×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘Mister Transparency’ on Life After The Sony Hack

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.”

More Biz

  • Biggest Scandals Feuds and Apologies of

    Biggest Scandals, Feuds and Apologies of 2019

    Variety looks back on some of the biggest scandals, feuds and apologies of 2019: College Admissions Scandal Wealthy parents including Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were charged with bribing school officials to get their unqualified kids into prestigious universities. Shane Gillis Executives at “SNL” hired, then fired, Gillis in September, before the new season started, [...]

  • Biggest Media Moments of 2019

    From 'Catch & Kill' to Shepard Smith: The Biggest Media Moments of 2019

    Variety looks back on some of the most memorable media events of 2019: ‘Catch & Kill’ Reopens Wounds at NBC News Ronan Farrow’s book relitigates his complaints that NBC News tried to tamp down his investigation of harassment and assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein. NBC News denies the claim. The book contains new allegations against [...]

  • Assistant Attorney General, Antitrust Division nominee

    DOJ Sides With Irving Azoff Against Radio Stations

    The Department of Justice is taking sides in another hot-button antitrust battle, this time siding with Irving Azoff’s upstart music licensing firm against a group representing 10,000 radio stations. The DOJ Antitrust Division filed a brief on Thursday arguing that the Radio Music License Committee may have engaged in illegal price-fixing when it refused to [...]

  • Best Books of 2019

    The Best Books of 2019

    Whether you experience stressful days due to your professional position, your demanding family, or simply the barrage of never-ending depressing news, there is often no better way to unwind than with a good book. Letting your imagination wander into a new world unlike your own can be exciting, it can be thought-provoking, but perhaps most [...]

  • Makan Delrahim

    Antitrust Experts Decry DOJ's 'Outrageous' Stance in Writers Guild Case

    Several experts on antitrust law have expressed concern at the stance taken by the Department of Justice in the ongoing legal feud between Hollywood writers and their agents. Three agencies have sued the Writers Guild of America for alleged violations of antitrust law. A key hearing will be held in federal court on Friday, as [...]

  • Bob Bakish Viacom CEO

    Shares of ViacomCBS Dip in First-Day Early Trading

    Shares of the newly combined ViacomCBS were off in early trading, a sign that Wall Street continues to look for new signs of growth after two of the best-known names in entertainment merged to vie with bigger rivals. Shares of the company’s new common stock were off 59 cents, or 1.38%, in late-morning trading on [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content