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Don’t Surrender the Privacy Battle

Richard Stallman

Ethical Technology

Posted: Dec 8, 2012

David Brin’s recommendations in his recent article are based on the presupposition that watching “the mighty” cancels out their ability to watch us.

I wish that were true, but I don't believe it and here's why. There are two scenarios:

someone who has power over you in particular, and someone who has power over society in general.

* When "the mighty" means your boss.

If your boss can watch you all the time, he can bully you in any or all aspects of your life. Whether it's bars he objects to or, bowling alleys, or baseball games, if he can watch you all the time, he can fire you if you go to them, which means in effect he can control you.

That bars, bowling alleys and baseball games are legal and generally accepted in our society won't stop him; he doesn't need anyone else's approval to fire you.

Suppose you can watch him all the time, too. If he sees you went to a baseball game, and you see he went to a bar, that knowledge won't protect you. Denounce him all you wish for that vidsit to the bar, that won't get him fired for going to a bar unless his boss happens to object. Unless you catch him doing something illegal, or despised by his boss, your counter-snooping will avail you nothing.

In other words, mutual snooping magnifies any existing power differentials. Our society has increasing power differentials. Americans in general are more scared of losing their jobs than they were when I was young.

* When "the mighty" means a high official.

Increased ability to monitor the wrongdoing of poweful officials sometimes allows us to bring them down with scandals. Surely this puts some fear into them. However, the worst things that high officials do, they do in meetings and private messages. We can't see these with camera drones on the street; it takes heroes such as Ellsberg and Manning, and they are rare. Thus, we cannot monitor the mighty thoroughly in a way that would effectively restrain their power.

There is no substitute for privacy. Fortunately, we can maintain our privacy -- by limiting by law what companies and the state can collect on a regular basis about everyone. For instance, instead of requiring that ISPs and phone companies keep data on everyone's contacts, laws could forbid keeping this data except for people already placed on a surveillance list by court order. We must require new systems to be designed for privacy rather than to collect all possible data.

It is not too late to protect privacy pretty well, but we must insist on it -- which means, not heed the people who say it is hopeless.


I actually lived in a transparent society at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab from 1971 to 1981. The lab's timesharing computer had no security -- the hackers who wrote the Incompatible Timesharing System considered security measures "fascism", and intentionally did not implement any in the system we were going to use. As a result, anyone on the Arpanet could log in and do anything, and anyone could watch what anyone else did. This resulted in a community where people treated each other decently.

I was the most faithful defender of this transparent community. However, I recognized subsequently that it was good to live in precisely because we did not have power disparities to be magnified by the transparency into oppression. The administration of the lab was not inclined to care about what people did on the side as long as their work was good.


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