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MIND MELD: Are We Headed For a Technological Panopticon?

In our Mind Meld posts, we pose a single question to a slice of the sf/f community and, depending on the question, other folks as well. This week we follow our previous post about our surveillance society (we also have a poll question up on this very subject. We are clever. Or lazy.) Our question this week is:

Given the rapid pace of advancement in science and technology, are we headed for a technological panopticon or will technology allow the little guy to fight back?

As you’ll see, we received some interesting answers.

Vernor Vinge
Vernor Vinge is a retired San Diego State University Professor of Mathematics, computer scientist, and science fiction author best known for his novels A Fire Upon the Deep, A Deepness in the Sky, and Rainbow’s End, all Hugo award winners. He is also the author of the Across Realtime series and is the originator of the term ‘Singularity’ as it pertains to exponential growth in technology.

I don’t see the problem as an either/or choice. For example, David Brin’s The Transparent Society discusses an alternative.

Charles Stross
Charles Stross‘ first novel, Singularity Sky burst onto the science fiction scene in 2003 and earning Stross a Hugo nomination. Since then he has earned several awards for his novels, and his works Missile Gap and Accelerando are available online. In addition to writing, Stross has worked as a technical author, freelance journalist, programmer, and pharmacist. He holds degrees in Pharmacy and Computer Science, and some of the creatures he created for his Dungeons and Dragons adventures, the Death Knight and Githyanki, were published by TSR in the Fiend Folio.

We’re not *heading* for a technological panopticon — we’re *already there*. I speak as a native of the UK, where the “official” headline figure of 4 million CCTV cameras in public places is a grotesque underestimate; I figure the real number will be topping 100 million by 2010, and it may be getting there already. For example, I know of one city in England where the Council are putting Wifi base stations in all the street lamps over the next couple of years — not just so they can provide free wifi for the voters, but so they can handle the streaming bandwidth from the webcams that they’re *also* putting in all the street lamps. We’re heading — within a very short space of time — for municipal CCTV cameras as common as street lamps, cameras in every shop and business, and data storage capacity exploding with a doubling time of about 16 months. I personally have on my desk roughly 2% of the data storage capacity of *every* computer sold in 1972; by 2016, at this rate, assuming things go on, I’ll equal the planetary data storage capacity of that year.

Which means — those cameras? We don’t need to delete anything — ever.

To be fair, the panopticon has arrived slowly enough that it’ll probably be moderated by the rule of law. There’s already a ferment bubbling up in legal academic circles on the need for national laws to regulate the use of public cameras. Since the massive data breach in October, when the British government lost a copy of computer records covering roughly 60% of the population, there’s been a sea-change (at least in the UK) in attitudes towards privacy and information security: suddenly people are noticing it and paying attention, and so far the signs are hopeful. While the USA has no actual constitutional right to privacy — merely an inferred right that exists as a side-effect of other constitutional rights — the EU has formulated a very strict constitutional right to privacy (in no small part as a long-term response to the way the Nazi regime used public and census data to select its victims), and this puts a big brake on large-scale data mining exercises. I suspect it’ll weaken over time (and in the face of the US government’s demands), but we do need to come to some kind of accommodation between the technological capability to record absolutely everything, and the desire of the observed parties to live their lives with some shreds of privacy.

But if you *really* want to see where we’re going? Try this essay: Shaping the Future.

Larry Ketchersid
Larry Ketchersid is CEO of a security software and services company and the author of the novel Dusk Before the Dawn. He plays rugby, does martial arts, writes tech articles, reads a lot, and has degrees in Math, Physics and Computer Science. In other words, he still hasn’t decided what he wants to do and is in no hurry to do so. His career includes 15 years at Compaq, the greatest computer company that used to be.

I’m not sure that technology alone will allow the little guy to fight back, but innovation, ingenuity and man’s sense of self-preservation will.

A panopticon is a prison where everyone can see you; in the case of privacy it’s a voluntary prison, one of choice. Given such a choice, some people in the world will not worry about it, some will believe it is inevitable; people are proving this today as the herd mentality brings acceptance of national security cards, CCTV cameras, the poorly named “Patriot Act” and other privacy intrusions. This acceptance is driven by governments who are using terrorism and 9/11 as proof that violating privacy is “for your own good”. Privacy International publishes National Privacy rankings each year on surveillance/lack of privacy by country; though they focus on the European Union, they include some of the large international countries. Almost all are “deteriorating” in privacy provided to the individual (see the 2007 ranking at: http://www.privacyinternational.org/article.shtml?cmd%5B347%5D=x-347-559597).

But others will not want to give up their privacy, and will make the choice to do something about it. Participation in most parts of the panopticon is by choice; sometimes these choices are inconvenient, but they are different paths just the same. If I know that the movements are my car can be easily tracked by going on to the Toll Roads with an electronic Toll Tag, I either pay for my toll in coin or stay off of the toll roads completely. If there is a technology that I feel is impinging on my privacy, I can choose to avoid it, create/invent a way around it, or use the good ole Internet to find a like-minded individual who are already figured it out, and either adopt or modify their work.

There are many examples in history where a technology solution has been undone or overcome by an opposing force. The best examples of this are in the areas of security and cryptography, areas closely tied to personal privacy. For every privacy requirement, an encryption code can be created; that encryption code can also be broken…it may take time, but the cycle of creating new schemes and finding inventive ways around them has been around since man decided to keep secrets. A cipher is created, the cipher is cracked; Germany creates the Enigma code machine, the Allies crack it (and don’t let on that they know); electronic passports are released, with RFID chips containing biometric and other identity information, and enterprising young rebels experiment with microwaving them and other means of disablement, before realizing you just need to take a hammer to it and it’s back to a plain ole paper passport. (BTW, The Code Book by Simon Singh is an excellent historical review of this cycle of crypting and cracking). The Dutch government spends $2Billion on RFID cards for a public transit card, and two college students crack it before it is even put into production (http://www.cs.vu.nl/~ast/ov-chip-card/).

The question then becomes one of legality, and again one of personal choice. An electronic passport with a non-working RFID chip in it will still be taken as travel credentials; did one break the law by destroying the chip to maintain one’s privacy? If I put a license plate loover (http://www.loover.com./) so that my plate is still visible from the rear but not by cameras from above, will I get into more trouble with law enforcement?

This brings up the second part of the question: are we headed for a technological panopticon? While that is certainly the direction that some governments (tracking citizens, law breakers and terrorists) and large corporations (tracking consumers to shove more crap at them), there will always be exploitable holes, exploitable by technology and by ingenuity. In a similar way that no computer program can be bug free, there will never be a surveillance program that does not have either technological or bureaucratic holes in it. Examine the license plate loover mentioned above, probably the most low-tech privacy solution I have seen (gee, let’s put mini-blinds on our plates!). But it works, because the laws in most states say that your plate must be visible from street level only, and because most cameras are installed higher up.

The cycle will continue. More threats (or perceived threats) will push governments toward more tracking / invasion of privacy mechanisms; greed will push large merchants to track our purchases, wants, desires; and individuals will continue to find ways around them, low tech, high tech and simple avoidance.

David Brin
David Brin is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and Uplift War. (The Postman inspired a major film in 1998.) Brin is also known as a leading commentator on modern technological trends. His non fiction book, The Transparent Society, won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association.

This discussion sounds very interesting. I have very limited time, but the topic is so important that I’ll find some.

You parse the question right. Is there a way to ensure that the little guy can fight back? For more than a decade, I have shared this fundamental goal with those on the other side of the privacy debate. We all fear Big Brother and treasure a society that protects diversity, eccentricity, free speech and personal freedom.

The problem is that the self-appointed privacy defenders, who want to pass laws and restrictions on the flow of knowledge can never cite a single time in human history when such dictates have functionally blided the mighty. The elites. Especially since elites will write the laws, plant the loopholes, control the enforcement and bribe the enforcers.

Or as science fiction legend Robert Heinlein once put it: “The chief thing accomplished by privacy laws is to make the spy-bugs smaller.”

Moreover, this approach ignores the fundamental thing that brought us our freedom in the first place! The entire Enlightenment is one big experiment in deriving the benefits of openness.

Indeed, let us take a silly, but illuminating extreme case scenario. In one society, citizens may know everything about all disputes, all products and services, all policies and issues, and exercise their sovereign will accordingly. In another, everybody — all individuals, companies, politicians, elites — may seal information about themselves, their products, policies and past deeds, from scrutiny by others. In which of these worlds do markets function well? Democracy? Science?

In which of these worlds might a powerful, knowing citizenry then choose to vote themselves a little…privacy?

Did Brin just say that “transparency can enhance privacy?”

Indeed, a general openness and transparency is why we have more privacy than any other generation! Because each of us can catch most of the peeping toms! In a restaurant, anybody can lean over and eavesdrop and anybody can stare… and anybody can spot eavesdroppers and starers. The result? For the most part, people leave each other alone!

For lack of time, I must refer people to a few online articles:

Starting light: A little allegory from The Transparent Society – A Parable about Openness.

An overview of our privacy future: Three cheers for the Surveillance Society! (Timed entry required. You don’t need the premium pass to read, just wait for the timer to expire. – Ed.)

One of my ongoing themes has been a 21st Century struggle to empower citizens, after the 20th Century’s relentless trend toward the “professionalization of everything.” But this may be about to change. For example, an overlooked aspect of the 9/11 tragedy was that citizens themselves were most effective in our civilization’s defense, reacting with resiliency and initiative while armed with new technologies. (See: The value – and empowerment – of common citizens in an age of danger)

Let me leave off with a final thought:

“What aspect of privacy is essential, in order for the discussion to continue? In order for those who hold a particular view to continue arguing for it, or against policies that they consider to be mistaken?”

The crux is, of course pragmatic freedom. The ability to disagree in safety, to express and explain that disagreement, and to know enough so that your arguments can be backed-up cogently, turning mere opinion into socially useful criticism. If this level of pragmatic freedom is maintained, then society might make an error or take a wrong path regarding all other aspects of privacy policy, yet still retain the ability to detect the mistake. We would still be able to change our minds.

Indeed, the one lesson of human history is that we make mistakes with passionate certainty. Accepting that “I might be wrong” is the hallmark of maturity that allows us to back out of erroneous paths, even when the loud and obstinate insist that we forge

ahead.

The ability to hold competitive views and change each others’ minds is the centerpiece of the entire Enlightenment experiment, as manifest in all four of our key “arena”processes: democracy, courts, markets and science. These four arenas work in direct

proportion to the degree that participants can see and know. Hence, is there not an inherent interest — both by society and any individual — in a “right to know”?

Indeed, let us take a silly, but illuminating extreme case scenario. In one society, citizens may know everything about all disputes, all products and services, all policies and issues, and exercise their sovereign will accordingly. In another, everybody — all individuals, companies, politicians, elites — may seal information about themselves, their products, policies and past deeds, from scrutiny by others. In which of these worlds do markets function well? Democracy? Science?

In which of these worlds might a powerful, knowing citizenry then choose to vote themselves a little…privacy?

There’s the ultimate irony. We are most likely to have some privacy in the future, in a world that is MOSTLY filled with light. Only then will we have the power of sousveillance, to look BACK at the mighty from below. Not perfectly. But well enough to ensure they must always be wary of pushing us too far.

About JP Frantz (2323 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

3 Comments on MIND MELD: Are We Headed For a Technological Panopticon?

  1. You’re very busy. Your time is valuable. We’re all aware now that you’re not a street person. Thanks.

  2. After looking up the word “Panopticon”…. I know for a fact that AT&T, Google, and eventually some poor schmuck at the FBI, now knows that I looked up the word “Panopticon.”

  3. Anonymous // January 22, 2008 at 5:42 pm //

    Mr Brin, you have very limited time but just enough to dash off an 800 word article studded with classic quotes like this one –

    The ability to hold competitive views and change each others’ minds is the centerpiece of the entire Enlightenment experiment, as manifest in all four of our key “arena” processes: democracy, courts, markets and science. These four arenas work in direct proportion to the degree that participants can see and know. Hence, is there not an inherent interest — both by society and any individual — in a “right to know”?

    That goes without saying, it seems to me. In today’s society and political reality, though, the right to know is spindled, crushed, granted lip service and false reassurances, re-animated, propped up like a fat balloon, and shot down yet again in reaction to the fads and transient fears blowing through the corridors of power.

    Only then will we have the power of sousveillance, to look BACK at the mighty from below. Not perfectly. But well enough to ensure they must always be wary of pushing us too far.

    Something I liked so much about Kiln People is the imagining of a society that works with ubiquitous scrutiny. Your sousveillance idea would be a first-rate basis for a new novel. That’s what Freedom of Information Act is about, yes? It’s what Larry Flynt is doing when he digs up sexcrime dirt on politicians? Taking it into the science fiction level would make a great book.

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