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.

Cliff Owen/AP
Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is charged with indirectly aiding the enemy with his leaks of classified material, is escorted to his court marial at Fort Mead, Md., July 25. Op-ed contributor David Brin writes: 'No array of security clearances and lie detectors will prevent these leaks.' The government, therefore, must embrace transparency.

It seems that almost daily that some elite organization is outed for snooping. The National Security Agency monitored traffic patterns from US telephones. Its PRISM program accessed troves of customer data from Internet firms like Microsoft and Apple. British intelligence used public websites to spy on diplomats. The US Postal Service has been logging our physical mail. The FBI admits using drones to tail suspects within the United States. News media are outraged by governmental leak investigations, while celebrities and politicians denounce spy outages by news organizations. Corporations swap our information for profit, without consultation or constraint.

Meanwhile, alarmed pundits denounce a new tool, Google Glass, the wearable computer that lets uber-geeks record everything they see while overlaying meta-data on the real world they're viewing.

Much of today’s hand-wringing focuses rightfully on potential abuse of power. Both ends of the hoary political spectrum disagree over whether to most fear government or a rising corporate oligarchy, but all paladins of liberty share one dread: that despots will be tech-empowered by universal surveillance.

And what did you expect? Ever since the discovery of printing and glass lenses, each generation (in the West) acquired new prosthetics to expand human vision, memory, and reach. Waves of innovation – from print journalism and libraries to radio, television, and the Internet – promised liberation or oppression. Citizens and societies were disrupted, cajoled, misled ... and adapted.

So, is there a bigger perspective to this latest phase? Look again at Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, or the Swiss bank employees who recently exposed their secretive masters to cleansing light. More significant than any specific revelation is what these knights-errant and countless others represent about our time. Spanning the range from brave whistleblowers revealing the illegal and heinous, all the way to preening indignation junkies, they are just what you’d expect from a society whose pop media endlessly preach eccentric individualism and suspicion of authority.

Which brings us to Lesson No. 1: Oh ye mighty, whether you qualify as conspirators or protectors, you must limit the number of your henchmen.

No array of security clearances and lie detectors will prevent these leaks. Not when your agency employs half a million “trusted” employees and contractors. Nor will it seal the dikes to make an example of some self-styled hero. The more open society becomes, the smaller, more temporary and closely held your secrets had better be.

Want to see the future of unintended consequences? With stunning agility, attorneys in divorce, murder, and other cases have filed demands to access the NSA’s freshly revealed database of US. telephone call traffic links as a vital resource to exculpate their clients. Now picture the world not one year from now, but a decade from now.

Lesson No. 2: Authorities, you can either fight this new era or embrace it.

Those who resist the trend will follow the obstinate reflexes of history and human nature. But the future will be won by agile ones applying judo, not sumo. Sure, earnest officials in our professional protector caste still need tactical secrecy, short-term and targeted, for many tasks. But it is foolish to ignore the benefits of a secular trend toward an open world. Consider: Among the foes who would do us grievous harm – from terrorists to hostile states to criminal gangs – can you name one that’s not fatally allergic to light? In contrast, modern democracies find light occasionally irksome, generally bracing, and mostly healthy. That difference is the paramount strategic consideration of the 21st century.

Put it another way: No combination of FBI or CIA intelligence coups could possibly hamper the schemes of external foes more thoroughly than for those rival powers to suffer wave after wave of their own Edward Snowdens.

Lesson No. 3: Bad things like 9/11 happen.

When they do, members of our protector caste will claim they might have thwarted calamity if provided greater powers to see, know, analyze, anticipate, and reach. Amid panic and public alarm, those powers will be granted. Top-down surveillance will augment in a forward ratchet that’s hard to rewind. Sure, a decade after 9/11 we may now curb (a little) some warrantless surveillance by the NSA and FBI. But such efforts miss the point, because they buy into the notion of a dichotomy – a zero-sum tradeoff – between security and freedom.

It is fallacious to base our freedom and safety upon blinding elites. First, can you name a time when those on top forsook any powers of vision? Forbid, and you’ll drive it underground, as happened when the US government's “Total Information Awareness” program scurried away from public attention in 2003, finding darker corners in which to grow. As author American sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein said, the chief effect of a privacy law is to “make the (spy) bugs smaller.”

And smaller they become! Cameras get cheaper, better, more mobile, more numerous, and smaller each year. Your Google Glass “specs” may provoke strong objections today, while they resemble Borg implants. Tomorrow they’ll look like normal sunglasses. A few years later, they will vanish into contact lenses. (Prototypes exist.) If laws banish such things, who will be thwarted? Only normal folk, while elites – corporate, wealthy, government, criminal, and foreign – will have the new omniscience. How can they be stopped? Indeed, should they be? Recall how the Boston Marathon bombers were rapidly caught thanks to a ubiquity of cameras, nearly all of them privately owned.

Hence, Lesson No. 4 is much like Lesson No. 2: Citizens, you can either fight this new era or embrace it. 

“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.

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

© 2013 Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Content Agency, LLC. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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