Snooping vs. privacy – lessons for an age of transparency
It's not possible to stop a Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden. They reflect society's push for individualism, suspicion of authority, and digital transparency. Instead, the NSA, FBI, and others must embrace openness, and face greater oversight.
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“I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded,” proclaimed Mr. Snowden, with unintended irony, as he ripped veils off those he disliked. But as I maintained in my book, “The Transparent Society,” the answer isn’t to cower or hide from Big Brother, nor to blind our watchdogs. The solution is to answer surveillance with sousveillance, or looking back at the mighty from below. Holding light accountable with reciprocal light. Letting our watchdogs see but imposing choke-chain limits on what they do. That distinction is crucial. Instead of obsessing on what the FBI and NSA may know, let’s demand fierce tools of supervision to keep the dog from becoming a wolf.Skip to next paragraph
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Start by replacing the secret, star-chamber Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) with one that is confidential but adversarially contested and accountable, as any true court should be. Put a short time limit on the gag orders in national security letters, making them less terrifyingly Orwellian. Take today’s inspectors general out of bed with the agencies they oversee, and have them answer instead to an Inspector General of the United States, whose first duty is to the law, and to the people.
Above all, stop obsessing on lines in the sand, fussing over redefining “warrantless searches,” and trying to impose limits to what inherently cannot be limited. Change the truly scary parts of the Patriot Act that let authorities peer at us unsupervised.
Those who deride sousveillance as “utopian” ignore one fact: It’s what already worked. The great enlightenment method of reciprocal accountability and adversarially determined truth – leveling the playing field by pitting elites against each other – is the very thing that underlies science, markets, democracy, and all of our success.
Moreover, it is compatible with major trends. Take recent court rulings – and Obama administration declarations – that citizens may rightfully record their interactions with police. Perhaps the most vital civil-liberties victory of our time, this shows technology needn’t always play the role of villain. And it proves that the forward-ratchet can work in citizens' favor.
What about privacy? Will we trade one Big Brother tyrant for millions of little-brother busybodies? Well, one California company now offers a system that detects lenses a kilometer away, telling soldiers when they’re watched. Civilian versions are coming.
So here’s the final, big-picture lesson. Suppose we pass this test, adapting to new powers of sight and knowledge the way our ancestors passed every challenge since Galileo and Gutenberg, somehow surfing a tsunami of change. What one thing will make the crucial difference?
Adapt with resilience, not panic. Find ways to maximize the good and minimize the bad.
David Brin is a scientist and science-fiction author. His seminal non-fiction book on the digital age, “The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?,” won the American Library Association’s Freedom of Speech award. His website is davidbrin.com.
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