‘Mister Transparency’ on Life After The Sony Hack

David Brin

Live as if you're being watched, says astrophysicist and author David Brin

There’s something a little sci-fi about the world after the cyberattack on Sony. Hackers brought a multi-national conglomerate to its knees. According to the U.S. government, they were doing the bidding of a country that ranks as one of the world’s poorest and most isolated. Whoever did it succeeded in triggering a kind of self-censorship in Hollywood that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union would have envied.

Even the President of the United States weighed in, and now North Korea’s Internet connection has gone dark, in what may be a cyber-counter-attack. About the only thing missing from full-on cyberpunk is word that they sent a slamhound on Kim Jong-un’s trail.

So I called up astrophysicist/futurist/sci-fi novelist David Brin. Brin may be best known in Hollywood as the writer of the book “The Postman,” which was made into a fizzle of a tentpole by Kevin Costner. But Brin’s also wrote “The Transparent Society,” in which he predicts that traditional notions of privacy will wither away in the face of ubiquitous technology — and that the world will be better, on balance, when that happens.

The release of Sony’s emails isn’t exactly what he was writing about, but it does give a glimpse of what that world might be like.

“I’m often misjudged by people who just read the cover of my book,” he told me. “I am Mister Transparency. But it’s often said that I’m saying everything will be naked and that we’ll have no privacy. In fact, I’m saying the opposite. Privacy is an absolutely essential trait, but the only way we’ll get any is in a mostly open world.”

The first lesson for everyone out of the recent attack on Sony, Brin says, is “Never absolutely count on anything being secret. Always act as if there’s a chance what you’re doing will be revealed.” He says that when he meets with government agencies, as science fiction writers and futurists are sometimes asked to do, he tells them: “In the short term you can protect your secrets. Tactical secrecy is perfectly reasonable, either by governments or corporations. But if you count on anything staying secret for more than ten years, that’s delusional on the border of psychosis.”

His second lesson is more subtle: “There may be some kinds of activities that you’d rather not see made public; the best way to defend your right to have some privacy is a mostly open world.” Brin has a very specific idea of what that world will look like, and we’re not close to it yet.

The world still has plenty of dark corners where people can operate in secret. Brin observes that all of America’s real enemies — not its trade rivals, but the entities that mean the U.S. real harm — “suffer from a fatal allergy to light.”

“In a world with lots of shadows,” he says, “the rats will do very well. So in the long term we have to remove the dark zones. North Korea is a dark zone. Skulking nations that cheat are dark zones. Banking secrecy is a dark zone. If we do create a world filled with light, then we won’t need commercial entities or governments for most accountability. If someone is abusing you, it’ll be out in the open and you’ll just be able to use their reputation against them.”

He sees a future where “reciprocal accountability” discourages bad action — that is, since no one will be able to anything bad to anyone else without being found out, we’ll be accountable to each other, and eventually it won’t even be necessary to have top-down control to enforce these rules. In that world, he says, “It’s not that we will lose privacy. It’s that we’ll lose the illusion of privacy and gain real privacy because we’ll catch the peeping Toms and the voyeurs.”

Brin’s faith in the power of reputation and informal social pressure can sound utopian, but he’s talking about a future world that isn’t here yet anyway. In the short term, his thinking is more pragmatic.

Regarding the Sony attack: “The only thing that works is deterrence. If the North Korean regime were afraid, they’d behave better,” he says. Brin says that as long as we live in a world that still has dark corners, the activities of bad actors who lurk in that darkness must be made less profitable — especially the theft of intellectual property.

“That empowerment of the individual, to be able to hold others reciprocally responsible, doesn’t come into play when you’re dealing with North Korea,” he says. “So that’s where you have governments. That’s where we have the possibility of commercial consortia.”

He suggests that since the U.S. government is constrained by international law, Sony and the other majors form an organization that can take on North Korea for them. “A consortium of intellectual property holders might be able to slip money under the table in ways that the North Korean regime might wind up regretting.”

For companies and individuals wondering what to do in this scary new world, he offers this advice: “Pick a central zone of privacy that you can’t live without. Separate that from the rest of your corporate or private life, and protect it fiercely. Do not mix it with the 99% of your ongoing affairs that will inevitably leak. Get used to the notion that some day, someone is going to hear this conversation or read this document.

“And live and work as if anybody might be watching now.”

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  1. John Q says:

    Brin and Cohen appear to be living under rocks or in a cave. Sony SPE hack was done by insiders not NK.

    This is idiotic and unelightened.

    “And live and work as if anybody might be watching now.”

    The NSA already is and collects massive amount electronic metadata.

    If you had done a basic modicum of research, you would find by using basic tools like tor for browsing and gpg to encrypt your emails to 4096 bits (don’t use RSA) this will keep most prying eyes away from your information. Even if someone managed to downloaded this level of encrypted data, it would take a lot of effort/computing power.

    In the Sony SPE emails, it also becomes clear that Variety and Hollywood Reporter have questionable business practices. Variety informed Sony that they were going to do a big story on one of their films/stars and asked Sony SPE if they would like to buy advertisement/sponsor. Sony SPE interpreted that as a minor form of extortion. I don’t entirely disagree with Sony SPE in this case.

  2. Victor Solo says:

    So the solution to North Korea’s clandestine operations is for companies like Sony to band together and conduct clandestine operations against them, since governments like the US are prevented from acting by the very demand of open accountability that is supposedly the cure to these clandestine actions?
    The only cure for darkness is more darkness, acting in the name of light, because the light prevents the ability to act?
    Methinks I see a logic failure here!

  3. Time was, we all understood that the eyes of God see all things. Privacy was largely a matter of deference toward others’ prerogatives and discretion about one’s own doings. But we were under no illusions that there would be no consequences for our misdeeds.

    Time was.

    “You cannot do wrong without suffering wrong. Justice is not postponed… Every secret is told, every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and certainty.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

  4. Bob says:

    This all would be fine in a world of universal empowerment. But since we are not all equal in reality, and it is extremely unlikely we ever will be, outcomes will also be unequal. The strong will always prey on the weak, the predator on the prey.

  5. daryl dupre says:

    North Korea may not have been involved. But Hollywood will enjoy any attention it can get.

  6. “Data attack always outpaces data defense.”

    -Eric Haseltine, 2010’s “Where Do We Go From Here” presentation at The Science and Technology Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

    Read it and weep…

  7. Merlot says:

    Excellent piece !

  8. John Shea says:

    Wise advice, even if it does sound a little like ‘The Elf On The Shelf’!

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