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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A thought provoking and sometimes scary look at privacy...
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...
Published on July 22, 2003 by Nicq MacDonald

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Wrong man for the job
Some of the best science fiction I have ever read was penned by Dr. Brin. He knows how to write ... fiction. He also must beat least a passable academic to get a doctorate. This is an intelligent and educated man.

"The Transparent Society," however, is unfinishable. I got 120 pages in, about a third of the way, and gave up.

Dr. Brin commits a...
Published 9 months ago by Amazon Customer


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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A thought provoking and sometimes scary look at privacy..., July 22, 2003
By 
Nicq MacDonald (Sioux Falls, SD United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom? (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. For instance, there would still be a huge division between technological haves and have-nots- between the people who know how to utilize this technology and those who lack the skill, the patience, the time, the resources, or the simple will to use it. Brin is more than a bit of a technophile (not insulting technophiles, I'm one too), and seems to assume that everyone in the neo-West is on the same page as him. Also, despite his numerous appeals to pragmatism, the book is extremely idealistic, and runs counter to the trends we're seeing today, in both the increased scope of government surveillance powers, the increased intrusion of companies into our lives, and the ever-escalating privacy arms race being fought on the internet and in the courts. The world is going the way of Orwell, and not the way of Brin.
Yet, in the end, would there be any difference? In addition to public apathy, the sheer amount of data created by a surveillance infrastructure would be daunting to an individual attempting to make use of it. We're already facing a massive "information glut" today, both in terms of the internet, and in terms of government agencies who, despite their increased powers in the wake of 9-11, lack the ability to sort through all the data they're recieving. Between these problems and the haves-have nots gap, Brin's vision seems to fall short.
Also annoying was Brin's obsession with Plato-bashing, which seems to be a popular hobby among political philosophers ever since Karl Popper tackled "The Republic" in his book "The Open Society and It's Enemies". Last year, however, my government advisor gave me a different view of the Republic- that the book is actually a satire, meant to show how and why totalitarianism never could work. This flies in the face of these Popperians, who seem caught up in the idea that Plato was a proto-Nazi.
However, weaknesses aside, The Transparent Society is an excellent read. I'd suggest that, for an alternative (fictional) view, anyone with an interest in this title also pick up a copy of Neal Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon".
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Puts NSA Wiretapping in Context, July 8, 2006
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This review is from: The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom? (Paperback)
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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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly Topical, Particularly after 9-11-01, November 12, 2001
By 
Arnold Kling (Silver Spring, Md USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom? (Paperback)
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. Thus, although he would agree with the national security establishment that secret bank accounts are a problem, he would part ways with the establishment in that he would not give the police special privileges to examine bank transactions. Instead, he would expose such transactions to anyone.
This is just one of many interesting ideas in this provocative book.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Provocatively Entertaining, June 29, 2000
By 
Paul Frandano (Reston, Va. USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom? (Paperback)
David Brin has a lot to say and says it discursively, but he's done his homework--dipping into an impressive range of social science, philosophical, crytographic, and technical literature--thought carefully, marshalled compelling arguments seasoned with humor and bright metaphors, and, as a result, is worth listening to, arguing with, or simply pondering. The Transparent Society works out, with much supporting detail, ideas about secrecy and privacy first raised in Brin's magisterial novel, Earth, and does so in a civilizational context. I risk doing Brin and his book grave injustice by oversimplifying, but let me say Brin views "accountability" and "criticism" as central to the progress of neo-Western civilization (fight the power!) and further posits that criticism works very like T-cells in an immune system, providing (to a greater and greater extent as the collective grows in knowledge) autonomous and impersonal correctives against all manner of "error." Brin argues for greater informational transparency--almost total disclosure--observing that, if universal surveillance cameras and other snoop technologies are inevitable (and they almost certainly are), then a generalized oversight capability, or a mutual surveillance capacity (in other words, my ability to watch the government with the same technologies that the government can watch me) is the answer to the classic question, quis custodiet ipsos custodes (who shall guard the guardians?)? In short, we all will. Brin's ingenious argumentation may strike some readers as cavalier or reductionist. It's not. It's serious and is, moreover, and a serious response to flamewar proponents of "encryption as the answer" to the privacy dilemmas of the wired age.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Important, flawed, nearly as readable as his sci-fi, July 8, 1998
By 
Note: I reviewed the book in draft form.
Based primarily on rampant, uncontrolled growth in visual surveillance, Brin argues that the technological imperative is irresistible; and that privacy protections are futile. He believes that privacy can only be sustained by focussing instead on freedom of information for everyone: to achieve privacy, rely on freedom, not secrecy.
Brin's argument can be most succinctly expressed as a question-answer pair: Q: Who will keep a watch on the watchers? A: The watched. His antidote is ubiquitous openness, with the powerful just as subject to visual and data surveillance as everyone else. Policemen will be judged by the viewers who, on the Internet, watch them watching others.
Brin's argument is based on the premise that the watchers will not exercise political power in order to preclude others from watching them. The history of societies suggests that there have always been uneven distributions of power, and that the powerful have had incentives, and in most cases the ability, to exercise their power, and to resist diminution of their power. It would appear that Brin's transparent society can only be achieved if the patterns repeated across millenia of human experience are able to be overturned in short order.
So his argument is undermined by the implicit presumptions that the less powerful are more powerful than the more powerful, that no-one will succeed in establishing enclaves of privilege, and that the actions of all will really be able to be monitored by all. Brin's counter-argument (private communication, 30 June 1998) is that the powerful will be only as successful in avoiding observation as they already are in resisting privacy laws that offend their own interests.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Accountability trumps privacy, February 7, 2002
By 
Marvin S. Long "mightymm" (Austin, Texas United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom? (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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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hard to accept, but he may be right, April 18, 2003
By 
owookiee "owookiee" (Winston-Salem, NC USA) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom? (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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Wrong man for the job, December 17, 2013
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom? (Paperback)
Some of the best science fiction I have ever read was penned by Dr. Brin. He knows how to write ... fiction. He also must beat least a passable academic to get a doctorate. This is an intelligent and educated man.

"The Transparent Society," however, is unfinishable. I got 120 pages in, about a third of the way, and gave up.

Dr. Brin commits a very common mistake in conflating his abilities as a scientist or as a novelist with other areas of expertise, like axiology, ethics and logic. Everyone tends to do this to some extent, but the more highly regarded people in some field or other often tend to project their abilities much farther afield than they are actually capable of reaching.

One favorable aspect of this 1999 book is to note the many areas where he correctly forecast technology and social trends derived from that technology, such as nannycams and surveillance drones.

Page 9 — "Will average citizens share, along with the mighty, the right to access these universal monitors?" This dramatic question assigns to "the mighty" a "right." He does not distinguish between a negative or a positive right, and does not explain where the mighty get this right.

Page 10 — "...We have chosen freedom and mass sovereignty...." Mass sovereignty is a fanciful term for democracy, which is a palatable term for socialism as it is, by definition, the tyranny of the masses over the individual. If the mass of individuals is sovereign, the actual individuals are not, and cannot therefore be free.

Page 30 — "...In a world where anyone can bear false witness, try to make damn sure there are lots of witnesses!" As it becomes increasingly easy to fake evidence, Brin proposed solution is to pile the potentially false witness high and deep. His premise is that, if one person may lie, get 20 people to make a statement because some of those will likely tell the truth. Which ones? He offers no answer to that rather simple and logical question. More evidence cures the ill of false evidence, even though it is entirely possible that all of the extra evidence gathered may be false, and one has no means of telling which of the data are valid.

Dr. Brin plays fast and loose with moral agency, equating the need of the State to monitor Its citizens with the need of the citizens to monitor the State ... to watch the watchmen. He claims that individuals demanding privacy are unrealistic because the tech is going there regardless of our wills, but also it is obstructive of the rightful function of government, which is to spy on and deal with villains. If one has to spy on the innocent to catch the guilty ... so be it. His answer again is to increase monitoring, just making sure there is Mutually Assured Inspection going in both directions, that the people may spy on the police and the bureaucracy ... that will create a fairness and a balance. But the people have rights to self-determination and the State does not. The State is not a moral agent where individuals are, and the State cannot enjoy actual moral rights. The individuals may delegate to the State, for efficiency, certain powers, but these are functions of deputization and ultimately revert back to the individuals. Brin's ethics treat the State as if it were a person, and persons as if they were homogenous components.

The man can be a visionary, but he is out of touch with so much elementary philosophical principle, and he is not aware of his lack. 2-3 freshman level undergraduate courses would do him a world of good ... if he were genuinely interested in discovering where he is wanting, and has the intellectual integrity to admit the need and to make the changes.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars good discussion on the privacy/technology debate, October 27, 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom? (Paperback)
This book is an EXCELLENT reference tool for anyone interested in this subject. I expected the book to focus more on technological developments and their implications, rather than the psych 101/human nature 101 lecture that it turned out to be. Furthermore, the constant references to the author's own work throughout the book were intrusive. It would have been a better work if he devoted more time discussing the economic/financial implications of technology and the perceived invasion.
However, he did raise some very good and interesting points about the idea of transparency and its applications in an "open" society. He also nicely pointed out the contradictions in the logic of pro-encryption and libertarian groupies.
Overall, it's a good and thought provoking read.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book is absolutely mandatory reading, May 26, 1998
By A Customer
Brin has taken some of the concepts explored in his science fiction, fleshed them out and provided a compelling rationale and background for them. He gives a fair and balanced analysis of all sides of the multitude of debates regarding privacy, censorship, freedom, access to information and the future of our society. And then he steps back and has the courage to do what so few people seem to do in modern debate--argue that the answers lie not in the extremes, but in a pragmatic center. Perhaps "center" isn't the right word, instead he seems to have moved the entire argument from two dimensions into three.
If you have any interest at all in privacy (computer or otherwise), censorship, government power, encryption, or what our world may be like in ten or twenty years; you definitely need to read this book. You may not agree with it, but it's going to shape the coming debates.
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The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom?
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