Virtual Brain in a Vat

What if some internet pages you see are actually generated for you alone? That other people cannot see these sites on their own computers or mobile phones, but have their own set of pages sent to them? Even then it makes sense to put things on the internet, as the NSA surely will note your uploaded content. And the NSA will take the information into account, so if you warn them of eternal damnation, it will make them uncomfortable. Hell is eternal, hell is eternal, hell is eternal…

Confessions of an Undercover Informant

Shopland 4

An interesting article appears on the Guardian websitetoday  featuring a video in which Gary Shopland, an ex-BNP member, tells the story of his alleged service as an undercover police informant.

The article is interesting for a number of reasons; firstly because Shopland’s membership of the BNP apparently ended in 2003 when he says he chose to stop working as an informant; because Shopland reveals nothing of any significance about the BNP; and because if anything his story reflects badly upon both him and his police handlers, rather than the BNP.

The video begins with footage of the Oldham riots of 2001, as if to infer that Shopland’s recruitment as a police informer was in some way related to these events and a desire on the part of the police to prevent further violence. In fact the rioting in Oldham was perpetrated by Asian gangs and was nothing to do with the BNP, and as the video later inadvertently showed, Shopland apparently joined the BNP in 1997, four years before the Oldham riots took place.

If Shopland’s account is to be believed, and there is good reason to suspect that he should not be, he was approached by police while he was training for a marathon in Snowdonia. Shopland had apparently made a reputation for himself as an “ultra-distance runner” and according to the video commentary, “The police appeared to see Shopland as an ideal BNP recruit … they said he looked the part”, and this suggestion immediately appears implausible – that special branch police officers would have been lurking around a marathon training event looking for potential undercover informants, as if talent as an ultra-distance runner somehow demonstrates an aptitude for undercover police work – or that ultra-distance running would somehow identify someone in the eyes of the police as a potentially “ideal BNP recruit”.

When initially approached by the police, Shopland recounts, “They said would you be interested in working for us? And I said, well yes.

“I’d be sent in to monitor a racist organisation called the British National Party. I wasn’t aware of the British National Party – I’d never heard of them.

“It all takes a massive adjustment from being a person that’s just not a racist, that’s never been a racist, to put in the position where you’re surrounded by racists.”

Shopland apparently wrote “regular reports” for his police handlers and with the massive adjustment required of Shopland, one would imagine that he would be highly regarded and richly rewarded by the state for his efforts, but no!

In return for his assistance, the police simply gave him furtive payments of cash.

“They gave me payment for it, in the backs of cars, in my house, in pubs”, Shopland tells us.

“I gave them the envelope with the intelligence in, they gave me the envelope with the cash in. I used to sign.

“On one occasion I had £100 and after that it was like a standard joke as to see who could, like, give it me then snatch it back. You know, give it me and snatch it back almost became a bit of a sick joke”.

In return for his assistance and the great inconvenience he suffered in fulfilling his duties, Shopland would have us believe that he was content to receive small cash payments delivered in furtive circumstances and in a manner that was clearly humiliating to him – giving the money and then snatching it back as some kind of “sick joke” at his expense.

Clearly Shopland did not have his handler’s respect. According to him, he was asked to work for them, but was not offered a proper contract of employment. He was paid in cash and one would assume without income tax or national insurance contributions having been deducted, under circumstances that were in all probability therefore, improper and of dubious legality.

All of this would tend to suggest that in the eyes of the police, far from being at the outset, a fine and respectable, upstanding member of the community, Shopland was seen as a ‘low-life’, a ‘snout’, that they were bribing with illicit inducements in order to elicit intelligence. It would be strange indeed for the police to approach a member of the public with an irreproachable reputation and expect them to respond positively to a sordid proposition involving such apparent impropriety, in return for what was little more than petty cash.

If Shopland had been a man of good character prior to being approached by the police, he must have been an idiot to undergo the great inconvenience that he describes, joining a political organisation that he had never heard of and working undercover despite being routinely humiliated by the police in return for such small, apparently illicit, cash payments, and one is therefore left wondering if the police had some other way of exercising leverage over Shopland?

Let us contrast the routine humiliation that Shopland describes at the hands of the police with his treatment by Nick Griffin:

The video tells us that Shopland became Nick Griffin’s body guard during the 2001 general election and Shopland recalls, “I could get close to Griffin and gained his confidence – ‘cause at the end of the day that’s what my job was – to get as close to him as possible, and the closer to him I got, the better graded and better quality the intelligence I could get.

“He treated members of the BNP okay. He treated me okay, because I was keen and I showed I was keen.

“I did everything I was asked within the BNP to such an extent I invited him [Griffin] up to one of my charity runs, and he came and he supported me”.

It would appear therefore that Shopland was treated with far greater respect and was shown more gratitude by Nick Griffin than the police. Furthermore, despite all of Shopland’s undercover work, it would appear that he did not find any evidence of any illegal activity by Nick Griffin, or if he did the police never acted upon it, and so his six years of undercover work and the apparent discomfort he felt mixing with ‘racists’ and the routine humiliation he endured at the hands of the police would all appear to have been for nothing.

When Shotland finally ended his liaison with the police and with the BNP in 2003, he recalls, “I felt betrayed and dumped by the state, really. There was no support there for me mentally, so there was no one for me to turn to.

“I just want to be able to clear my name, move on in my life and tell people that what I went through was to fight racism and try to make my country a better place to live in.”

If Shopland is to be believed, and let us be charitable and accept his word, then he was an incredibly naïve person and an idiot to have become involved with the police and allow himself to be manipulated by them under the circumstances that he describes.

While he thought he was doing a “job” and providing a service to the state, it is evident that the state did not view their relationship with him in that way. He was apparently given no contract of employment and when his time was up, he appears to have been unceremoniously dumped with no concern shown for his welfare.

It is well known that Special Branch officers, usually posing as ‘Community Liaison Officers’ or some such, routinely approach vulnerable members of nationalist organisations and employ various methods in an effort to induce them to become informants. All nationalist activists should be aware that they will never be fairly treated by the police or respected by them for any informing they may do.

A police officer once told me privately, that the police automatically regard anyone who stands up for the rights of White people as a ‘racist’, and as we all know, they regard racism as criminal behaviour. Therefore, anyone who stands up for the rights of White people is in the eyes of the police, by definition, a ‘criminal’.

Any nationalist who enters into a relationship with the police should expect therefore to be disrespectfully treated – to be treated as a criminal – and as Gary Shopland found out to his cost, routinely humiliated before being unceremoniously dumped when you are of no further use.

If you are blackmailed by the police, the best course of action is to approach a senior colleague and tell them, so that arrangements can be made to neutralise the basis of that blackmail. No prior offence is so heinous or so damning that is worth betraying our people and our nation in an attempt to conceal, and as Gary Shopland’s story amply demonstrates your reputation will be tarnished and your life will in any event be ruined by the experience, so don’t allow yourself to be used and abused in that way

UK government to sell personal data

By Mary Smith
5 May 2014

Last week’s announcement that Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is considering making taxpayers’ personal data commercially available to private companies has further demonstrated the UK government’s determination to turn a profit from private information.

The announcement comes two months after the temporary suspension of a similar scheme involving medical data, confirming that the suspension of the programme was purely a tactical exercise. The Guardian reported that HMRC is considering legislation allowing the release of anonymised tax data to companies, researchers and public bodies. Officials are discussing “charging options.”

The government insists personal data will be protected, but HMRC has already been responsible for major breaches of personal data. These included the 2007 loss of discs relating to child benefit claimants, containing personal information about 25 million people.

The similar situation in the National Health Service (NHS) is more advanced. In February the government suspended the scheme just weeks before its implementation. The decision followed criticism of the lack of clear information, but it only delayed the scheme until September. It is now reported that will be launched with autumn trials at between 100 and 500 General Practitioner practices.

Doctors were concerned about, which will make private medical records accessible to researchers, for-profit organisations and businesses.

The government denies data will be sold, but shortly after the suspension it emerged that some patient records had already been sold to private companies.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has since announced legislation to prevent information being shared where there is no clear benefit to the health service. Given his determination to break up and privatize the NHS, this commits to nothing. A Department of Health statement reaffirmed support for the project, and a source admitted that the real concern was “to explain the programme to the public.”

The central database will be the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) in Leeds. HSCIC claims all records are kept confidentially, but where the leaflet mentioned only postcode and NHS number for linking records, HSCIC also identifies date of birth and gender.

The data will include medical diagnoses and complications, specialist referrals, prescriptions, family history, screening results, blood tests, BMI, smoking habits and alcohol consumption. It is a massive collection of personal information.

Circulating this information among medical professionals seems laudable, but even its advocates noted problems. Dr Ben Goldacre, a passionate supporter of integrating medical data for research purposes, wrote of the “clear mistake” in promoting as simultaneously a research tool and a venture for commercial exploitation.

Goldacre offered advice on how to rescue the project as a scientifically useful exchange of data after its “bungled implementation.” A week later he wrote that he was “embarrassed” to find the situation worse than he had thought.

Dr Neil Bhatia, a Hampshire GP, set up a non-commercial website,, to provide information not on the leaflet. Bhatia insisted that the scheme “is not about sharing your medical information with doctors, nurses or other health professionals … [or] providing essential medical care.”

The leaflet, he said, was solely about, which is not the same as the Summary Care Record already used to ensure medical access to records necessary for effective treatment.

Bhatia argued that is not anonymous. Sensitive information will be extracted from your GP records for HSCIC databases. Former President of the British Medical Association Professor Sir Brian Jarman warned that it could take profit-making companies just two hours to identify patients from date of birth and hospital number.

HSCIC plans to charge for releasing information, including identifiable information. It sells data, which will not be used to provide direct medical care. Hunt’s legislation will not change that.

Patients are automatically enrolled in unless they opt out. The leaflet did not explain that opting out of does not mean opting out of the Summary Care Record.

Under the 2012 Health and Social Care Act GPs must allow HSCIC to extract information unless individuals opt out. NHS England threatened some GPs, like Dr Gordon Gancz in Oxford, for opting out all patients except those who agreed to participate. Bhatia criticized their “threatening” tactics against doctors opposed to the scheme. NHS England said they would review cases where “abnormal numbers” of patients had opted out, but only once data collection had begun.

HSCIC replaced the NHS Information Centre (NHSIC) as an Executive Non-Departmental Public Body in April 2013. Its board includes advisers to health authorities and private healthcare companies, a former Ministry of Defence civil servant, an accountant who advised on NHS services, a DH economist on private finance, capital investment privatization and payment by results, and a former executive director of an investment bank.

HSCIC will administer with software and services from ATOS, which has been awarded a five-year contract worth £8 million pounds.

Interested organisations can obtain small amounts of data free, but a table of charges will be applied to the type of material requested: “Green,” £800-£1,200; “Amber,” pseudonymised data, £900-£1,800; “Red,” personal confidential, £1,700-£2,000.

HSCIC said they would not make a profit selling the data, although some buyers might be profit-making companies. Days after’s suspension it emerged that 13 years of hospital data, covering 47 million patients, had already been sold to the Society of Actuaries for information used in aiding insurance companies on setting prices for critical illness.

This took place under NHSIC. HSCIC says it broke rules and admits there may have been other such releases of data, but will not say more until “later this year.”

HSCIC told a parliamentary select committee hearing it could not share documentation on these releases because they were committed by NHSIC. As Goldacre noted, HSCIC “is in the same building, doing the same job, with almost identical personnel and all the old records” as NHSIC. The actuaries’ report carries the HSCIC logo and consent.

Public health minister Jane Ellison then told parliament the data released by HSCIC was “publicly available, non-identifiable and in aggregate form.” This, said Goldacre, was “utterly untrue.” The “line-by-line data” contained “every individual hospital episode, for every individual patient, with unique pseudonymous identifiers—which was then aggregated into summary tables by the actuaries.”

That week Tim Kelsey, NHS England director of patient information, revealed that the technology to pseudonymise data at source for the programme was not yet ready for use.

The major software companies for GP systems, TPP and Emis, welcomed the delay to, arguing that pseudonymisation would allay most anxieties.

TPP’s Dr John Parry said the delay gave the NHS “a golden opportunity…to set data export standards…whilst protecting patient confidentiality.” Dr Hasib ur-Rub, of the Emis National User Group, met Kelsey in December to argue for pseudonymisation at source. Most patients, he said, “are fine with anonymised data sitting on a government database, [but] they remain very anxious about identifiable data sitting there when it is not for direct patient care.”

That is not HSCIC’s priority. An NHS England privacy impact assessment in January concluded pseudonymisation at source was impractical. Kelsey insisted bluntly that extraction of GP data would continue in September regardless.

This is in hand, confirming that the delay was not aimed at concerns about anonymity and commercial availability of data. The NHS has been handling hospital episode statistics data safely for 25 years, said Kelsey: if people are unhappy they can opt out.

There is widespread mistrust of, because circulation of medical and scientific data is tied to a commercial programme. HMRC now want to extend that to financial data.

Workers cannot trust such an organisation to keep medical records confidential. Individuals have the right to opt out of, but this is no solution. The devastating crisis of the capitalist system means that gains won in decades of struggle, like health care, are being smashed for profiteers. A defence of health care and scientific knowledge can only be conducted on the basis of uniting the working class internationally on a socialist programme.

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The mother of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence has distanced herself from a campaign group accused of violence against Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party.

Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon played down her involvement with Unite Against Fascism (UAF), whose members are accused of trying to silence the Ukip leader.

The campaign group lists Lady Lawrence, a Labour peer, as one of its honorary presidents and says she has been a regular supporter and attendee at its meetings. However, Lady Lawrence insisted she was not closely involved with the group.

Asked about Mr Farage and UAF, Baroness Lawrence said: “I am not the president and I don’t really have a lot to do with the organisation.”

Speaking at her home in south London, she added that she had been to a couple of the organisation’s events a long time ago, and did not wish to comment on Mr Farage’s claims.

The security services will be given new powers to spy on people’s Internet use under Tory plans following claims that they could have stopped the killers of Drummer Lee Rigby.

In May last year Drummer Rigby was hacked to death by Michael Adebolajo and his accomplice, Michael Adebowale, in front of passers-by in Woolwich, south east London.

The Intelligence and Security Committee, the parliamentary body which scrutinises the services, has been told by MI5 that in the six months up to the murder there were “a number of incidents” where Adebolajo signalled his intent on the Internet.

However, the clues were not obtained until after his death because the information was held by Internet service providers in the US. Officials have claimed that the US legal system made it difficult to obtain the information.

There is currently a “significant push” from Conservative ministers to revive the controversial Communications Data Bill – described by critics as as a ‘snoopers charter’ – in the Conservative manifesto.

It is hard to think of any group of human beings more obviously loathsome than those who go by the general nom de guerre of “Boko Haram”. I yearn for them all to be rounded up by helicopter gunship, and brought to justice.

We find such behaviour mind-boggling, don’t we: to shoot, maim or kidnap young people – and all for what? It is there in their deliciously moronic name.

“Boko” appears – on at least one interpretation – to be a kind of pidgin word for the English “book”. “Haram” means forbidden, religiously prohibited, verboten, nefastus. The gist of their manifesto is that Western education – reading a boko – is haram. Boko Haram! Boko Haram! Any boy or girl found with a boko is liable to terrible retribution.

Young people in northern Nigeria have been brainwashed into becoming part of the evil panga-wielding mob. It appears to be a form of collective insanity. It is the crowd that gives the feeling its compulsive and hypnotic effect – and when a crowd has decided that something is haram, who dares stand in the way?

Good people in that part of Nigeria live in terror of these lunatics, and the sheer force with which they express their views. The Nigerian government seems unable to fight back. That is the power of haram. Can you think of any other society where people can suddenly decide that something is haram – and where everyone becomes terrified of the displeasure of the mob? Can you think of a country where there is a phenomenon of people being whipped up into an orchestrated frenzy – and where a funk-ridden officialdom refuses to take them on?


EII. Eye Infinitum

“Typically we are told, often and passionately, that Big Brother may abuse these new powers [of technological surveillance],” David Brin writes in his essay, “Three Cheers for the Surveillance Society.” We are warned, he continues, that “our privacy and rights will be violated by some other group.” He goes on rather airily to list such “groups” as including, possibly, say, “commercial, aristocratic, bureaucratic, intellectual, foreign, criminal or technological elite[s].” To this he then appends a deflationary parenthetical aside: “(Pick your favorite bogeyman.)” 

Before we have time to dwell on whether or not Brin really wants to imply here that such elites are entirely imaginary or possibly perfectly harmless after all, he has already moved on to make still more striking claims. In their panic about the suddenly ubiquitous tools and techniques of surveillance, privacy advocates, he complains, are apt to make two profoundly misguided recommendations at once. First, “[b]ecause one or more… centers of power might use the new tools to see better, we’re told that we should all be very afraid.” And second, “our only hope may be to squelch or fiercely control the onslaught of change.” Brin then dourly summarizes this “typical” argument, against which he will go on to array his own contrary view: “For the sake of safety and liberty, we are offered one prescription: We must limit the power of others to see.” Of course, Brin will propose instead that we must resist the temptation to limit this curiously neutral exercise of “seeing” and ensure instead that all are likewise empowered to “see.”

While it is true of course that privacy advocates do worry about the uses to which new surveillance tools might be put (and elsewhere in his writing Brin seems quite as anxious about these possible abuses as any other civil libertarian would be, and so it isn’t completely clear why his formulations here seem so insistently complacent), but it is in any case hardly typical for privacy advocacy to express this concern as a fear of any greater clarity in the vision of the powerful. Far from worrying that surveillance will enable the powerful to “see better,” as Brin idiosyncratically puts the point, privacy advocates more generally fret that proliferating personal information gathered, organized, and distributed by new techniques of surveillance and media threatens to distort the ways in which we circulate as public figures. Privacy advocates and civil libertarians tend to worry about the ways in which these new tools and techniques will likely facilitate our exploitation by powerful interests by re-writing us in the impoverished but compelling image of administrative profiling, target marketing, stringent legalism, normative hygiene, parochial moralism, and so on.

It is altogether unclear to me why it would presumably be better to describe the effort to regulate certain threatening practices of surveillance as “limit[ing] the power of others to see” rather than, say, directing the gaze of the relatively more powerful to more helpful than harmful uses. Since there are infinitely many things to see in the world it certainly seems at least a bit hyperbolic to compare the effort to regulate or redirect the mischievous gaze of the powerful, as Brin somewhat stunningly does later in his essay, to “blinding the mighty.” 

However, when Brin goes on to insist we resist the urge “to squelch or fiercely control the onslaught of change” for fear of worst outcomes, this is at least in part a useful repudiation of any blanket, reactive, and almost certainly hopeless (however understandable) program that would attempt to dis-invent or ban such technologies altogether. Sweeping bans of these technologies would most likely simply drive a too considerable portion of their development and distribution into a deeper and more pernicious secrecy and into the more exclusive use of the powerful and the unscrupulous, without proper regulation and oversight, hence exacerbating precisely the kinds of abuses the threat of which would inspire the desire for a ban in the first place. 

But there seems to be in Brin’s formulation here a more worrisome hostility to the very notion of efficacious regulation of technological development altogether as well. In an interview conducted with Shane Peterson just prior to the publication of his essay for, Brin rather forcefully consolidates this impression when he baldly claims that “we won’t stave off Big Brother” -– here, again, the libertarian conjuration of pernicious authority as always an oppressive and centralized State –- “by passing minor regulations of what the Justice Department is allowed to see or know.” By such “minor regulations,” he goes on to amplify that he means “bickering over minute details of search warrant policy, or when and how to wiretap.” In the shadow of the rhetoric of developmental inevitability such efforts can only seem a matter of trivial and ineffectual bickering, indeed, and he writes “[w]ith the new cameras, databases and other tools coming online, that whole path is futile.” Brin goes on to reiterate this point extraordinarily starkly: “Not one thing we do will reduce the growing power of elites to look at us.” 

It is difficult to read this statement as anything but sheer hyperbole, since it is so manifestly true that legal penalties (in any case just one among the many forms of regulation available to us ) will always have at least some limited impact on conduct, but also because Brin himself seems to rely on the limited efficacy of such regulation to plausibly qualify what might otherwise appear a threateningly extreme advocacy of transparency to the cost of even the most negligible notions of personal privacy elsewhere in his text.

Let us return briefly to the conjuration of the ideal Two Cities with which Brin begins his account in The Transparent Society. The conspicuous force of Brin’s case relies, remember, on his immediate mobilization of a rather stark either/or. He takes for granted, and in fact repeatedly insists on this as an inevitability, that tools and techniques are emerging already that will soon enable the aggregation, circulation, and deployment of incomparably powerful, fine-grained, exhaustively descriptive, profoundly predictive personal profiles that cannot help but transform the everyday sense and significance of privacy, possibly entirely beyond recognition. This unprecedented transformation will be accomplished, and indeed is already underway, by means of a proliferation and convergence of ever cheaper, ever more powerful, ever more ubiquitous surveillance, information gathering, networked media, and modeling technologies. Given his view of this inevitability, Brin lodges his own hopes, and his own intervention, in what he sees as a key alternative between “either” a concentration of ubiquitous surveillance technologies in the hands of powerful elites, “or” of universal access to this ubiquitous surveillance. While the prospect of ubiquitous surveillance is likely to be distressing whatever form it takes, what matters most is to ensure that its potential for abuse be ameliorated by universal access and so general accountability.

But Brin goes on to qualify his sketch of the “transparent society,” of the more desirable and accountable kind of ubiquitous surveillance he champions, in ways that are hard to reconcile with the case he seems to be making otherwise. For example, quite early on in his book Brin curiously says of “city number two,” the Transparent City, the city of ubiquitous surveillance, universal access, and general accountability, “microcameras are banned from some indoor places…” The ellipses occur in the original here, a curious refusal of specificity in this moment. But he goes on: “microcameras are banned in some indoor places… but not from police headquarters!” 

It is easy to imagine that even surveillance enthusiasts might want, with Brin, to keep “some indoor spaces,” presumably bathrooms, bedrooms, torture chambers, or what have you, “camera free” –- but it simply is not at all clear why his own premises would provide room for these exceptions. Or, more to the point, if it actually would be possible to provide for such exceptions through legal injunctions (his word here is “bans”), social norms, or the usual regulatory paraphernalia, then why doesn’t this altogether domesticate the presumably sweeping transformations demanded by “transparency” in the first place? 

Brin very sensibly wants to reassure his nervous readership that surveillance will be “banned” from the bathroom, say, but there really is nothing in his argument to support such reassuring noises –- while there is every reason, from powerful and widespread voyeuristic fascination to a long mostly pernicious history of the policing of public sex practices in the name of moralism, hygiene, and such, to suggest, if anything, surveillance will of course insinuate itself in the bathroom before it finds its way to any number of other places in fact. With the evocation of “indoor spaces” insulated from the glare of otherwise ubiquitous surveillance, Brin manages at least figuratively, if not literally, to resecure the comforting space of the very privacy, the very withdrawal into interiority, he otherwise claims we must obliterate in the service of accountability.

Later in the book, Brin seemingly secures still more conventional privacy from the glare of his transparency: “Despite the central thesis of this book, that transparency is beneficial to all levels of society, we must surely protect the power of private individuals to do certain things under cover of feigned identities.” With this “surely,” Brin is mobilizing general intuitions, assumptions, and expectations about privacy, all of which he has quite dramatically called into question elsewhere in his text. But of just what can we be “sure” in this formulation, after all? Why is “transparency” treated as blandly and universally “beneficial” here? If this is an account that assumes a demarcation of society into “levels” why wouldn’t this sensitivity to a differential distribution of power imply a comparable distribution in the benefits and dangers of “transparency”? And why does Brin refuse specificity again in a moment when he would reassure his readers that “certain things” would be “protected” from publicity? 

Brin’s account is one that consistently values accountability over secrecy, but it is his recognition that sometimes accountability itself requires such secrecy, as when anonymity protects a whistleblower from reprisals or pseudonymity protects critics from stigmatization, that impels him into making some necessary qualifications. Now, it is certainly welcome that these nuances find their way into Brin’s account, just as it is appealing that he devotes attention to the special suffering the deep demands of transparency might exact especially on the shy, the eccentric, the reformed, or the improvisatory. Still, it remains unclear to me how Brin actually accommodates these nuances within the terms of the recommendations he makes, or just why, in accommodating them, he is not conceding the efficacy of regulation that might overcome some of the conspicuous binds of the ubiquitous surveillance he otherwise describes as inevitable, and elude some of the special and alien exactions of the “transparency” he proposes as the solitary hurdle to tyrannical deployments of this inevitable ubiquitous surveillance.

“[I]n an environment of transparency,” writes Brin, “where officials and CEOs must reveal everything down to their tax returns and billing records, the average citizen’s freedom will not be enhanced by maintaining a private right to secrete, plot, and ultimately conspire against his or her neighbors.” I will pause to note the curiously prejudicial formulation here, which seems to presume that the relatively less powerful “average citizen” desires privacy primarily to “secrete,” “plot,” and “conspire,” as if there are no more legitimate enjoyments to be had from private life. Brin continues on to insist that such privacy “will not enhance the average person’s freedom for one simple reason: the rich and powerful are sure to be far, far better at exploiting that right than little people ever will be, any time, any place.” 

That regulation is difficult or law susceptible to abuse is scarcely, however, on its own, reason to abandon either. Surely it would be absurd to hear someone seriously propose, for example, that those lucky enough to have prospered most from their participation in society should be exempt from the taxes others pay to maintain that society, just because the prosperous are best positioned to evade such taxes anyway by hiring slippery accountants and the like. 

In any case, if it really is true that relatively more powerful people will always better exploit these technologies to their own ends than relatively less powerful people to theirs, it is very difficult to see just how any of the measures Brin proposes to facilitate the emergence of an informational regime of universal access over elite concentration could have any expectation of successful implementation either, let alone provide for the special protection of pockets of privacy that Brin offers in the way of reassurance against the grain of his general case for transparency.

And even if it were true that the emergence of ubiquitous surveillance is ultimately, over the longer term, exactly as inevitable as Brin proposes it is, and for all of the reasons that he proposes that this is the case, it could still be the function of even imperfectly effective regulation to frustrate pernicious forms that this “inevitable” development might take all the while encouraging more appealing forms -– disincentivizing information concentration while incentivizing more distributed surveillance practices, for example. While such practices can scarcely be expected or even hoped to eventuate in the universal access or benign transparency of the Brinian ideal, it might still be the case that such regulation could at least facilitate a sufficiently wider distribution of surveillance technologies and information resources to ameliorate some of the more conspicuous abuses that would likely arise from the emerging powers of surveillance uniquely available to the most powerful.

In his recent essay “The Panopticon Singularity,” Charles Stross worries that richly multiform contemporary conventions of regulation and law enforcement might collapse via mechanization into profoundly inhumane interpretations and practices, and that this development is especially worrisome in light of the sorts of emerging surveillance technologies that preoccupy Brin as well. A couple of the technologies that Stross discusses, which did not find their way into the more recent and comparable survey of such developments in Brin’s own update of The Transparent Society, his essay “Three Cheers for the Surveillance Society,” include gait analysis, or the unique “signature” associated with the idiosyncratic way in which each individual walks, a biometric marker more readily discernible technologically and less susceptible to change or disguise than facial recognition; and devices that exploit short wavelength radio waves which can be tuned to peer beneath solid surfaces like layers of clothing or drywall. 

Stross points out that at present “legislators do not pass laws in the expectation that everybody who violates them will automatically be caught and punished.” Sometimes especially stringent penalties are mandated primarily to signal moral disapproval of certain conduct (often to enlist popular favor), or on the assumption that this will discourage a particular behavior. Further, “many old laws are retained despite widespread unpopularity, because a vocal minority support them.” In such cases, “old laws which may not match current social norms are retained because it is easier to ignore them than to repeal them.” Stross concludes that “[t]hese laws… highlight the fact that with a few exceptions (mostly major felonies) our legal systems were not designed with universal enforcement in mind.” However, the convergence of new surveillance technologies is likely to expose illegality and delinquency, so-called, to incomparably higher visibility while at once imposing incomparably more stringent and ubiquitous regimes of enforcement than have been possible hitherto. 

Stross sketches the familiar slippery slope that haunts civil libertarians who spend much of their time contemplating emerging surveillance technologies. “Nobody… cracks a joke in the waiting line at airport security -– we’re all afraid of attracting the unwelcome attention of people in uniform with no sense of humor whatsoever. Now imagine the straightjacket policing of aviation security extended into every aspect of daily life, with unblinking and remorseless surveillance of everything you do and say.” In the past, we have largely been protected from the imposition of such relentless and pitiless nightmares of perfect scrutiny by the brute limits of human capacities for attention, and by the organizational difficulties of co-ordinating and administering human surveillance practices over time and at a distance. When Stross finally conjures up as the diabolic reductio of his slippery slope the science fictional figure of “enforcers [that] are machines, tireless and efficient and incapable of turning a blind eye,” the force of the point does not depend in fact on the literal arrival of robot armies. Stross is italicizing here the ways in which the traditional tradeoffs associated with practices of human intelligence gathering are transforming with the emergence of new augmentative technologies of surveillance and data aggregation and hence compelling us likewise to radically reassess the practical limits that have come to form our expectations of reasonable (even natural) privacy and the likely provocation of the energies of legal enforcement.

Mark Poster has pointed out that as traditional expectations of privacy defined by what long constituted the practical limits of surveillance no longer prevail “[i]t must become safe for people to be public about things that previously had been secluded to private arenas.” He offers up the example of attitudes to sexual orientation. “In the history of the gay movement, until recently and perhaps to some extent still today, there were serious risks… in coming out of the closet. Such minority life choices and life styles must become accepted politically.” Stross’ own example is similarly blunt: “[C]urrently it is illegal to smoke cannabis, but many people do so. [Soon] it will not only be illegal but impossible.” 

Meanwhile, the demands of work ever more conspicuously disrupt the “personal time” of weekends and after-hours. They invade via e-mail, pages, text messages, and calls to cellphones secreted in cars, in pockets, in hotel rooms, on beachfronts, hiking trails, into the precincts of “personal space” and anything like a domestic sphere. 

There is no question that conventional expectations of privacy will no longer provide quite the same protective cover, however fraught, for marginal lifeways vulnerable to popular stigmatization. Nor can it be counted on to help ameliorate to the extent it once did the stresses of moral contestation among peers in relatively democratic societies. 

But do these new quandaries really demand the more sweeping relinquishment of privacy that Brin’s advocacy of transparency sometimes seems to recommend explicitly or to which he otherwise seems committed whatever his various qualifications to the contrary simply by the force of its entailments?