Book details of 'The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?'
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The Virtual Bookcase Reviews of 'The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?':
Reviewer amazon.com 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
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
copyright Robert M. Slade, 1998
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