IEET > Rights > CognitiveLiberty > PrivacySurveillance > Fellows > David Brin
Transparency, Privacy and Surveillance in a new era
David Brin   Feb 9, 2017   Contrary Brin  

Surviving Surveillance: My co-editor of the Chasing Shadows anthology - Stephen W. Potts - has written a “5 books” contribution to the Tor web site, taking you on a tour of (almost) half a dozen great science fictional portrayals of surveillance.

Of course our new anthology, Chasing Shadows, takes it a step farther, with two dozen stories and essays portraying how citizens might answer elite eyes... with light of their own. See an excellent review from Locus Online. (We'll be signing copies in San Diego on January 27, at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore.) A rich compilation of thoughtful contributions by Robert Silverberg, Vernor Vinge, Bruce Sterling, Ramez Naam, Cat Rambo, Brenda Cooper, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and more!

== Eyes... and ears ... everywhere ==
Yipe. A morning show was doing a story where a young girl ordered a dollhouse and four pounds of cookies by talking to "Alexa", the Amazon home-AI-thing. One of the hosts said something like "I love how this little girl says, 'Alexa ordered me a dollhouse' "... at which point viewers starting ringing in to complain that the host's own comment caused their Alexas to try to order dollhouses....  Danger, Will Robinson!
One of you pointed out a scifi-ish implication: That is thriller material. How about an action/suspense novel in which ISIS performs some outrageous act on video that is sure to be replayed on TV sets around the world." Embedded in the sound is an Arabic (or maybe Russian?) phrase which means "Alexa, shut down the power grid," or "Alexa, bomb Alberta." And assuming a TV is playing in the right location.”
Big banks are terrified of a Kenyan decade old experiment called M-Pesa in which people can save money and spend it via text messages on their mobile phones.  Now a study has shown it’s more than about just convenience and agility.  Users of M-Pesa have a substantially greater chance of rising out of poverty.

The dichotomy of “security versus freedom” becomes stark, whenever the public feels nervous over threats like terrorism. Earnest defenders of civil liberties, like this one from the Columbia Journalism Review - How not to report on the encryption debate - pose our choice in stark terms, portraying our Professional Protector Caste as eager to demolish our last protections against the all-seeing state. Especially the protection of encryption. For the most part, this is (so far) absolute bull.
Edward Snowden as Socrates: this article in the Los Angeles Review of Books by Ruth Starkman, cited the Bard conference where I spoke and Snowden Skyped in.. 
“Thus far, Mr. Snowden, now residing with temporary asylum in an undisclosed location in Russia, has spoken via satellite to students at Harvard University, Stanford University, Princeton University, University of Iowa, Bard College, and universities abroad such as Simon Fraser and Glasgow. Next appearances in 2015–2016 will be at Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Irvine.  
At the Bard College conference “Why Privacy Matters,” hosted by the Hannah Arendt Center in 2015, students cheered wildly when Snowden’s image appeared on the screen. Snowden demurred, “I wasn’t expecting that.” 
Or was he?  
“Snowden, meanwhile, speaks with an affectingly earnest modesty and seems to understand his potential to influence college youth." I won't hold that against him. Still, keep it in mind.
== trying… again and again… ==
An online discussion among a dozen information age professionals finally got me throwing up my hands and trying yet again to explain the obvious:
Real privacy has never depended on hiding, rather upon our ability to deter voyeurs and meddlers. But in order to deter interference or excess nosiness by others, we must catch them at it! 
That means making transparency nearly universal (say, stoping at the curtilage barrier of the home). Empowering average folks to see is more important to those seeking to protect privacy, than to those violating it. Privacy violators are going to get such powers, anyway.
What stuns me is how blatantly obvious this is, from real life.  In The Transparent Society I give the Restaurant Example.  One restaurant offers "privacy" with paper screens between each booth.  The other is open plan - all clients visible to each other.  Where would you have a personal-private conversation?
At the one where anyone could stand on the other side of the screen, listening?  Where some eavesdropper might punch a small hole for a camera? Or at the diner where people sit in the open, where brief glances around can assure you no one is leaning in and listening?  Next time you dine at a restaurant, notice that you make such checks, several times, unconsciously enforcing your privacy. Because YOU can see.
You will see earlier in the thread where I talk about how this depends on a certain type of culture and how our children are making that culture as we speak.  Transparency will not protect privacy in a culture that does not value it! 

But in a culture that believes in diversity, eccentricity, personal autonomy and MYOB*, then transparency is harsh on the voyeurs.  Transparency can protect privacy and I know this for one reason...
...because it already has.  It is the only thing that ever has.
But this is pointless.  I have learned across 20 years that the most obvious things are utterly opaque when people get a firmly righteous idea in their heads. Like the notion that we can benefit by outlawing information flows. And thus, our finest, most-well-intentioned paladins for freedom and privacy all reflexively assume the solution is: "everybody hide!"

See Glenn Greenwald's No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the U.S. Surveillance State. 
== Another way ==
Advertising has paid the freight for the Internet for far too long and the debilitating effects of this over-reliance have metastasized, becoming cancerous to an informed society.  Professional news sources have languished while click-bait social media troll sites prosper by spreading lies or exaggerations. Even at best, secondary re-packagers of news steal income from the mainline journalists who actually go to sources and seek the stories.

The key to solving this is offering professional news media another way to make a buck from their product - investigative reporting.  Millions of folks like you and me would gladly pay a nickel or a dime for a good New York Times story that we read, start to finish. That would add up! And make great economic sense, cutting out the middle-men and letting us pay value for value. It is called Micropayments... and it has been tried dozens of times, failing because the same mistakes are repeated, over and over again.

It happens that the mistakes are obvious, once you focus on them. Micropayments can be made to work, at last, allowing us a simple way to get (and support) value while brushing aside the era when advertising controlled everything we see and hear.
Finally... Cory Doctorow offers praise of Mr. Robot as a Hollywood portrayal of hackers and hacking that has a solid basis in the real world of hackers and hacking.
David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


Professional news sources have languished

They go by “if it bleeds, it leads.”
Hiding behind objectivity, they often ignore positive news. So what does much of the public do?: they choose fake news and celebrity fluff. Can you really blame them for wanting to live in a dream-world today? Positive Fake news can be preferable to real-life blood and guts on TV News, in HD color.

The word “micropayments” is associated with systems that restrict the user in order to collect.  That’s a form of DRM, and it’s inexcusable.

A reasonable payment for downloading an article would not be “micro”; it would be at least a few cents.  At this granularity, there is no need to impose restrictive technology on the user.  It can all be implemented with free (libre) software, and we have done so.

Our payment system is called GNU Taler (see  Best of all, it protects the anonymity of the payer.  However, it always identifies the payee (a store or publisher), so that it doesn’t facilitate tax evasion.

Let’s not mix this up with the old idea of “micropayments”.

The article tries to make cheap shots substitute for real arguments.

For instance, the restaurant example sounds nice, but the argument
fails when other diners deploy long-distance focused microphones, or
tiny lip-reading cameras.  It also fails when the restaurant has
installed a microphone in or near your table for “security”.

The idea of watching the rich back sounds nice, but the fact is your
boss can dismiss you from your job, and you can’t dismiss your boss
from per job.

If we adopt laws to prohibit designing systems to accumulate masses of
personal data, these laws will be substantially effective.  Most
government agencies and reputable businesses won’t dare do it
illegally; they would be caught and punished.  Crooks and the FBI may
do it secretly, but the crooks will be a smaller threat than what we
face now, and the FBI will have far fewer sources than it has now.

Telling people this approach is hopeless is a would-be self-fulfilling
prophecy of defeat.  If it convinces people, it will come true.
Or people can disregard the prophecy and try anyway.  See

For instance, the restaurant example sounds nice, but the argument
fails when other diners deploy long-distance focused microphones, or
tiny lip-reading cameras.  It also fails when the restaurant has
installed a microphone in or near your table for “security”

Parabolic microphones can “hear a snake fart in Egypt.”

The idea of watching the rich back sounds nice, but the fact is your boss can dismiss you from your job, and you can’t dismiss your boss from per job

Yes. Very true. Also in some cases, a letter arrives from the IRS announcing an audit—or even perhaps one morning the car doesn’t start. Not unprecedented.

You’ve got to remember about Brin: he is quite famous (I see his books everywhere) and these articles are nearly-nothing to him; just a tiny sideline. So he dashes them off without much thought. Such is what I’ve come to dislike re modernity: nearly everything becomes more sophisticated yet also more debased, disposable.

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