Fighting Fire with Fire

Surveillance can’t be stopped. But instead of isolating ourselves and trying to seal off our secrets we should expose them, and the snoopers surrounding us. For the illusory fantasy of absolute privacy has come to an end.

Most of our vexing Information Age problems revolve around a central matter of secrecy: who should use it and who gets to penetrate the veils of others. Almost daily some elite – of government, wealth, criminal or corporate – is outed for snooping, from the National Security Agency (NSA) and FBI to Microsoft and Apple, to British and French intelligence, to news media harassing celebrities, to “private bankers” and Latin American blackmail rings. Corporations swap our information for profit. Businesses and researchers suffer a hemorrhage of lost intellectual property, stolen by predatory regimes.

The greatest flood of all? Vast troves of information that we willingly – or unwittingly – reveal about ourselves through online searches, purchases and postings on social media. In The Transparent Society, I wrote about a fundamental human irony – that people want privacy for themselves and accountability for others. But lately, some additional lessons have emerged.

Our safety doesn’t depend on secrecy

First: nothing will to halt the flood of vision in our world. Faster than Moore’s law, cameras get cheaper, better, more mobile, more numerous and smaller each year. Your Google Glass may provoke strong objections today. But when they vanish invisibly into contact lenses, how will you ban them? If laws forbid such things, only normal folk will be thwarted; elites will have the new omniscience anyway. Generally, when people call for technology prohibition, it means they are thinking only about today, never about ten years from now, or twenty.

Second: you won’t achieve safety, or even privacy, by reflexively hiding or trying to blind others. Information leaks! It copies itself with the ease and speed of electrons. If the NSA and FBI routinely crack open, should you depend upon an even more illusory fantasy of secrecy?

It’s not that western citizens have nothing to fear! Our core mythology – Suspicion of Authority – fills every movie and novel, for good reason. Across 6000 years, the lords who ruled all human societies used information to cement power, while keeping people ignorant. Our recent ancestors won for us some fragile freedom and privacy, and our instinct is to protect these treasures at all cost. But can you name for me one time in history when elites let themselves be blinded? As the author Robert Heinlein said: “A privacy law only makes the spy-bugs smaller.”

The same holds true of your neighbors. They will be empowered to various degrees with technical skills, with hobbies, connections and tools like those new “augmented” contact lenses. In such a world can freedom and privacy survive?

Yes, providing we don’t panic. Because our safety does not depend upon policing what others know about us – or secrecy. It is based upon what others can do to us. And only one thing has ever prevented bad actions, whether by authorities or our neighbors. That is reciprocal accountability. Being able to catch or denounce bad actions. And for that, you must see.

Finally, there is the “ratchet effect.” Bad things like terror attacks will happen. When they do, members of our protector caste will claim they might have thwarted calamity, if provided greater powers to see, anticipate and reach. Amid public alarm, those powers will be granted. Top-down surveillance will augment in a forward ratchet that is hard to rewind.

Am I preaching despair? Rather the opposite. What has worked for us so far was not cowering in fear, or spurning technology, or hiding from elites. Our four miraculous enlightenment institutions – democracy, science, competitive markets and independent courts do best when all of their participants (scientists, voters, purchasers or litigants) know what is going on, so they can choose between theories, or policies, or products, or decide between guilt and innocence. These four great arenas languish and die when darkness reigns.

Isn’t this why market economies are failing? From lack of transparency? In contrast, all four arenas flourish when light prevails.

Rather than instinctively forbidding vision – a panicky response that plays into the hands of tyrants – we must embrace and use transparency to look back at power. We shall answer surveillance with sousveillance, aggressively insisting on our right to supervise authority, because we care less about what elites know about us than what they might do to us. Only by aggressively supervising government can it be kept a servant.

Transparency is the trick to protect privacy

And yes, transparency is also the trick to protecting privacy, if we empower citizens to notice when neighbors infringe upon it. Isn’t that how you enforce your own privacy in restaurants, where people leave each other alone, because those who stare or listen risk getting caught?

Most of us want the same thing, to preserve our recent renaissance of freedom, science, tolerance and progress, of vast knowledge and some privacy. Sometimes these desiderata come into apparent conflict, but we must never accept the zero-sum notion of a tradeoff between freedom, safety and opportunity – a dismal, foolish notion. We can have all of those good things, but not by cowering in shadows or demanding that others be blinded.

Resist the dismal reflex to answer modern problems with secrecy. There is almost always a solution that works better by applying transparency and accountability to the mighty. We will remain more adaptable and fiercely sovereign citizens, if we are empowered with light.

Read more in this debate: David Omand, David Vincent , Clare Birchall.

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