@INFO.POLICY: Robert Gellman

Book about privacy raises debatable points

Robert Gellman

Because privacy and ways to protect it are top-of-mind topics for many feds, I want to recommend two recent books'one about privacy and one about transparency.

So many books about privacy are published that it can be difficult to keep up. But this pair will likely be valuable to everyone, no matter what they think about privacy.

Marc Rotenberg, a well-known privacy advocate and the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, recently published the second edition of the Privacy Law Sourcebook. A compilation of national and international privacy laws and documents, the volume includes the text of all current federal privacy statutes. You'll also find a copy of the European Union Data Protection Directive and other international materials that are otherwise difficult to find.

Anyone who needs to refer to more than one privacy law will find this book indispensable. I use the Sourcebook more than any other reference book, and I recommend it unequivocally. For ordering information, go to the bookstore at EPIC's Web site, www.epic.org.

Books about disclosure are also difficult to find, so David Brin's The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?, published by Perseus Books, is noteworthy for its existence alone.

A good tech read

Brin, a scientist, teacher and award-winning science fiction writer, has written a book that is both readable and technologically current. You can find the paperback version at most bookstores.

His thesis is that the value of transparency'that is, free dissemination of information'is underrepresented in discussions about privacy.

More openness will lead to more accountability, Brin believes, and the result will be more freedom. For example, he wants more surveillance cameras in public places, with the pictures widely available on the Internet.

Criminals will be less likely to commit crimes if their actions are televised and recorded, Brin argues. But he goes further. Brin thinks police will be more careful about constitutional rights if cameras in police stations broadcast interactions with the public. The notion may be a bit unrealistic, but it is certainly thought-provoking. Would you feel comfortable about a www.bureaucrat.com Web site broadcasting your office activities to the world?

Brin doesn't claim to have all the answers. He is really trying to counter strong pressures for more privacy, arguing that the fears of privacy advocates and Internet aficionados about government are too narrowly focused.

Brin worries about heavy-handed government too, but he also worries about criminals and large corporations that can be agents of tyranny and repression.

Brin is not so much against privacy as he is for openness. His conclusions stem from a rather absolute view of the First Amendment. He loves criticism, which he sees as the key to improving society and to remedying errors and self-deception. This is one of the bases for the Freedom of Information Act and similar open-government laws.

Brin wants more transparency everywhere to increase accountability. Government workers are likely to agree in theory with the notion of more accountability. It is always the political appointees who feel otherwise.

For the most part, Brin is fair to all sides, admits the weaknesses of his arguments and is willing to concede points to critics. Re-freshingly, he sees the world in shades of gray and deplores the absence of courteous debate and the habit of demonizing opponents.

His discussion of the technological future demonstrates a sound understanding of technology and its possibilities, but he freely acknowledges the difficulties of making predictions.

Brin's argument falters when he extends openness far beyond the government. In the United States, the Constitution constrains the government but not other actors.

The government cannot regulate speech under the First Amendment. Businesses have no similar obligation. This fundamental distinction slips by Brin. Forcing openness on institutions outside of government is the antithesis of a First Amendment value.

Far-reaching debate

Solving problems is not Brin's immediate goal. He wants the debate over privacy and freedom to take a broad focus. He wants everyone to recognize the value of transparency and criticism.

I don't agree with all of his points, but he succeeds in making them in a fair, interesting and readable way.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. His
e-mail address is rgellman@cais.com.

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