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Bruce Schneier explains:

When I write and speak about privacy, I am regularly confronted with the mutual disclosure argument. Explained in books like David Brin's The Transparent Society, the argument goes something like this: In a world of ubiquitous surveillance, you'll know all about me, but I will also know all about you. The government will be watching us, but we'll also be watching the government. This is different than before, but it's not automatically worse. And because I know your secrets, you can't use my secrets as a weapon against me.

This might not be everybody's idea of utopia -- and it certainly doesn't address the inherent value of privacy -- but this theory has a glossy appeal, and could easily be mistaken for a way out of the problem of technology's continuing erosion of privacy. Except it doesn't work, because it ignores the crucial dissimilarity of power.

You cannot evaluate the value of privacy and disclosure unless you account for the relative power levels of the discloser and the disclosee. ...

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Comments (1)

Jardinero1 on March 19, 2008 8:57 AM:

He says later, in the article: "Cameras make sense when trained on police, and in offices where lawmakers meet with lobbyists, and wherever government officials wield power over the people. Open-government laws, giving the public access to government records and meetings of governmental bodies, also make sense. These all foster liberty."

I think he is wrong, about surveillance and open government laws. They won't foster liberty. They create another layer of the state to monitor the state. Great, then what? Do we train cameras on those cameras to make sure nothing is going wrong with the first cameras? Create more open government laws to check compliance with open government laws? Who will watch those watchers?

Why do we need watchers, to watch us or them, in the first place? What behavior is so bad, so dangerous and more importantly, so ubiquitous that we require surveillance in the first place. That's the question that most people won't ask, because they are afraid to. If they thought about it they would have to come to the conclusion that there is little to fear and for what little danger there is, the watchers provide no protection and no security at all.

The irony of open-government laws is that they only work in societies which don't need them: free societies with non-corrupt governments and respect for basic civil liberties(the US at one time). They don't work in societies that really require them: China, or the US government at the federal level. Open-government is a by product of a free society. A free society isn't created by open government laws.

"In a world of ubiquitous surveillance, you'll know all about me, but I will also know all about you." What if I don't want you to know about me and couldn't care less about you. The fundamental problem is the coercive nature of the relationship. There is no freedom where there is coercion. Freedom only exists when you have the opportunity to opt out. It's not about the relative power level; it's about the fact that you can't opt out of the relationship. Increasing the individual's power level is less important than reducing the power level of the state.

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Siva Vaidhyanathan

This blog, the result of a collaboration between myself and the Institute for the Future of the Book, is dedicated to exploring the process of writing a critical interpretation of the actions and intentions behind the cultural behemoth that is Google, Inc. The book will answer three key questions: What does the world look like through the lens of Google?; How is Google's ubiquity affecting the production and dissemination of knowledge?; and how has the corporation altered the rules and practices that govern other companies, institutions, and states? [more]

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Like the Mind of God (22 posts)

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The Dossier (19 posts)

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Rewiring the Nation: The Place of Technology in American Studies (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007)


The Anarchist in the Library (Basic Books, 2004)


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Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity (New York University Press, 2001)

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