DAVID BRIN's worlds of transparency, security, privacy, and openness

worlds of transparency, security, privacy & openness

All of these were explored in The Transparent Society (Winner of the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association). Here you'll find other links. Openness is freedom's best defense. It is also our sole hope to evade Big Errors in our dangerous road ahead.

The Transparent Society


The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? was published in May 1998 by Perseus Press (formerly Addison Wesley). This large nonfiction work concerns threats to privacy and openness in the information age. It won the Obeler Freedom of Speech Award from the American Library Association and was a finalist for the McGannon Public Policy Prize, and is still in print.

Our society has one great knack above all others -- one that no other ever managed -- that of holding the mighty accountable. Although elites of all kinds still have many advantages over commonfolk, never before have citizens been so empowered. And history shows that this didn't happen by blinding the mighty -- a futile endeavor that has never worked. It happened by insisting that everybody get to see. By citizens demanding the power to know.

the infamous page 206

See a larger version of this image.

Yes, that is where -- in a creepy "Twilight zone" moment -- I seemed to predict the events of 9/11 in detail and then the following Patriot Act: "What might have happened if those bombers actually succeeded in toppling both towers of New York's World Trade Center, killing tens of thousands. Or imagine that nuclear or bio-plague terrorists someday devastate a city. Now picture the public reaction if the FBI ever managed to show real (or exaggerated) evidence that they were impeded in preventing the disaster by an inability to tap coded transmissions sent by the conspirators. They would follow this proof with a petition for new powers, to prevent the same thing from happening again."

can we get any more TRANSPARENT?

world cyberwar

In "World Cyberwar and the Inevitability of Radical Transparency" I examine how the transparency wars are being waged now -- more than 10 years after the publication of The Transparent Society.


defending The Transparent Society

To "commemorate" the Tenth Anniversary of the publication of The Transparent Society Wired.com commentator Bruce Schneier poked a short-sharp critique at it. I responded with this short-sharp defense: "For we already live in the openness experiment, and have for two hundred years. It is called the Enlightenment -- with 'light' both a core word and a key concept in our turn away from 4,000 years of feudalism."

PRIVACY after 9/11/2001

society and culture

A rambling and cathartic essay about the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and the general problem of terrorism appeared on the Futurist site. Carrying this theme forward is another (and more carefully written and nuanced) Futurist essay pointing out that ordinary citizens armed mainly with information were the most effective defenders of our civilization on that tragic day. Only ad hoc decisions made by private individuals, reacting with both resiliency and initiative -- our finest traits -- stopped the terrorists. Could this point to a trend for the 21st Century, reversing what we've seen throughout the 20th -- the ever-growing dependency on politicians and corporations and self-appointed "leaders" to protect and guide and watch over us?

"Despite the yammerings on TV, a lack of security measures did not cause this tragedy. No, the failure on 9/11 was almost entirely one of DOCTRINE -- a policy on how to deal with hijackers that was taught to pilots, flight attendants and the public for forty years."

end of an ILLUSION?

The European Magazine ran an op-ed in which I tried (for the upteenth time) to explain the difference between two methods of keeping freedom -- hiding from Big Brother, or holding Big Brother accountable.

The debate continues, with this fascinating Pew Poll result: A majority of Americans now believe total anonymity’s a pipe dream, despite wishing it were otherwise.

consider COPYRIGHT

Considering copyright

Intellectual property law has become a warped thing, twisted by lobbyists to serve the interests of mighty corporations and not the public or progress. The chief villains are those who would use "ownership" to make "intellectual property" serve lawyers and oligarchs, rather than creative people. But the potential harm goes deeper.

For example, have you ever heard of the Antikythera Device? The Baghdad Battery? The fabulous piston steam engines of Hero of Alexandria? Our ancestors were creative people! Yet, all of those technological advances and a myriad others were lost. Why? Until you can answer that question clearly, you will never grasp why patents and copyrights were invented in the first place.

should we HIDE?

In 2005 Washington Post reporter Robert O'Harrow Jr. published his book, No Place to Hide, offering one of the most thorough litanies of information and privacy abuse since Simson Garfinkel's Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century. I was asked to review his book for the July 2005 issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Naturally, I disagreed with his gloom-and-doom conclusions.

One can all too easily get caught up in today's atmosphere of desperate worry. Countless Democrats and Republicans who disagree over details and specific culprits nevertheless share a perception of civilization plunging into crisis. Amid this gloom, I take solace from that most discomforting of symbols, the clock face emblem of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which helped crystallize an earlier generation's end-of-the-world fable. The day hasn't come when any combination of terror attacks could wreak as much harm as the lethal cargo of one ballistic missile submarine. So should not our worry level be lower than it was in, say, 1980?

transparency's NEXT 50 years?

This 10 minute video about transparency and what the Internet Miracle happened is one of the best excerpts from an interview I gave a European television station during the recent conference in Lithuania on the digital future.

Another excerpt explains the most difficult concept of the information age... that we should stop whining about how much elites can see... and instead be militant about looking back at them.

can we MAINTAIN privacy TODAY?

The European, a top policy journal, ran one of my best summaries of the argument for a Transparent Society — one in which we are all empowered to see and to hold accountable those who might harm us. I argue that this is the only way we can possibly defend freedom, safety, science, justice and — ironically — some privacy in the rapidly unfolding 21st Century.

The Edward Snowden revelations have sparked a debate about transparency, security, and privacy, and (naturally!) I am being asked to speak out. The Christian Science Monitor just published my op-ed article about how privacy intrusion has gone global. What are today's knights-errant -- Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and Edward Snowden -- teaching us?

The New York Times originally published the op-ed, suggesting alternatives to panic and indignation over snooping.

Variety, the news-zine of the entertainment biz, just ran a pair of articles on the pro-vs.-con aspects of Google Glass. I conveyed the "pro" side -- or rather "It's inevitable so let's embrace the good aspects and use them to limit the bad." Sarah Downey Wrote about the potential dangers to privacy -- alas, without offering any solutions.

H+ Magazine put me through a great big interview on sousveillance, our chance to keep a little privacy in the coming age of light.

I eventually compiled my thoughts on privacy circa 2013 on OpenSalon. Questions? Comments? Be sure to post them there.


our surveillance society

See my cover story in the August 2004 Salon magazine, about new surveillance technologies and some of the stark choices we face in the years ahead. (Government Technology magazine also ran an interview with me about government accountability and the proposal to establish an Inspector General of the United States.)

"Each time the lesson is the same one: that professionals should attend to their professionalism, or else the citizens and consumers who pay their wages will find out and -- eventually -- hold them accountable."


ScientificAmerican.com touted my unconventional views on transparency and open-accountability in a full-page article, "Watch the Watchers" by W. Wayt Gibbs.

"Accountability and privacy are both relatively new inventions; villagers three centuries ago knew little of either."

can we handle PRIVACY?

Privacy Watch, a privacy advocacy journal, did a fair and intelligent interview with me about transparency. This interview, when published, sparked an intense online discussion at Slashdot.

"What people really want is to be empowered to catch the Peeping Toms, to hold accountable any elite that might abuse power, whether corporate or governmental or individual."



Perhaps the best cursory look at the unusual argument I make in The Transparent Society can be found in "Akademos: A Parable about Openness." A clipped section -- plus some summarized points -- is available for reading on this website.

who doesn't like TRANSPARENCY?

A CNN interview discusses the modern threats to privacy I outline in The Transparent Society.

"Naturally, there are core groups that like uneven information flows. Whenever an industry is told to increase its openness and accountability, they tend to scream that the sky will fall."


the unmasked society

An article about the "Unmasked Society", and one about me and my work, both appeared in Metroactive.

The social downside to this constant wearing of various 'masks' -- some legal, some electronic -- to guarantee our privacy is also becoming apparent; one need only look at the Internet, where the safety of hiding behind a clever pseudonym and text-only interaction brings out a whole range of antisocial behaviors from the people Brin calls 'Net tourettes.'


the need for radical transparency

Following the election of Barack Obama, it seemed that everybody -- columnists, political sages, bloggers and citizens -- was writing missives about 'what I'd do if I were president.' I refrained for a month, browsing what everyone else was saying, then produced my own list of 21 "Unusual Suggestions for America and the Obama Administration" -- suggestions that were different, unconventional... perhaps even a bit contrary. This essay on the need for radical transparency to save capitalism was number 3 on that list.

In order for either governmental or capitalist solutions to work, the clouds of needless secrecy simply have to part. Opposing this is not a matter of "left" or "right" but of dangerous hypocrisy. It is mendacious (though human) to proclaim fealty to markets while shrouding what others need to know in order to play the same game.

show me YOURS

I gave an interview to Amazon.com titled "I'll Show You Mine if You Show Me Yours," in which I discuss The Transparent Society.

"When given a choice between privacy and accountability we always choose privacy for ourselves and accountability for everyone else. This is especially noxious when it's some all-powerful leader making the choice."


Here's an audio podcast interview of David Brin one on the subject of "Kickstarter and other open-source methods for dream-funding." Interesting sub-topics around the notion that creativity will open all sorts of new opportunities for all of us.

spies & spy-WATCHERS

The Snowden/NSA revelations resulted in this interview by the San Diego Union-Tribune. Anyone who thinks they're going to conceal information from elites has no sense of historical, technological or civilization perspective. But we can, and should, look up at them.

can the internet detect credibility?

This well-written article summarized ideas exchanged during an interesting panel discussion at Arizona State University. Topics ranged from reputation systems and surveillance technologies to the future of the Internet as a problem-solving tool.

David Brin at Arizona State University


How do we protect privacy and empower citizens when cameras become smaller and proliferate daily, when the threat of global terrorism tempts us into passing hyper-privacy legislation so our governments and corporations can keep even more secrets, yet the proliferation of social networking sites and "whistleblower" clades may indicate people are perhaps ready to accept more transparency in our personal and public lives?

On the tenth anniversary of the release of The Transparent Society I taped two YouTube videos discussing that question and more.

In Part 1, I speak about issues of transparency and accountability in an age of increasing surveillance: "If we're free and powerful as citizens, privacy is something we'll be able to negotiate among ourselves." The key is reciprocal accountability... when we have the power to watch the watchers.

In Part 2, I discuss what the future will hold in the transparency field.

For better or worse, the changes in transparency have meant the return to the village of old -- where everyone knows everyone -- but will it be the "good" village, tolerant and accepting of its citizenry, or the suspicious, oppressive village?


An outside discussion group has been set up to exchange ideas about transparency issues.

I also blog specifically to discuss -- and update -- these issues. If you come to argue rationally, you're voting, implicitly, for a civilization that values open minds and discussions among equals.

For a complete listing of all my transparency discussions, see this page. Or contact David Brin by email.


In these essays (as in all my writings) I emphasize radical transparency as a good general policy for the era ahead, when a myriad pitfalls and unexpected dangers may loom suddenly out of the future. See other pages where I emphasize openness:


A provocative interview I did about The Transparent Society appeared in Switch.

"But the saddest thing is how little you folks seem to hope for your children. If you feel you cannot make a better world for them, then I certainly encourage you not to have any. I suggest you try nihilism on for size. You are already halfway there."


Telephony Magazine featured a shortened version of my hotly-discussed suggestion that technology, instead of leading us toward domination by Big Brother, may embolden and empower a new kind of citizen. The online edition also included an in-depth interview.

"Consider how future Sept. 11-type events might differ if the wireless 'intelligence network' worked even faster or if cell phones had cameras that let citizens instantly transmit useful intelligence about perpetrators. Or if millions of cheap, solar-powered 'volksradio' phones using relay-style formats were to flood poor countries, helping locals discuss issues unobserved by their tyrants."

Fortunately for all of us, these predictions already came true.

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Contact David Brin by email.