Archives For transparent society

Almost seven years ago, I wrote a blog post on The Transparent Society, David Brin’s insightful text on the delicate balance between privacy and security. The book, published in 1998, foretold the day whe be in a surveillance society. While the specifics of technology were not known at the time he wrote the book, he foretold a day when cameras were everywhere and your daily movements could be tracked. As the quick apprehension of the Boston Marathon bombers has shown, technology, specifically cameras, are now playing a key role in criminal investigations and tracking the movements of specific individuals. We are in the Transparent Society.

So now we all congratulate the law enforcement involved and agree that all this surveillance is a good thing, right?  While I certainly applaud the quick apprehension of the suspects (and mourn the loss of life), I think we also need to consider the society we are becoming. Is it really worth giving up some of our freedom, our privacy, to be more secure?

From security cameras to mobile phone cameras to surveillance drones, we are being watched everywhere we go. Add to this the facial recognition technologies, and we can now be “watched” via software. Just the way we use drones right now has raised many ethical questions.

For many, the standard response to this is, “I have nothing to hide, so it doesn’t really affect me.” This is understandable, but it is short-sighted. The ability for a government to project power so easily, both with surveillance cameras and drones as well as with armed drones, should make us all pause and reflect. Shouldn’t it?

Taking it further, as technology progresses, we will begin seeing the private use of drones. Drones will become smaller and less expensive (as all technology does) – soon we all may have our own drones for our own uses: checking on the kids while they are at camp, watching the house on vacation, remotely attending a LIttle League game, or maybe tracking the movements of people we do not like. Do you see the possible problems here?

So what can be done to address these issues? Let’s start by having some conversations about it. This needs to be front and center for policymakers. No matter what we do, technology will march on – let’s just be sure that we are prepared for it when it gets here.

What are your thoughts? Share with me in the comments.





February 12, 2008 — Leave a comment

Lifecasting is the practice of making your whole life available via the Internet. This used to be done by attaching a camera to your PC and then uploading everything to the Internet as it happens. A somewhat newer trend is using a cellphone video camera. By having the camera on a mobile device, people can now truly take the camera everywhere and broadcast everything that happens. But are people really doing this? Yes: check out to see what people are showing.

Just as cellphone cameras have made the availability of pictures from any event available (no matter how obscure, unplanned, or accidental), now cellphone video cameras have done the same for video. David Brin wrote of the Transparent Society and I believe that his vision is coming to be. In his book, he envisioned that all parts of public life would be recorded and used to enhance public safety (as well as to allow us to do things like check on our children, preview traffic conditions, etc.). While he didn’t necessarily include the idea of mobile phones and the Internet as part of this, what is happening today is eerily close to what he foresaw.  One of the overarching ideas in his book is that we are much better off in a world where the public has control over the cameras than  where the government has control.

Let’s look at this from a ministry perspective now. How can lifecasting be used to promote Jesus? How can it be used to encourage people to come to our churches or participate in our organizations? I’m not sure. If we live streamed our services and events? If we hooked up our pastors 24/7 to a camera?! I’m not sure if I want to know what anyone is doing all the time; and I sure do not want everyone to know what I am doing all the time! What do you think?

The Transparent Society is now

November 17, 2006 — 1 Comment

…and we are in city #2.

Let me explain: in The Transparent Society, David Brin argues that the march of technology will bring us to a point where every part of our public lives will be recorded. According to Brin, this will be accomplished via “tiny cameras, panning left and right, surveying traffic and pedestrians, observing everything in open view.” The book asks one basic questions: who should have access to the images captured by the cameras? Two scenarios are given: in “city #1″ the police and governing authorities have access to the images, in “city #2″, the public shares access with them. He argues that, while both would lead to a large reduction in crime, the latter would reduce the abuse of power by the authorities. When I discuss this book with my students every semester, many are doubtful that this would be the case: members of the public would abuse the use of the cameras and invade privacy. But we all agree that it is very likely that this “transparent society” will indeed come to pass, and very soon.

Written in 1999, the book did not envision armies of citizen with their own personal video cameras embedded in portable phones. Since these cameras are not public, they are owned by the individuals and the authorities may or may not get access to them. In effect then, we now live, right now, in city #2. I am prompted to write this by the latest news story out of UCLA, where video images captured by a cellphone camera will be used to document their abuse of a student there. However, it is not just this story that tells me we are in city #2: just recently the Texas Border Patrol has made their cameras accessible to the public and are seeking the public’s assistance in watching the border and reporting any illegal crossings. And here’s another story that shows how an arsonist was captured by video footage.

It may not be the transparent society specifically depicted in the book, but David Brin saw this coming seven years ago. Check out his site and specifically the pages devoted to this topic.