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IEET > Security > Cyber > SciTech > Rights > FreeThought > Privacy > Life > Vision > Contributors > Richard Stallman

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Don’t Surrender the Privacy Battle

Richard Stallman
Richard Stallman
Ethical Technology

Posted: Dec 8, 2012

David Brin’s recommendations in his recent article are based on the presupposition that watching “the mighty” cancels out their ability to watch us.

I wish that were true, but I don't believe it and here's why.  There are two scenarios:

someone who has power over you in particular, and someone who has power over society in general.

* When "the mighty" means your boss.

If your boss can watch you all the time, he can bully you in any or all aspects of your life.  Whether it's bars he objects to or, bowling alleys, or baseball games, if he can watch you all the time, he can fire you if you go to them, which means in effect he can control you.

That bars, bowling alleys and baseball games are legal and generally accepted in our society won't stop him; he doesn't need anyone else's approval to fire you.

Suppose you can watch him all the time, too.  If he sees you went to a baseball game, and you see he went to a bar, that knowledge won't protect you.  Denounce him all you wish for that vidsit to the bar, that won't get him fired for going to a bar unless his boss happens to object.  Unless you catch him doing something illegal, or despised by his boss, your counter-snooping will avail you nothing.

In other words, mutual snooping magnifies any existing power differentials.  Our society has increasing power differentials.
Americans in general are more scared of losing their jobs than they were when I was young.

* When "the mighty" means a high official.

Increased ability to monitor the wrongdoing of poweful officials sometimes allows us to bring them down with scandals.  Surely this puts some fear into them.  However, the worst things that high officials do, they do in meetings and private messages.  We can't see these with camera drones on the street; it takes heroes such as Ellsberg and Manning, and they are rare.  Thus, we cannot monitor the mighty thoroughly in a way that would effectively restrain their power.

There is no substitute for privacy.  Fortunately, we can maintain our privacy -- by limiting by law what companies and the state can collect on a regular basis about everyone.  For instance, instead of requiring that ISPs and phone companies keep data on everyone's contacts, laws could forbid keeping this data except for people already placed on a surveillance list by court order.  We must require new systems to be designed for privacy rather than to collect all possible data.

It is not too late to protect privacy pretty well, but we must insist on it -- which means, not heed the people who say it is hopeless.

I actually lived in a transparent society at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab from 1971 to 1981. The lab's timesharing computer had no security -- the hackers who wrote the Incompatible Timesharing System considered security measures "fascism", and intentionally did not implement any in the system we were going to use. As a result, anyone on the Arpanet could log in and do anything, and anyone could watch what anyone else did. This resulted in a community where people treated each other decently.
I was the most faithful defender of this transparent community. However, I recognized subsequently that it was good to live in precisely because we did not have power disparities to be magnified by the transparency into oppression. The administration of the lab was not inclined to care about what people did on the side as long as their work was good.

Richard Matthew Stallman is an American software freedom activist and computer programmer. He campaigns for the freedom of software endusers to use, study, share (copy) and modify software; software that ensures these freedoms legally (via its license) is termed free software.
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If we can use legislation to protect privacy on the bottom, then why not use it to enforce transparency on the top? The latter would shed light on the inevitable abuses of the former.

Alas, though he is an excellent writer, Richard has shown extreme laziness in this piece, reflexively pulling an “aha! I gotcha!” then dismissing a whole realm of solutions with a facile hand wave.

In fact, the matter of which method to use, in defending freedom and individual safety and rights, is a complex and knotty one that I explore from all angles in The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?

The reflex should be to weigh such matters carefully.  For example, in 20 years I have challenged guys like Richard to name for me one time in all of human history when the elites ever allowed themselves to be limited in what they were allowed to see or know.  Such legal restrictions have been laughable at all times except our own, when SOME restrictions are obeyed… but only out of fear of being caught.

It is absurd to claim that any elite, anywhere would refrain from lookin all it wants, without the threat of reciprocal vision to catch them if they do.  Hence, Richard’s whole scenario, banning elites from looking, is utterly dependent upon mine! Sousveillance or empowering the average folk with the power to look back from below.

Oh, sure, there is an inherent imbalance of power.  Citizens can help balance this by pooling resources in NGOs like the ACLU, EFF and IEET and I urge this all the time. Ngos can hire great lawyers and every day they are fighting the fight. They won the vital case allowing citizens to record police!

To claim that the “boss” is invulnerable to transparency is unforgivably passive and cynically surrenderist.  A citizenry that aggressively despises hyprocisy would solve that problem.  It is already in our mythology and if we don’t take that route no amount of “privacy laws” will even save us.

With cordial regards,

David Brin

David Brin’s reply to my article does not respond to its point.

In his book, and again now, Brin makes the blanket claim that
sousveillance can compensate for surveillance.  I’ve shown a common
case—you and your boss—where all the sousveillance in the world
can’t achieve that.  To encourage people to organize to do more
sousveillance is futile for this problem.

There are problems for which sousveillance is effective: for instance,
against the uniformed thugs on our streets.  It’s effective there
because of specific aspects of that problem.  Thugs may beat you up
and lie to frame you, especially if you’re a dissident or a journalist (see,
but if you can prove that, they can get in trouble.  (Not as much
trouble as it ought to be.)  This is a job that sousveillance can do.

On the contrary, in the US your boss is allowed to fire you for any
reason whatsoever, aside from a few specific reasons prohibited by
antidiscrimination laws.  Video footage of him firing you won’t help
you.  Video footage of his vacation won’t help you either, unless it
catches him committing a crime or a firing offence; and in the total
surveillance world, where his career depends on avoiding such
mistakes, he probably will have done nothing you could use.

Brin talks about whether we can control what elites are allowed to
“see”, “know” and “look at”.  Those words don’t fit this issue; we are
not talking about their noticing what occurs in front of their eyes.
We are talking about massive digital surveillance systems, which can
hardly be installed secretly, and which are usually promoted or
imposed, if not actually run, by large companies and the state.  We
have a chance of controlling them if we organize politically to demand

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