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Aiming for lateral accountability: Cameras will either help… or thwart… Big Brother


David Brin is a scientist, futurist and best-selling author. He's also predicted many things about the present in his science fiction books set in the future. (So he probably knows whether cameras will help or thwart Big Brother; maybe the answer is in one of his books…)

You can keep up with David's latest thoughts at his blog, the Contrary Brin Blog


Aiming for lateral accountability: Cameras will either help… or thwart… Big Brother

Courtesy of David BrinContrary Brin Blog

More and more we are seeing that the enemies of the Enlightenment Experiment are not just opposing 'western decadence' or even the Rule of Law – though the RoL hampers terribly the power and whim that topmost males have always deemed their birthright. 

No, the most fundamental thing that all tyrants, kings, owner-lords and priestly hierarchs have always dreaded was the possibility of accountability, applied upon them by those they rule.

Pericles spoke of this, at the onset of the age when the Athenian Democracy dazzled the world. Thomas Paine crystalized the notion, far more revolutionary than anything by Lenin or Robspierre or Mao. It is the core of every experiment in flat-fair-open-creative and free civilization.

Is technology going to help… or end it?

“Massive camera hack exposes the growing reach and intimacy of American surveillance.” A breach of the camera start-up Verkada ‘should be a wake-up call to the dangers of self-surveillance,’ one expert said: ‘Our desire for some fake sense of security is its own security threat', reports The Washington Post.

I remain appalled that so many very smart people actually seem to think that each year's new tech levels – and menaces – will now freeze and stand still long enough for us to ban them. Cameras get smaller, faster, cheaper, better, more mobile and vastly more numerous far faster than Moore's Law (Brin's Corollary!

Consider the recent case of San Francisco's City Council banning facial recognition systems, when keeping them open to public criticism is exactly how we discovered and then corrected many problems like racial and gender bias in the programs.

Anyway Facial Recognition programs won't be resident in police departments for long, where some city council can ban them, but will be cheap apps in phones and AR glasses, available from a thousand directions. Result? Cops who are banned from using versions that are open to supervision will instead surreptitiously use dark web versions, because it might save their own lives.

We need to focus not on uselessly trying to ban tech that might be abused, but on eliminating the abuses. And that can only happen with more light, aimed at those with power.

Oh, the dangers are very real! These techs will certainly empower agents and masters of despotism, if you already have a despotism. And hence the lesson and priority is to prevent despotism altogether! Because these same techs could instead empower vibrant citizenship, if we see to it they are well-shared and that no elite gets to monopolize them.

Which they will, if we try simplistically and reflexively to ban them.

It's not that the ACLU and EFF and EU are wrong to fret! They are absolutely correct to point at problems and to worry that surveillance techs could empower Big Brothers and render citizen privacy extinct. It is their prescriptions that almost always are short-sighted and foolish.

Making a tech illegal will not stop elites form having and using it. 

Let me repeat that.

Making a tech illegal will not stop elites form having and using it. 

What it will do is make them arrange to do it secretly, where the methods won't be appraised and criticized publicly.

As Heinlein said, "the chief effect of a privacy law is to make the bugs smaller."

Need I keep mentioning that both Martin Luther King and Gandhi credited cameras with saving their own lives, as they marched and took on entrenched power?

Meanwhile the thing propelling Black Lives Matter is the proliferation of public access to cameras, spectacularly increasing the number of bad cops being fired. Being convicted took longer and activism helped change the reflexes of juries! But none of it would have happened without the cameras. All of it, BTW, predicted in EARTH (1990) and The Transparent Society (1997).

Again and again… HOW to get the internet’s good and repress the bad?

Some of these concepts are hard, so let's go over similar concepts from a slightly different angle.

Evan Anderson of the Strategic News Service recently wrote an incisive piece on how the Internet is suffering near lethal harm from swarms of nasty users: The Half-Percent: How A Few Awful Individuals Increasingly Threaten Our Future.”

For example “This March, in its The Disinformation Dozen, the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that in a sample of content posted 812,000 times on social media platforms, just 12 individual anti-vaxxer accounts on Facebook and Twitter were responsible for a full 65% of anti-vaccine content.

The report also describes that many of these individuals are doing so simply to encourage skepticism because they have “snake oil” to sell, noting: ‘Living in full view of the public on the internet are a small group of individuals who do not have relevant medical expertise and have their own pockets to line, who are abusing social media platforms to misrepresent the threat of Covid and spread misinformation about the safety of vaccines. According to our recent report, anti-vaccine activists on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter reach more than 59 million followers, making these the largest and most important social media platforms for anti-vaxxers. Our research has also found anti-vaxxers using social media platforms to target Black Americans, exploiting higher rates of vaccine hesitancy in that community to spread conspiracies and lies about the safety of Covid vaccines.’ These 12 individuals account for 73% of vaccine misinformation on Facebook, are personally featured in 17% of anti-vaxx content on Twitter, and regularly feature sales attempts for alternative products that they claim can cure Covid-19.

Okay then. How to deal with bad-guys and sociopaths and predators? As far back as legends go, sages have preached we should be honest and forthright and honorable to each other. These preachings – on every continent and in every language – had positive effects, but only on those who already valued honesty and honor and decency. 

The sort of folks whom the dishonorable always view as prey.

Some kings and priests sought to apply other methods. Laws, policing, punishments. These deterred bad actors to some large degree by applying accountability. In strong, efficient states, businesses could operate and families had some recourse from gangs of thugs… but only some. And there was no redress from the capricious whims of the King, or lords or priests.

A few nations tried the Periclean approach… supply citizens with the means to apply accountability upward. Always a difficult, fraught and incomplete effort, it nevertheless was the focus of Adam Smith and the U.S. Founders and each generation of Americans has done it slightly better, except this one, as a worldwide oligarchic putsch strives to end the very notion of the idea that Rule-of-Law can apply upward.

In order to weaken us, those oligarchs have subsidized and encouraged the nasty predators that this post was about. The anonymity that original Internet zealots called liberating has become a curse, as the worst men use it to evade any form of accountability, online.  More and more, we hear calls to banish anonymity… while those worried about Big Brother see what's happened in China, where online anonymity is banned for purposes of state control.

Elsewhere, I've explored how we were able to harness competitive processes in five great arenas: MARKETS, DEMOCRACY, SCIENCE, COURTS and SPORTS, and in all five, strenuous, unrelenting efforts repress the human tendency to cheat, by applying very different styles of fierce regulation and accountability. In my paper I discuss a method that might let this happen on the Web.

(For a rather intense look at how "truth" is determined in science, democracy, courts and markets, see "Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition

Okay, here's the key point. This doesn't have to be ZERO SUM! We should be able to get most of the good aspects of anonymity while eliminating most of the bad!  We could do this with a regularized process of formalized PSEUDONYMITY in which you can rent a vetted pseudonym from a fiduciary you already trust for other credentials (e.g. credit or savings)… your bank. (Banks are already well placed to get into this potentially profitable business.) 

If you do bad things under that pseudonym, the "ding" would follow you back and affect your credibility scores without having anyone actually know your name (unless the ding is a felony). 

I go into this elsewhere, too. The crux: the key to reducing the harm done by badguys is accountability. But giving top rulers tools for applying it downward is always dangerous to freedom.

The answer – as you'd expect from me – is lateral accountability.  And we can do it in a positive sum way.

Tech as Freedom’s Friend

In 2013 I touted maybe the most important step in American civil liberties since the 1960s Civil Rights Bills… when the Obama Administration and the courts ruled that citizens have a right to record the police. As I predicted in The Transparent Society, (especially p.130), cameras became far more of a 'great equalizer' than the six gun, though it took time and phases and a stretch of pain that hasn't ended with the Chauvin conviction. 

But while we rightfully laud heroes in this struggle, let's spare a nod for technology? The thing that will either empower Big Brother forever… or else ensure we'll have Big Brother NEVER.

That choice still lies in our hands.

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