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.”