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The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom? [Paperback]

David Brin
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 7 1999
In New York and Baltimore, police cameras scan public areas twenty-four hours a day. Huge commercial databases track you finances and sell that information to anyone willing to pay. Host sites on the World Wide Web record every page you view, and “smart" toll roads know where you drive. Every day, new technology nibbles at our privacy.Does that make you nervous? David Brin is worried, but not just about privacy. He fears that society will overreact to these technologies by restricting the flow of information, frantically enforcing a reign of secrecy. Such measures, he warns, won't really preserve our privacy. Governments, the wealthy, criminals, and the techno-elite will still find ways to watch us. But we'll have fewer ways to watch them. We'll lose the key to a free society: accountability. 'The Transparent Society' is a call for “reciprocal transparency." If police cameras watch us, shouldn't we be able to watch police stations? If credit bureaus sell our data, shouldn't we know who buys it? Rather than cling to an illusion of anonymity-a historical anomaly, given our origins in close-knit villages-we should focus on guarding the most important forms of privacy and preserving mutual accountability. The biggest threat to our freedom, Brin warns, is that surveillance technology will beused by too few people, now by too many.A society of glass houses may seem too fragile. Fearing technology-aided crime, governments seek to restrict online anonymity; fearing technology-aided tyranny, citizens call for encrypting all data. Brins shows how, contrary to both approaches, windows offer us much better protection than walls; after all, the strongest deterrent against snooping has always been the fear of being spotted. Furthermore, Brin argues, Western culture now encourages eccentricity-we're programmed to rebel! That gives our society a natural protection against error and wrong-doing, like a body's immune system. But “social T-cells" need openness to spot trouble and get the word out. 'The Transparent Society' is full of such provocative and far-reaching analysis.The inescapable rush of technology is forcing us to make new choices about how we want to live. This daring book reminds us that an open society is more robust and flexible than one where secrecy reigns. In an era of gnat-sized cameras, universal databases, and clothes-penetrating radar, it will be more vital than ever for us to be able to watch the watchers. With reciprocal transparency we can detect dangers early and expose wrong-doers. We can gauge the credibility of pundits and politicians. We can share technological advances and news. But all of these benefits depend on the free, two-way flow of information.

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From Amazon

David Brin takes some of our worst notions about threats to privacy and sets them on their ears. According to Brin, there is no turning back the growth of public observation and inevitable loss of privacy--at least outside of our own homes. Too many of our transactions are already monitored: Brin asserts that cameras used to observe and reduce crime in public areas have been successful and are on the rise. There's even talk of bringing in microphones to augment the cameras. Brin has no doubt that it's only a matter of time before they're installed in numbers to cover every urban area in every developed nation.

While this has the makings for an Orwellian nightmare, Brin argues that we can choose to make the same scenario a setting for even greater freedom. The determining factor is whether the power of observation and surveillance is held only by the police and the powerful or is shared by us all. In the latter case, Brin argues that people will have nothing to fear from the watchers because everyone will be watching each other. The cameras would become a public resource to assure that no mugger is hiding around the corner, our children are playing safely in the park, and police will not abuse their power.

No simplistic Utopian, Brin also acknowledges the many dangers on the way. He discusses how open access to information can either threaten or enhance freedom. It is one thing, for example, to make the entire outdoors public and another thing to allow the cameras and microphones to snoop into our homes. He therefore spends a lot of pages examining what steps are required to assure that a transparent society evolves in a manner that enhances rather than restricts freedom. This is a challenging view of tomorrow and an exhilarating read for those who don't mind challenges to even the most well-entrenched cultural assumptions. --Elizabeth Lewis --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Science fiction writer Brin (The Uplift War) departs from technological fantasy to focus on the social and political ramifications of our information age. While addressing the technology-vs.-privacy debate, he offers an informed overview of the issues and a useful historical account of how current policies evolved. Also beneficial are his descriptions of the different viewpoints on encryption software, online anonymity, the Clipper Chip and techno-jargon. But when Brin opines on these topics, the book suffers from superficiality. He appends remarks to the end of each chapter as this: "When you've been invited to a really neat party, try to dance with the one who brought you." His main point--that information and criticism should flow unrestricted--is lost in a melange of armchair social science theory and unrelated observations on the media, morality, identity and manners. After making a thoughtful case for discouraging encryption and encouraging free speech on the Web, he undercuts his position by calling for e-mail civility, "because people who lash out soon learn that it simply does not pay," then states that a balance can be achieved between these two extremes. Despite a strong beginning, Brin's book ultimately lacks clarity and originality.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Anyone who follows digerati publications such as Wired magazine and reads novels by Neal Stephenson already knows all about cryptography- that protective suit of armor that is supposed to keep all our private data safe from the thugs that would exploit it, whether they be the government, the megacorps, or the mob. In a future of ultra-surveillance, heavy crypto is the only way to hide.
David Brin throws this notion in the trash.
In "The Transparent Society", David Brin suggests that to embrace heavy crypto is to embark in an "arms race" of secrecy that lowly private citizens can't possibly win. The age of ultra-surveillance, universal wiretapping, and data regulation is upon us, and there's only one true way to avoid a scenario that seems straight out of Orwell- universal transparency and accountability. In Brin's view, the technologies of data retrieval and surveillance should be made available to anyone who would make use of them- neighborhood watches could monitor their streets, parents could keep track of their children, and, while governments and agencies would have the ability to spy upon citizens, citizens and watchdog groups would have the power to spy back- and thus hold the powers that be accountable. While we'd lose the anonymity provided by modern society, we would gain safety, not only from crime, but from abuse of authority. We'd be able to form new community bonds that utilize distributed computing to keep tabs on each other. And, most importantly, we'd gain peace of mind.
In theory, anyway.
While Brin's thesis is unique, formidable and provacative, it does seem to fall short in places.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Hard to accept, but he may be right April 18 2003
The entire book is basically one giant argument: That in order to be safe and maintain some form of privacy, we have to in fact give it up and become an open society.
If we try to preserve our privacy through laws and such, he says, then we fall into the trap of who watches the watchers, because to some degree law enforcement and businesses will need access to private information.
His ideal society, that he puts forth, is one where all information is available, with this caveat - that none of it open to just any priviledged group. So, though the police may be able to see that you're standing on the corner, you can see them sitting at their desk. While someone might know you read some newsgroup, you'll know which ones they read.
He sees personal accountability, through openness, to be a great regulator of behaviour.
Before I read this book, if someone suggested this to me, I'd call them crazy. But after reading his arguments, and considering the reasons why I'm an open-source software proponent, I find myself considering that Brin may be right to a degree.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Accountability trumps privacy Feb. 7 2002
David Brin explains why the traditional privacy argumets, equating privacy with liberty, and lack-of-privacy with tyrrany, are insufficient when dealing with the coming world of ubiquitous surveillance. What's more important, making sure nobody sees what you do, or making sure everyone can see what those who have power do? Secrecy always favors the powerful, DB argues, and since the technology is inevitable it makes more sense to give it to everybody than to try to ban it altogether.
The book addresses many other aspects of the debate, such as the utopian ideal of perfect internet anonymity, and why the modern ideal of privacy is more a side effect of industrialization than a primordial human expectation.
One thing I wish the book did better is to address why the rich and powerful won't be able to have a surveillance and shielding advantage over everyone else sufficiently great to counter the popular surveillance movement he anticipates. But this is a small flaw in an otherwise terrific book that will jar you out of any complacent assumptions you may have made on the subject of privacy. To see Brin address these issues in fiction, read Earth and Kiln People too -- both are terrific books.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Highly Topical, Particularly after 9-11-01 Nov. 12 2001
Suppose that the cost of surveillance technology continues to fall. What are our options?
(a) try to ban certain types of surveillance technologies altogether
(b) try to restrict surveillance technologies so that "we" have it but "they" don't
(c) try to escape surveillance technology by using encryption
(d) try to encourage broad access to surveillance technology
David Brin argues persuasively that (d) is the least problematic solution. The other strategies are both more difficult to execute and less likely to produce a desirable outcome. For example, with (c) you have the problem that encryption may not be perfectly reliable. Moreover, even if you can encrypt your bits, you cannot encrypt your atoms. So you still may be subject to surveillance by a network of cameras, by centralized databases, etc.
The greatest strength of the book is the way that Brin analyzes the situation from the perspective of different opponents to his position. The greatest weakness is that he rarely delves into details about how to implement his overall recommendation. What incentives need to be created? How do laws need to be changed, etc.? He offers hints, and occasional examples, but leaves a lot out.
The relevance of this book has increased dramatically as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11. For example, on p. 320 there is this passage:
"Terrorists operate under cloaks of anonymity and secrecy...This is especially true of their concealed finances...the real impulse to force them open may only come after some band of terrorists manages to kill thousands..."
What Brin advocates is not a stronger police state but a more open system that allows any citizen to trace how money flows.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Good read but verbose.
This is a great book. Its well researched and takes issues a step further for analysis. But, I do think that some of his solutions will not work in the real world. Read more
Published on Nov. 8 2001 by Tapan Karwa
5.0 out of 5 stars Provocatively Entertaining
David Brin has a lot to say and says it discursively, but he's done his homework--dipping into an impressive range of social science, philosophical, crytographic, and technical... Read more
Published on June 29 2000 by Paul Frandano
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but disorganized
I bought the book after reading about it in _New Scientist_ (British science journal). Brin's ideas are fascinating but the book could use some serious editing. Read more
Published on June 4 2000
4.0 out of 5 stars A Good Balance Against Knee-Jerk Privacy
This book does a good job spelling out a counter argument to the Big Brother mythology. Brin suggests all of the information is, on average, better for society because the... Read more
Published on March 25 2000
5.0 out of 5 stars A good read on important issues
David Brin is a storyteller whose stories have a meaning. This time he has written a non-fiction book but the text is so fluent to read that you almost forget, how important issues... Read more
Published on Dec 22 1999 by Jyrki J.J. Kasvi
3.0 out of 5 stars good discussion on the privacy/technology debate
This book is an EXCELLENT reference tool for anyone interested in this subject. I expected the book to focus more on technological developments and their implications, rather than... Read more
Published on Oct. 27 1999
5.0 out of 5 stars A very important book
I think this is a very important contribution to the debate over privacy, encryption, and information technology. Read more
Published on Oct. 25 1999 by Wayne
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
This is a very good book for people to be come aware of their rights and responsibilities when dealing in an ever connected world. Read more
Published on June 14 1999
5.0 out of 5 stars Something that every politician and scientist should read.
This is the most thought provoking book I've ever read regarding solving many of the problems present in our American society. Read more
Published on June 1 1999
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