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Don’t Surrender the Privacy Battle
Richard Stallman   Dec 8, 2012   Ethical Technology  

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 Stallman
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 authorizes these freedoms legally (via its license) is termed free software.


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

Okay Richard, I’ve actually read you objections. The chief problem is that you assume a static social environment, not a dynamic one. This is one of the five major fallacies I pointed out in my article:

In this scenario, your “static worldview” is that the relationship of “individuals” to “jobs” will never change, while current reality is already showing that belief to be false. Increasingly, as more and more “jobs” are automated, and more and more people have little choice but to become competitors in the market instead of passive consumers, the dynamic you use of “Boss to employee” is going to become far less meaningful.

The second assumption you make is that the “massive digital surveillance systems” will remain solely a tool of the “corporations or State”, ignoring the reality that such systems are quite likely to become possible for the individual to access, via “Digital Twins” or other Intelligent Agent software, able to monitor and track vast networks of information as easily as the NSA does today.

In brief, you have failed to account for the possibility of a future that is actually different than today, and have merely taken today, and based all your arguments on a presumed static worldview.

It’s good that Val commented, I had missed this article the first time.

I tend to agree with Richard.

They (big government and big business) have all the guns. They can shoot us even when we have the moral high ground. Ask Snowden or Assange. Or Manning, who couldn’t escape.

I wish to call your attention on this essay of mine, a preliminary version of which was posted here at IEET:

I initially meant this proposal as a half-joke, now I consider it a 10% joke and 90% serious proposal. We should really think of something like that.

Obviously this is a crucial debate, one of the hottest and possibly most important debates currently taking place about where technology is taking us. Like Giulio I am inclined to agree with Richard, and David’s rather scathingly-worded reply seems to me to suggest that he is filtering evidence to bolster his pre-existing beliefs. And yes, it does seem to me that it essentially misses Richard’s point.

Val’s point about statis vs dynamic environment seems more interesting, but it still leaves me somewhat fearful of this trend towards massive sur/sousveillance. Also, the whole use of this term “elites” is something that we might usefully question. Obviously, some people have vastly more power, wealth and resources than others, but in addition to this companies and other structures are emerging (and competing with nation states) that wield enormous resources towards purposes that may have little to do with the interests of individual people. I’m just not sure what the term “elites” means in this context, or whether it is even still a useful term. I guess it made more sense in Marx’s day.

With regard to Giulio’s “10% joke”: fine as a joke; as a serious proposal, it makes me shudder. Perhaps because I’ve recently read The Circle (but no, come to think of it it already made me shudder before).

Come on Peter, the politicians work so hard, let them have some fun too. Participating in Big Brother is supposed to be fun, and after their term they can get new gigs as comedians and media stars, where I believe they may perform better.

Well at the moment it seems to be the other way round: comedians becoming politicians. (Previously it was actors.)

Have you read The Circle? I have the impression some people take it quite seriously. I think the author was basically having a laugh, but I also think it sheds some (albeit not terribly realistic) light on this whole issue. And it’s a good read. Of course it’s another one of those dystopian visions, but they are not without their uses, and this one directly addresses the issue of sur/sousveillance of politicians, and what that could mean in practice.

Footnote: these terms “surveillance” and “sousveillance” reflect what I call the “gravitational metaphor”, this hierarchical view of society where there are those “on top” and those “on the bottom”. (The monkeys on the top branches look down and see smiling faces, the ones on the bottom branches look up and see a bunch of a**holes.) It still has its uses, but it also has its limitations when understanding the real implications of everyone watching everyone else.

Yes, look at Snowden, Manning, et al.  Who despite the dangers, still blew the whistle, and caused change, small though it was.

Of course the first impulse of authoritarianism is suppression.

And as Leia tells Tarkin “The tighter you grip, the more people will slip through your fingers.”

Sad as it is, it’s going to take some more martyrs to keep making change. Remember I’ve never claimed there was no attempt to make “Big Brother”. I’ve always claimed the REACTION to attempts to make BB would lead to true transparency and the death of tyranny.

@ Valkyrie Ice’s comment posted on the 05/30 at 03:01 PM.

The conversion of employees into precarious “contractors” or
piece-workers is a disaster for the most of them: it denies them the rights that workers have secured through decades of political action, sometimes even the minimum wage.  A lucky few, professionals that command high rates of pay find free-lancing liberating, but they are the exceptions.  (Maltreatment of temps hired through contractors is one of the reasons why I urge people to refuse to buy anything from Amazon; see

I expect political resistance to grow, as part of the “new populism”. Victory is not guaranteed; perhaps the harmful change will proceed as the previous writer envisions. 

But as long as it does not go to 100%, there will still be employees to whom my statement applies exactly. But it also applies to precarious contractors, mutatis mutandis.  Many work for a single employer, though they don’t get regular hours.  They still have to fear dismissal.

When a contractor works for many companies, that lessens the danger of getting no more work for a quirky reason such as being a stamp collector or wearing blue clothes.  A quirk, by definition, is not shared by most hirers.

But what if the reason is not a quirk?  What if you get no more work because you went to a meeting of a union or the Green Party?  You may find yourself effectively blacklisted, since all potential employers find the same information about you.  In the precarious world, with no such thing as unemployment benefits, you will soon be begging for the right to remove that information from your dossier, or begging on the street.

And when enough people are in that situation, RMS?

You fail to take your thinking any farther. You STOP. And then discuss things as if time has ceased to move.

Repercussions. Society is not static, and no form of totalitarianism can last forever, because they create the very enemies that overthrow them.

Yes, it’s not going to be pleasant for everyone. I wish it could be, but I’m a cynic. Humans seem to have to make every error mode possible in pursuit of short sighted profit before they finally move on to long term strategies that benefit everyone.

How many people will need to be blacklisted before enough of them raise a protest and laws get passed that make blacklisting much harder to do? Sadly, far more than I would wish.

You can quibble all you wish about the dangers of the pebble in our pathway, but I’d still advise lifting your eyes and looking past the stage “when bad things happen” to “what comes AFTER the bad things happen.”

Thing is you’re talking lots of social victims/casualties along the way, especially at times of growing employment scarcity?

Example: Construction workers and their Union representatives working on the London 2012 Olympic stadium construction who highlighted Health and Safety issues/shortfalls were indeed dismissed AND Blacklisted resulting in loss of work for them across the entire construction sector as rms highlights - fact.

Only when this illegal blacklisting was finally uncovered and govt were forced to intervene was justice served for workers, yet with great loss of income in between?

So.. until such time where total transparency presides, there should be laws to protect workers from blacklisting?

Olympic park workers ‘blacklisted over political views’

Transparency: Blast from the past..

Whatever happened to “Tank man”


Exactly Cygnus.

Transparency is the ONLY solution to such abuses of power, but yes, unfortunately, to prevent those abuses ahead of time, it’s going to take people willing to actually face the truth that SECRECY IS WHAT MAKES THIS POSSIBLE.

And bitching, whining, and complaining about “privacy” because you mistake the ability to keep secrets as being the same things as people granting you privacy ONLY INSURES THAT THE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF VICTIMS MUST OCCUR PRIOR TO SOLUTION.

I CANNOT make it any plainer than this. As both Brin and I keep saying over and over and over, ONLY universal OMNIDIRECTIONAL surveillance, in which you and I and everyone else is watching the “Big Boys” as HARD or HARDER than they can watch us will prevent the maximum number of corpses paving the road to tomorrow.

But so long as people stay obsessed with the idea of HIDING, all they will accomplish is making such abuse easier to accomplish.

Valkyrie Ice argues that bad consequences such as blacklisting are unimportant because they will surely provoke a rebellion.  It sounds panglossian to me.

No RMS. I am saying flat out that the sole way to make blacklisting less harmful is to hold the people doing it to account, which can ONLY be done if transparency exists.

People have to be aware of it going on before they can stop it.

And to illustrate:

Here are the most consequential reactions to Snowden’s leaks.

1. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had to admit he lied to Congress.

2. The House passed a bill (ostensibly) meant to stop bulk collection of phone metadata.

3. A federal judge said the NSA phone surveillance program is unconstitutional.

4. Tech companies finally got serious about privacy.

5. Britain held its first-ever open intelligence hearing.

6. Germany opened an investigation into the tapping of Chancellor
Angela Merkel’s cell phone.

7. Brazil scotched a $4 billion defense contract with Boeing.

8. President Barack Obama admitted there would be no surveillance debate without Snowden.

Now. Tell me again how useless transparency is?

If “transparency” is to enable us to find out that blacklisting is going on, it would have to include publishing all private correspondence, or at least all private correspondence involving anyone that might decide who to hire. Is that what you propose? That’s a lot more radical than the sousveillance I’ve seen people advocate.

The Transparent society and laws pertaining to privacy protections should evolve together, they are not mutually exclusive? In the end, you still would not want the world or a freak watching you on the toilet and posting it on Youtube, even if you do know they are watching you?

Vodafone reveals existence of secret wires that allow state surveillance

“Vodafone reveals existence of secret wires that allow state surveillance -Wires allow agencies to listen to or record live conversations, in what privacy campaigners are calling a ‘nightmare scenario’”

“Vodafone, one of the world’s largest mobile phone groups, has revealed the existence of secret wires that allow government agencies to listen to all conversations on its networks, saying they are widely used in some of the 29 countries in which it operates in Europe and beyond.

The company has broken its silence on government surveillance in order to push back against the increasingly widespread use of phone and broadband networks to spy on citizens, and will publish its first Law Enforcement Disclosure Report on Friday. At 40,000 words, it is the most comprehensive survey yet of how governments monitor the conversations and whereabouts of their people.

The company said wires had been connected directly to its network and those of other telecoms groups, allowing agencies to listen to or record live conversations and, in certain cases, track the whereabouts of a customer. Privacy campaigners said the revelations were a “nightmare scenario” that confirmed their worst fears on the extent of snooping.”

“Direct-access systems do not require warrants, and companies have no information about the identity or the number of customers targeted. Mass surveillance can happen on any telecoms network without agencies having to justify their intrusion to the companies involved.”

“Vodafone’s group privacy officer, Stephen Deadman, said: “These pipes exist, the direct access model exists.

“We are making a call to end direct access as a means of government agencies obtaining people’s communication data. Without an official warrant, there is no external visibility. If we receive a demand we can push back against the agency. The fact that a government has to issue a piece of paper is an important constraint on how powers are used.”


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