Week 4 Reading: Adapting to Big Brother?

This week in class we read an article titled “If you can’t hide from Big Brother, Adapt” by David Brin.

The article outlines four lessons for an era of ubiquitous surveillance or at least ubiquitous surveillance capabilities by government agencies (I’d add companies in there too). These start with recommendations to the surveillers - “limit the number of your henchmen” - and end with a rallying cry for the surveilled - “you can either fight this new era or embrace it”.

I agree that we need to have systems in place to hold governments and companies accountable, but I think in this conversation it would be useful to take a step back and think about what is ethical, moral and necessary. When he talks about citizens being the watchdogs, my next question is ok but where do civilians draw the line? Who defines that and how? To me, these are all ethical and moral questions that we need to reckon with as a society, which in a more practical/policy form would look like be agreed upon universal digital human rights. These would be rights that citizens hold, not that they have to defend themselves. His final utilitarian conclusion is to “find ways to maximize the good and minimize the bad.” The danger with this perspective - and why outlining rights is necessary - is that when he talks about civilians as a generic group, he overlooks the fact that there are tiers of social classes therefore power, which means that there will still be those who don’t have the power, time or money to “adapt with resilience” as he suggests.

I do think that he rightly points out that security and freedom is not a zero sum game. In other words, you can have both at the same time. The question is whether surveillance is necessary and how much in order to have these two things. Ubiquitous surveillance seems be the current conceptual model among governments and the one that Brin has also accepted or resigned himself to, but I’m not sure it’s right - or at least I’m not willing to so quickly accept it.