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Book details of 'The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?'

Cover of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?
TitleThe Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?
Author(s)David Brin
PublisherPerseus Publishing
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The Virtual Bookcase Reviews of 'The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?':

Reviewer wrote:
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.

Reviewer Rob Slade wrote:
As the author points out, this book will probably be shelved alongside texts on privacy. It is, however, more properly about candour. I find, therefore, that I must make an admission of a rather important bias. Despite being considered by some to be a security expert, I have never had any particular interest in the practice of privacy and confidentiality. I am much more interested in openness. Part one looks at the new transparent world as access to all kinds of information increases. Chapter one points out that the time to discuss whether we want technology or privacy has passed: technology is here, and it *will* provide access to information, and erode privacy, whether we like it or not. Brin does suggest that we still have a choice about the management of that technology. Do we want to have all data available only to a select few (such as the government), or all data available to everyone? The "information age" is reviewed in chapter two, but there is also a very interesting examination of the possibility of the resurgence of amateur scholarship. Various current invasions of, and attacks on, privacy are discussed in chapter three. In response to these, and in opposition to the usual calls for more legislated protections on privacy, Brin proposes reciprocal transparency: everyone who wants to collect information on the public must make the same information about themselves publicly available. Chapter four raises an extremely interesting point in relation to copyright, patent, and other legal restrictions on intellectual property, and the fact that the information age seems to have so much trouble with it. Transparency initially seems to threaten to totally destroy the idea of copyright, but ultimately may present a unique solution to maintaining its proper function. Part two looks at those problems involved in an open society. Chapter five presents some of the arguments that should be reviewed, from the toxicity of ideas to the irony of western civilization's delight in individualism. The inherent benefits of accountability are reiterated in chapter six, although with less eloquence and insight than earlier text displayed. The encryption debate is a convoluted one, and is fairly, but rather unclearly, portrayed in chapter seven. The general tone of most of the book is libertarian, so the author does not seem to be completely comfortable with arguing against the merits of confidentiality of communications. It is, however, ironic that Brin does not report the later research of Dorothy Denning that indicates law enforcement agencies really do not need the ability to break encryption, since in an odd way it strengthens his central thesis. Part three proposes some means of achieving an open society. Chapter eight reviews a number of tools for transparency, but manages to look ragged and disorganized. Some future technological "tools races" are described with a bit more coherence in chapter nine. The various arguments in favour of openness are extended, in chapter ten, to the international arena. Chapter eleven closes off with a summation of the rest of the book. Since Brin is well known as a popularizer of science and as a science fiction writer, and since his scientific training is not in the field of information technology it would be easy to see this book as yet another attempt by someone to trade on a reputation and a currently popular field in order to make a few bucks with minimal effort and thought. Although his writing background has helped to produce a text that is easily readable, the work is informed by a thorough understanding of the issues and technologies, and also leavened with insight and wit. Unfortunately, most of the really good stuff comes in the first four chapters, leaving the rest of the volume somewhat anticlimactic. The book is both reasonable and provocative, and makes an interesting counterpoint to much of the current discussion of privacy and technology. Discussions of the important topics of privacy and encryption are both balanced and quite complete, providing those near to the fields with a useful primer. In addition, Brin's more controversial points are well taken, and deserve serious consideration. copyright Robert M. Slade, 1998

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