tiaA few weeks ago, I wrote the following passage describing a bizarre dream I’d had the night before:

How about a very cheap, tiny camera that anyone can plant anywhere and broadcast wirelessly on the Internet to show the world what goes on in backrooms, in abusive homes, in factory farms, in old age homes and prisons and refugee camps and war zones and other places where atrocities depend on restricted access or closed doors and privacy. Not government controlled, but something anyone could buy at Radio Shack, or at least over the Internet. It would of course mean the end of privacy, but perhaps if the world could see what goes on in these places of horror they just wouldn’t tolerate the atrocities and would cede their privacy as a difficult but fair trade-off — to deter and drastically reduce human violence and crime everywhere.

Coincidentally, David Brin, exactly one week later, played devil’s advocate in and said this wouldn’t be bad, for real. He wrote:

Every interest group will find some kind of opportunity in this new world. Want to protect forests? Each and every tree on earth might have a chip fired into its bark from the air, alerting a network if furtive loggers start transporting stolen hardwoods. Or the same method could track whoever steals your morning paper. Not long after this, teens and children will purchase rolls of ultra-cheap digital eyes and casually stick them onto walls. Millions of those “penny cams” will join in the fun, contributing to the vast IPv6 datasphere… In the short term, expanded powers of vision may embolden tyrants. But over the long run, these systems could help to empower citizens and enhance mutual trust.

His thesis is that once a technology becomes available and affordable, no amount of regulation or public opprobrium will prevent it from being used. So we might as well use ubiquitous video surveillance technology, too — just as government and corporations will use it for their purposes, legitimate and nefarious, we can use it to watch the watchers, and prevent them from getting too snoopy or too criminal.

Will such a world be better or worse? Does video ubiquity exempt us from the need, and the obligation, to trust each other, even those we love? Does it increase or decrease our security, and our decision-making ability? If you know that someone could be, will be, watching you and listening to you every moment, how will it change your behaviour? Will it make us paranoid and stressed-out, or more conscientious, responsible, self-conscious and diligent? And do you buy Brin’s thesis that such technology can’t and shouldn’t be stopped?

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7 Responses to THE END OF PRIVACY

  1. The problem would become one of discrimination, rather than privacy invasion: if there are billions of pennycams out there, exactly which one shows your cheating spouse, and which one shows environmental mishaps? Which would you watch?The problem is that people are most interested in things that concern them; they want to know what drugs their kids are smoking, what their boss does in his free time, what their spouse is buying at the grocery store. We’ve had the knowledge of environmental destruction, even down to company names and phone numbers. And we’ve had proof for years — both photographic and paper trails. But we don’t do anything about it now, so why would increased availablity of this information matter? People would continue ignore it for more prosaic concerns, like spying on their neighbours. Perhaps my faith in individuals is sadly lacking, but we’re suffering from information overload as it is. We still need people to sort through everything and tell us what is relevant, and whichever of those people we chose to listen to still depends on our preexisting prejudices.

  2. It would be horrible as we will have gone from a society of trust to a society of distrust. Instead of having a society that looks for and rewards good in people it will be a society that looks for and punishes bad. I want to live in a society that focuses on building friendships, bonds, connections, and communities not searching for reasons why we shouldn’t build friendships, bonds, connections and communities. We should use technology to bring us together, not create divides between us. Society will be much better off if instead of seeking to punish bad people we seek to reward good people. I guess cameras could be used to do this as well…but they wouldn’t.

  3. Ahmed says:

    The problem is not collecting information- its being able to act on that information. My ability to absorb and interpret data is pretty much the same as, say, a CIA analyst. However, the most crucial result of this info-digestion for me is to anwer the question “Should i buy a new car?” rather than “shall i invade another country?”. By and large, tyrants tend to be better as [ab]using technology than we do, simply because they have more power.The social effects on the other hand are potentially a lot more intriguing. The mobile phone has already had an impact on concepts of privacy, personal space as well as trust. mini-digi-cams everywhere will undoubtbly have similar effects, and we will undoubtly use them for things other than just spying- never underestimate human ingenuity- whoever would have predicted than mobile phone uptake would be driven by text messaging?

  4. Niran Sabanathan says:

    Sadly, I do not think that having more information (ie:cameras) will make a great deal of difference in terms of empowering people. Certainly powerful video has made a difference in some instances (eg:Rodney King). But, with so much information out there on the “War on Terror” and its utter lack of effectiveness, lack of any reason to invade Iraq, and the lies that lead to war, the main culprit actually has an approval rating of 50%. People and the swaying of opinion not straight facts and cold information seem to play a greater role in deciding the actions of companies and governments.

  5. geo says:

    An excellent exploration of this concept – from introduction through the rough spot of initial use to the eventual “equilibrium” – can be found in The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter ( link –> Here are a couple of clips from the book’s description:It’s 2035, and all four hold ringside seats at the birth of a new paradigm-destroying technology, a system of “WormCams,” harnessing the power of wormholes to see absolutely anyone or anything, anywhere, at any distance (even light years away). As if that weren’t enough, the sons eventually figure out how to exploit a time-dilation effect, allowing them to use the holes to peer back in time.When a brilliant, driven industrialist harnesses the cutting edge of quantum physics to enable people everywhere, at trivial cost, to see one another at all times: around every corner, through every wall, into everyone’s most private, hidden, and even intimate moments. It amounts to the sudden and complete abolition of human privacy–forever. Then, as society reels, the same technology proves able to look backwards in time as well.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks everyone — this is an interesting thread. I don’t know what would be worse — having this technology as a tyranny, or failing to take advantage of the opportunity that goes along with the threat.

  7. gordsellar says:

    It’s not a surprise Brin’s pushing the whole “inevitable Transparency” thing, since he’s been pushing it for years. See his book, _The Transparent Society_. Of course, he’s hoping bigotry will just go away. Looking at America today, I think he’s dreaming, and that, as each new wave of privacy-invading tech comes along, new waves of resistance will come too. The video cam could have had endless effects on survelliance, but who wants to man all the screens spying on millions of people? Niran’s right. People won’t be so much empowered as they will be provided with endless means of distraction from things that actually matter to their lives. Everyone will have reality TV lives, as far as privacy can be invaded (or sold off); when you can watch the hot girl at school sleeping with her boyfriend, why would you bother reading, say, about how your country’s supposed to work? If you can tune into enough good distraction, why would you ever be a dissident or a watchdog?The Baxter novel is good. So is the novel in which Brin first pushed these ideas, which was _Earth_. IT’s a good novel, flawed in some ways but good.

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