the time they realise, "hey why can't I do that any more ", and decide that maybe they should have done something about that 'crazy russian commie' who cracked adobe's ebook program and that maybe there Privacy is some thing they should care about,it will be to late and The majority of people through apathy and not a lack of inteligence will have, "grant(ed) our servants the tools they claim they need".

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 14, 2002 @10:28AM (#3006768)
    "just as harmful for a supermarket to know what salad dressing you bought as it is for a convicted abuser to know the location of the battered wives "

    This overlooks what he has already said regarding people on mass being smart. On an individual basis yes it's worse for the criminal to have the knowledge than the supermarket but on the agregated level if the super markets know enough it gives them more power to market to you.

    Something that may be unwelcome an is one reason why I would protect my privacy.
  • by a random streaker ( 538956 ) on Thursday February 14, 2002 @11:34AM (#3007514) Homepage
    If I didn't see it with my own eyes, I would think this [] was some high school student's term paper of what he considers deep political philosophy.

    It says you have the "right to liberty". Yet:

    - Consider article 14 "the right to education"

    "This right includes the possibility to receive free compulsory education."

    That is possibly the worst 1984/Brave New World NewSpeak I have ever heard. Your "right to education" includes the power to force others, at the point of a gun, to cough up cash to hire teachers, and here is the precious part your right includes the power of others to force you to partake of that education.

    Every single one of these "rights" is exercised as permitted by law, which is to say, it isn't a right. Witness article 16 "The freedom to conduct a business in accordance with Community law and national laws and practices is recognized."

    What the hell does that mean other than there is no right other than what the governments allow? Almost all the described "rights" are these non-rights that exist as designed by law.

    "No one may be deprived of his or her posessions, except in the public interest"

    "Public interest" is a nonsense phrase that means "whenever the government feels like" because the governments are defined as agents of the public. Would not a US government lawyer have dreams of a phrase like "use of property may be regulated by law in so far as is necessary for the general interest"?

    Can anyone please propose any possible thing a government may do that could not be argued is in the "general" or "public" interest?

    Other idiocy at random:

    "The Union recognizes...the rights of the participate in social and cultural life."

    Notice the brutish absence of the right of the elderly to continue working past mandatory retirement ages. It's couched in their leading "a life of dignity and independence", i.e. you're done working now, here's your monthly check, don't try to work or we'll have to un-dignify you.

    "The right of so-and-so is inviolable, as is permitted through national laws governing its exercise."

    This clownish listing of "rights" does little more than wrap current national laws of EU with a piece of wet bread that justifies, indeed holds holy, the current laws. "A right to a free job placement service"? Puh-leeze.

  • by MarkWatson ( 189759 ) on Thursday February 14, 2002 @11:38AM (#3007543) Homepage
    I spent a pleasant afternoon at David Brin's house last fall, and in addition generally enjoying our talk, I came away with a feeling that he believes that intellectuals have a responsibility to think about the hard problems in the world.

    His stance on surveilance might be a little idealistic (I tend to the more paranoid fears of big-gorvernments of now inefficient nation states increasingly getting rough with their own citizens).

    He admits readily to being a very optimistic person.

    In addition to issues of uniform access to surveilance information, he also talked about his ideas for "EON" Eye of the Needle Foundation, discussing the lack of morality of some high stakes investing, the possibility of the new-rich to donate their money for "positive sum games", charities that do the most good, and at the same time give the givers positive notoriety.

    Anyway, disagree with David Brin if you want, but he seems right-on in his personal convictions.


  • Dumb quote (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Catbeller ( 118204 ) on Thursday February 14, 2002 @12:06PM (#3007799) Homepage
    We are never going to see what the Bush adminstration is doing, not now, not ever. Nor Reagan's, nor Papa Bush's, nor Jeb Bush's.

    By fiat, Bush has declared his record as governor of Texas sealed, his dad's sealed, and of course, Reagan's -- a lot of his staff are Reagan's people, and it could be very distressing to read the Iran-Contra records.

    Somehow, Jeb Bush got his records sealed, a neat deal since he is violating the state of Florida's sunshine laws.

    What the Bush admin wants, and corporations want, and the spooks want, and federal cops want, is access to OUR lives, for snooping, marketing, tracking, occasional blackmail, who knows?

    What they do not want is their activities to be shown in the light of day. Ever.

    Brin's nuts if he thinks we get a transparent government in trade for us stripping naked on a Homeland Security Monitor's command. We will get a fascist dictatorship beyong the dreams of any Austrian paperhanger.

    And ten years from now, a pony nuke will detonate in front of the Statue of Liberty, and won't we all look like goddam idiots.

    Not a single thing that the constitution's rewriters are proposing will stop a determined attack. They will get through, and we will respond by becoming even more psychotic.

    There is NO correlation with privacy and vulnerability. Singapore, a nation which posts goverment monitors at apartment buildings to monitor the citizenry, was recently amazed when the CIA told their authorities that they had three, THREE Al Queda cells operating in their Perfect, Safe, Orderly World. Their Homeland Security, probably the most insane in the world, was totally flummoxed.

    I imagine their response will be more instrusive monitoring of all citizens.

    Insanity on more insanity. We discover a fire in our house, and we try to douse it with gasoline. Since that doesn't work, obviously we need more gasoline; and shout down that man over there if he unpatriotically points out that it won't work.
  • by John Guilt ( 464909 ) on Thursday February 14, 2002 @12:17PM (#3007895) quote the Good Doctor---in this case, the powerful will always try to cloak what they do, at least if we avoid the sort of fascism/Klingonry in which you _gloat_in_public_ over how much you're screwing everyone else. That is, no matter what the restrictions are, the powerful will buy their ways out of them, or what's a heaven for (that is, what's the point of being a powerful bastard if you can't enjoy things not available to other people)?

    The only solution I can see is to eliminate power differentials; this is probably impossible. However, this doesn't eliminate pursuing a "harm reduction" policy. To my mind, the most obvious course is putting a floor on how powerless or abject you _can_ get, and increasing the likelihood of turnovers in societal power.

    For example, we will never be able to guaranty that innocent people won't be imprisoned, but if we do guaranty that anyone, no matter how much we might hate them[sic], has the right to vote and to publish their grievances, and not to be killed, then we are all a bit safer from the government. If we put in a firm anti-lynching policy, we are safer from The People; if there is some kind of basic sustenance floor to the economy, we are less open to coercion (don't bother telling me it's not 'really') by our bosses.

    If one party is always in power, they will treat members of others badly. If there are fairly regular changeovers, every party has an interest in seeing that the losers are not treated too badly. Similarly, if Mr Ashcroft could be convinced that the guns and cameras he wants will eventually be aimed at _him_....well, he might get off on it, unfortunately---he already believes himself to be living in a Universal Dictatorship, where you're always under observation and your only right is to freely choose to agree with the Boss or go to a very bad prison forever.

    Sorry; well, to pop the stack: if a _reasonably_ _rational_ Attorney General were to believe that that powerful white men like him were eventually subject to frequent random stops in his neighbourhood, racial profiling there wouldn't be an issue (this is why the "racial" element is so nasty---it cuts off the feedback loop by assuring some people that it will never happen to _them_).
  • by Sir Tristam ( 139543 ) on Thursday February 14, 2002 @12:37PM (#3008005)
    Not according to that very document you point at. If you look down at the bottom, all the way in Article 29, you'll see Paragraph 3. 29(3) reads:
    These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
    So, according to the UN, they're not really human rights, they're just what they're willing to let you do as long as you don't get in the way of what the UN wants to do. They just call them "Human Rights" in hopes that you won't realize there's not really anything of substance left at the end. As an example, if the UN decides that part of its purpose is to rid the world of firearms, their granting you a "right" of privacy (Article 12) goes right out the window.

    (Boy, I can't wait to see the moderations on this one.)

    Chris Beckenbach

  • by w3woody ( 44457 ) on Thursday February 14, 2002 @02:39PM (#3008806) Homepage
    If we all lead transparent lives, then we can all live in peace --

    Stop there.

    The Bush administration has put ALL of its records into a vault, effectively for all time. And Reagan's. And Bush the First's. And Jeb's. Cheney is leading the way to establishing a totally opaque ruling junta. They are building walls around themselves. Hell, we don't even know where the Vice President is!!!

    Did you even read Brin's article? If you had, you would have realized that the problem he has with the current debate is exactly the thing you point out--that our loss of privacy is currently happening without a corrisponding loss of privacy within the Government.

    Without that corrisponding loss of privacy within the Government, it strips us of our own privacy without the necessary controls to allow us to know who has information on us and what they are doing with it. It also allows a small, elite class of people to arise who can control information on themselves (and, thus, do great harm or illegal stuff a'la Enron), while the rest of us are relegated to "sheep."

    Until this transparency happens in Government, there is a problem.

    The current power structure has shown what it will do with "transparency": nail its enemies and reward its friends.

    And that's why Brin, in his article, called for transparency within Government. Otherwise, we cannot watch the watchers.

    No, I think I'll stay with my freedom, if it's all the same to you.

    But you have already lost your freedom. Enron happened; the powerful elite who can control the public's ability to see what they are doing already have closed the shutters and have already committed crimes which took money out of your pocket (if you are an investor or live in California and buy electricity here).

    Only transparency (which means also the transparency to see what Bush--and Clinton--had to do with Enron) will allow you to prevent a bunch of elite thieves from picking your pocket in the future.
  • by TFloore ( 27278 ) on Thursday February 14, 2002 @03:19PM (#3009074)
    I can (with misgivings) accept a transparent society, with government and citizens having access to a large amount of information about citizens, government, and government processes.

    But there is another requirement to this.

    With transparency MUST come tolerance. And I worry that there is not sufficient tolerance in our society to allow transparency. There are too many "minority rights" issues still around for me to really believe that there is enough tolerance for transparency to work well.

    I'd also say that this would require removing a lot of the so-called victimless crimes, drug use among them. But then, that's almost a completely separate (and loud, probably) argument.
  • by markmoss ( 301064 ) on Thursday February 14, 2002 @05:50PM (#3010168)
    There is actually a much, much bigger prerequisite to reaching Brin's ideal society, one which Brin never faces. And that is that a lot of everyday activities by normal people are now technically illegal. Americans have this terrible habit of trying to legislate an ideal world, and then hoping the cops don't catch them breaking those laws. Unfortunately, between the cops greater efficiency, and ever longer sentences for the poor bastards that did get caught and aren't named "Bush", our greatest growth industry has become prisons. Put out enough video cameras without changing the laws, and they'd better figure out how to make prisons self-supporting, because there won't be enough people on the outside paying taxes!

Someone is unenthusiastic about your work.