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The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom? Paperback – May 7 1999


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Trade Paper Edition edition (May 7 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0738201448
  • ISBN-13: 978-0738201443
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 2.4 x 21 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 431 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #323,161 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description

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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Nicq MacDonald on July 22 2003
Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback
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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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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