Review: The Transparent Society–Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? (Paperback)

5 Star, Civil Society, Information Society

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Puts NSA Wiretapping in Context,

July 8, 2006
David Brin
It is helpful to return to this book, from 1998, and to a follow on book, “the digital person” published in 2004, as context for the recent bru-ha-ha over NSA wiretapping without a warrant, and the loss to theft of tens of thousands of social security number and other personal information of veterans. Oh yes, somewhere in there, the FBI was hacked and companies like First Data are making fortunes compiling actionable profiles of individuals from disparate sources that were never approved for sharing.

This book focuses on the value of transparency and considers the key issue to be the war between secrecy versus accountability. The author directly confronts the issue of “who controls” information about YOU.

The author draws a useful comparison between the Internet, which sacrificed security for robust sharing, and the intelligence community, which chose security over sharing as its primordal principal.

The author observes that the Internet is having one undesireable effect, that of fragmenting communities that become less amenable to compromise and consensus. He points out that reality and locationally based discussion can lead to more effective consensus and compromise.

There is a useful discussion of “tagging” and how citizen truth squads and public commentary can serve as a useful antidote to corporate messages. The idea of “culture jamming” is picked up and treated at length by another excellent book, “NO LOGO.”

Overall this book remains a standard in providing a detailed revoew of the issues and the capabilities surrounding digitial information about individuals. It is the author's view that WHO controls information, rather than WHO is elected, will determine the future of democracy.

In passing the author makes two points that I find important:

1) A liberal education, rather than the current trends toward immediate specialization, is essential if the public is to be able to think critically.

2) Law enforcement under the current government model, does not work. The author gives the example of 100 felonies, of which only 33 are reported. Of the 33, 6 are caught, 3 are convicted, and 1 goes to prison.

The author ends with a reference to genius savant John Perry Barlow, one of America's more notable commentators, and suggests that we are entering an era of individual collective intelligence against organized government intelligence (and secrecy).

I recommend this book be read together with “the digital person” because the latter book focuses on the degree to which government and corporate mistakes–“careless unconcerned bureaucratic processes” can undermine privacy and good order.

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