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Armed with Cameras…
David Brin   Mar 15, 2015   Contrary Brin  

What does it mean for the world to flow with light? Let's start this example of sousveillance in action… a professor and his students showcase where the FDA buried information about drug company misconduct. Now, the standard response to something like this is to build and then build some more upon our callouses of cynicism. Oh no, we see more villainy, proving that all institutions are corrupt!  Instead of yes! We just caught some villainy! Proving that we can—with grinding but relentless hard work—improve our institutions, the way our parents and grandparents did!

Light is penetrating previously dark corners. But the real lesson here is not the cynical one pushed by both left and right -- and by Hollywood -- that institutions are inherently hopeless. They have functions. Every episode of revealed skullduggery -- from the SAE frat-jerks to Ferguson's racist fine-factory -- is not cause for despair, but rather evidence that supervision and light are the only tools we have, to ensure that they function better. Every act of asserted accountability proves they haven't wrecked democracy.  Not yet.

This is no fairy tale.  Justice and happy endings aren't guaranteed.  Martin Luther King Jr. did not promise the path would be linear, but an "arc" that will sweep toward justice only if most (not all) of us pull on it, like gravity.  

Want an example?

== It will take a lot of these... ==

"A Louisiana man was paid $50 to deliver a summons in a brutality case to a police officer, as he left a courthouse. Hours later, the man was arrested and charged with assaulting the officer; the claim was that he had attacked the officer on the courthouse steps, slapping him with the summons and in effect striking him hard enough to move him back several feet. Charges were supported by two ADAs at the scene. For two years, prosecution against the man proceeded.

 
"Unfortunately for these particular, conniving officers, the ADAs, and the DA, the man had asked his wife and nephew to film him delivering the summons so he could prove he had done so. Eventually, the case came to the jurisdiction of the Louisiana State AG's office - where all charges were promptly dropped. The man is currently pursuing a civil-rights lawsuit against the law enforcement officials involved."

We are at a cusp when authority figures with bad habits will soon see those bad habits exposed, not by happenstance, but systematically and regularly, by technologically enhanced citizen power. 

Let's be clear about one thing; we can't do it alone. Professionals must be our allies against thugs. 

I've often pointed out that good cops deserve not just respect but also some allowance for the tension and adrenaline that comes with an extraordinarily difficult job. A sliding scale must allow for the fact that good cops will have an occasional really bad day. Those days should be judged by their rarity, and whether the resulting harm was fairly small.

On the other hand, it is illogical and self-defeating for them to show “solidarity” with thugs on the force. Good public servants already face a choice -- to find this new sousveillance trend  daunting? To reflexively close ranks and show solidarity with uniformed hoolums... or else realize, deep down, that they are different from the badged ruffians, and share no common interests them.

With the advent -- and now widespread adoption -- of cop lapel-cameras, after Obama Administration and court rulings that citizens have a blanket right to record their interactions with police, the road ahead is clear. Especially as ghetto youths will now, more and more, be doing what I predicted in both Earth and The Transparent Society -- stepping out of the car with their own lapel cams beaming -- real-time -- a record into the cloud.

Moreover, the good side of the light-wave is evident. It's getting easier to catch bad guys and to get convictions, separating perpetrators and proving what they did, while assisting the innocent to say "I didn't do it, go way now, oh public servant, and bother the guys who did."

== Cop Cams and Accountability ==

 
A trend? Things are changing in Tijuana -- where the police department is issuing body cameras to cops on the street -- with the aim of turning off corruption and bribes. Sure you cynics, there will be ways around it. Yeah, sure, only the stupid half will get caught this way...at the start. But eliminating the corrupt / stupid cops is a bad idea...how? And this is only the beginning. 

Now another piece to the puzzle. The largest organization of public defenders in the United States is building a “cop accountability” database, aimed at helping defense attorneys question the credibility of police officers in court.  The contents of the Legal Aid database have been harvested from a variety of sources, e.g. civil lawsuits filed against the city, criminal trials in which a police witness was deemed not credible by a judge, and news reports about police wrongdoing. Information also comes from grievances that New Yorkers have filed against individual officers with the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
 
I cannot reiterate often enough the thing to keep in mind -- that this must not become a "zero tolerance" situation, in which a good officer must pay harsh penalties for a flash of temper or a lapse in procedure that was an exception and that wrought no major, lasting harm. 

There must be a scaled allowance for the fact that we all are descended directly from cavemen.  We need these folks! Their job is hard and often ambiguous and tense. A sliding scale of leeway must be part of it, before a cop's credibility sinks and his comrades decide that he's a bad apple, making things harder on them all. But they, too, must embrace this sliding scale, or they will have foresworn our trust.

== Accountability ain't easy ==

Did you think this was settled? It will be a fight for years.
 
Texas bill would make recording police illegal: Citizens with cameras would not be permitted to record police activity within 100 feet of an officer on duty. The offense would be a misdemeanor. This bill would contradict the precedent set in 2011 by an appeals court, which found that citizens are allowed to record police.

Forgive me for getting political, but are you surprised by the red-gray hue of this troglodytism? After Florida and Georgia fought hard against this new and vital civil right?

Seriously, some of you are smart enough to start awakening to our national tragedy. The hijacking and betrayal of American conservatism.

== The left is not guilt free ==
 
An Aside:  Should we rid our police forces of thugs?  Sure, and light will help. But we need the same thing regarding school teachers

In fact, this is one area where liberalism has been just plain wrong for decades, giving an unnecessary (and rather lonely) legitimate talking point to the Right. 

Sure, teachers must be protected from capricious bullying! There must be leeway and process. A burden of proof -- that parents and administrators and teacher peers and quality standards can all play a role in satisfying.

But the firing of bad teachers is a duty that we owe our kids. It should not take years and years. Especially when everyone -- parents, peers, administrators, standards and students(!) agree that an awful maniac or dope or lazy bum simply has to go.

Sure, I can accept your instincts to protect the teaching profession. Now squint and envision those cops closing ranks to protect the worst bad apples on the force. You are doing the same damned thing!  And you are doing it wrong if you actually believe the present state of affairs is wholesome.

== Equipping the Neighborhood Watch ==
 
Back to street transparency... Dropcam Keeps an eye on the neighborhood: Utterly illustrating The Transparent Society,  here’s how, very soon, we will all be cam equipped members of the Neighborhood Watch. The Internet-connected video surveillance camera, Dropcam -- acquired last year by Google’s Nest Labs -- is able to constantly stream video over your home Wi-Fi, and store data to the cloud. You can access the video via your web browser or through mobile apps. 

Writes Brian Chen writes, "Everyday people can use Internet -connected cameras to hold one another accountable or to keep an eye out for each other.” 
 
If you hate this world, fine, agitate to ban the cams… and then only Big Brother and the other elites will still have them.  Stop shouting at a tsunami to “stop!”
 
Surf, instead.
 
And finally...
 
list of Think Tanks by region/topic. VERY interesting to the few of you who will find it interesting. 😉
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."



COMMENTS

Brin has not proposed a way to protect democracy
from the use of cameras and other massive surveillance
to identify dissidents and whistleblowers.

See http://gnu.org/philosophy/surveillance-vs-democracy.html.

RMS… how do you know what “Brin has not proposed” when you blatantly have read or investigated nothing I wrote? 

In fact, I propose the _only “way to protect democracy.”  The one method that has given us the democracy and freedom and privacy we do have at present.  Which is less than ideal, but more than any other people in history.  Assertive, aggressive and militant citizen-centered sousveillance.

The fact that you do not know what this means is not my fault but attributable to your laziness.  As is the fact that you actually believe that some law will stop elites from looking at you.

What matters (though I am clearly wasting my breath) is not to stop elites from looking at us, but to prevent them from DOING anything to us.  I am not responsible for your inability to make that distinction.

David Brin

Instamatic, while you take me on a bit harshly, you are also fair and argue well.  I don’t disagree with your points, but deem them to be examples of apropos “yes, but…” arguments.

You know that I generally approve of a civilization whose memes and propaganda create “T Cells” who are tuned to scurry about seeking errors to denounce.  This indignant-snippy ego trip is intensely irritating to the powers that be… and hence they squelched it, in past societies and that policy’s disastrous results gave us the awful mess called “history.”  The benefits of having Snowden-types vastly outweigh the irksome disadvantages.

Moreover, in Snowden’s particular case, though he actually revealed almost nothing that was illegal at the time, he did show us that we badly needed to discuss what *IS* legal and why. Hence, though not strictly a whistle-blower, he was vastly more useful to us than some other preening T Cells.

But that does NOT behoove me to admire him!  He is a “type” that our society wisely creates in pretty large numbers. And The aromas surrounding him are not all sweet.  And I am under no compulsion to take up an automatic “side.”

As for your Serpico argument, are you aware you came full circle to support me?  Good cops have to come out and help us get rid of bad ones.  Moreover, are you aware that there was a MOVIE called “Serpico”?  Ponder that a bit.  What kind of society does that? Now multiply that brave film-maker by ten-thousand, which is what we are getting, today.

You seem to have promise and intelligence.  Use it to step back and see a bigger picture.

I read your book about surveillance when it came out, and your articles in ieet.org.  They do not recognize the danger that massive surveillance will enable the state to imprison whistleblowers and sabotage dissent.  If you have addressed the danger elsewhere, would you like to give the precise reference?  I will certainly read it if
it is accessible to me.

You say that the issue “is not to stop elites from looking at us, but to prevent them from DOING anything to us.”  What I don’t see is how sousveillance could achieve that.  For instance, how could sousveillance have protected Edward Snowden, John Kyriakou, or Stephen Kim?

See http://gnu.org/philosophy/surveillance-vs-democracy.html for why this issue is crucial.

RMS, sorry to be gruff, but you relentlessly prove that you have NOT read any of my works.  You do not display any comprehension of sousveillance or how you got the (partial) freedom and privacy that you already have.

“Brin does not suggest”...?  Are you kidding, right?  I am the only one making a suggestion—that elites of all kind be stripped and rendered transparent to supervision.

The “suggestions” made by all your favorite privacy advocates are always vague, armwaved notions of passing laws to restrict surveillance.  What? Show me when and where, across 6000 years, such laws have ever worked.  Even in theory, such laws can only work if we already have fierce sousveillance in place, to ensure they are enforced. 

You are not a logical person… besides having fibbed about ever cracking open The Transparent Society.

Instamatic, you argue vastly better than rms because you grasp the concepts involved, though your stylish gloom is wrongheaded and just plain wrong. 

Seriously, name a single time and place when the powerful didn’t cheat?  Now name a single time and place when they were as constrained as they are now, to cheat LESS? 

You give up too easily.  We already see around us the methods of transparency and reciprocal accountability.  Yes the tools of Big Brother are coalescing.  But counter-examples also abound.

I have called it the most important civil liberties matter in our lifetimes—certainly in thirty years—even though it was hardly covered by the press. In 2013 both the U.S. courts and the Obama Administration declared it to be “settled law” that a citizen has the right to record his or her interactions with police in public places.

Moreover, technology is developing at a rate where any ghetto youth will be wearing cheaper versions of the cop-cams that are now dropping in price rabidly, as half a million have been ordered in just the last year.  In both EARTH and The Transparent Society I portray the future this will bring.  And when ALL citizen interactions with authority are presumed recorded… um… where’s your cynicism gonna go?

Oh, your cynicism will be fine!  Because your STANDARDS will rise and the residual cheating will seem “serpico” to you.  Great!  I hope so!  Keep upping the ante!  But I cannot derive joy from gloom, as so many cynics do.

No single matter could have been more important because it established the most basic right of “sousveillance” or looking-back at power, that¬†The Transparent Society¬†is all about. It is also fundamental to freedom, for in altercations with authority, what other recourse can a citizen turn to, than the Truth?

I think I’m with rms on this one. Cherry-picking some examples of how sousveillance has helped doesn’t make a convincing argument, at least not to me. It smacks to me of One Simple Solution being proposed for what is in fact a very complex problem.

I’m also very suspicious of arguments that seem to conflate “desirable” with “inevitable”. Clearly there are different sensitivities around transparency and privacy. Saying “the tsunami is coming and cannot be stopped” strike me as no less cynical and defeatist than anything Instamatic has written, even if it comes from someone who apparently likes the tsunami.

“Nobody’s come up with a better suggestion” isn’t an argument either. Even if it’s true, it doesn’t mean your suggestion will work or is desirable. Clearly the latter depends on one’s perspective and sensitivities. What it might mean is just that we have more work to do to accommodate each others’ sensitivites and design solutions that do work.

One can always go back up. The choice is not between defeatism and starry-eyed optimism. In fact I think Brin _is_ optimistic, but it is indeed of the starry-eyed kind. I’m not saying he doesn’t have a point, but he seems overly attached to it, as evidenced by his bullying of those who disagree with him.

I once read a book by a French philosopher, most of which was unintelligible garbage, but one thought that did stick in my mind was a definition of evil as an idea taken too far. Of course there are other ways to be evil than that, but transparency certainly seems to be an idea that can be taken too far.

I think Brin’s main problem is that he’s attached to a vision that he finds compelling, and thinks that anyone who dislikes it is either wrongheaded or evil. For Brin, the choice is either to embrace his “transparent society” or cede the territory to “Big Brother”. Instead of engaging with contrary opinions in a way that helps him to learn and move the debate forward, he just repeats the same thing over and over and then gets angry when anyone disagrees with him. But let’s face it, he’s far from being the only one who does this…

No, your Serpico point was pretty clear. But if someone is filtering evidence to maintain a belief they hold dear, then of course they will misinterpret. Misinterpreting your comment so that it supposedly supported his argument served a purpose: to shore up his own belief in the Transparent Society. Doibtless he was also trying to win a rhetorical battle, but it would seem that the latter hasn’t quite worked…

We’re on the same page. Indeed I would guess Brin has decided he has better things to do than read our comments, and that’s fine with me. Again, he’s far from being the only one to filter evidence to maintain a belief he holds dear. Doubtless he will continue to promulgate his views regarding sousveillance and the “transparent society”, and doubtless we will have further opportunities to express our views on the subject. Then again, perhaps we also have better things to do…

I just don’t buy his “transparent society” concept. As I wrote above, it looks altogether too much like an idea taken too far. rms’s reflections seem much more on the mark to me, and the fact that Brin resorts to ad hominum insults (e.g. “You are not a logical person”) makes it difficult for me to respect him, prolific and successful novelist though he may be.

But that’s just me I guess. No reason why he should particularly care about my opinion of course. At least, if I do want him to care then I’ll need to do more than post comments on a thread he no longer appears to be following. And I really think I DO have better things to do. Not just different, better.

I’m reluctant to blame Obama for anything. How would you or I fare if we had his job? Telling Snowden to “man up” was rhetorical bullshit, obviously, but that is the currency of politics. Obama has had to make many compromises, and while he has surely made many mistakes and been hampered by shortcomings in his personality, I still hold him in immensely high regard. Better to make political compromises than to barricade oneself behind futile and dangerous ideological purity.

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