Forum: Is Gates’ openness just ‘transparency theatre’?

Protections of privacy remain important even as we embrace openness

Microsoft founder Bill Gates has struck out for openness through the internet, praising the way Scandinavian governments use the medium to equalise the rights of the public and those in power.

While citizens complain about the amount of data government departments (and private industry) hold on them, Danes and Swedes can reverse that microscope, seeing on a website how much their ministers pay for lunch and what their taxis cost, Gates noted in a recent speech.

Details of bidding for government contracts are also accessible. “Every bid that’s ever done, the bidders come up on the networks; you see the terms they offer,” said Gates,

Gates casts his light on an ongoing debate on the Wired website between David Brin, author of The Transparent Society, and Bruce Schneier, who would prefer things less transparent. [Brin’s rebuttal, with link to Schneier’s article]

Schneier is perhaps best known for coining the phrase “the stupid network”. A network should be concerned just with passing bits, he says, not with the information the bits encode. He wrote Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World and talks of “security theatre” — empty gestures made to quiet public fears.

Brin’s argument is essentially that propounded by Gates: that having access to data about politicians restores the balance of power. The ideal society is an “enlightened” one, where light shines into every corner, Brin says.

One objection to Brin’s view is the balance of power. Anyone who’s tried to serve an Official Information Act request knows the ingenious excuses put up by those practised in confidentiality. We have no such power to resist government demands for information.

There is the nub of the problem: government agencies, or a private security officer viewing street video cameras, are paid to do exactly that. It’s their job. For the citizen checking on the doings of officials has to be a spare-time unpaid activity.

Brin cites a “man in the street” who refuted a police officer’s version of the interaction between them by switching his MP3 player to “record”. How much the presentation of his proof cost him in legal fees is glossed over, as is the imbalance in technology available to governments and citizens — though that gap is shrinking.

To return to Gates’ Scandinavian case, being able to police a minister’s taxi fares sounds more like a piece of “transparency theatre” than any useful exercise of citizens’ rights. Access to contract bids is a little more useful.

The thought that such precedents start governments down the road to total transparency is commendably optimistic but unrealistic. Where imbalance of power, money or technology exists, we should be careful about too easily letting go of the protection of privacy.

One of Brin’s examples of human toleration of openness is the restaurant.

“People who are nosey, leaning toward other diners in order to snoop, are caught by those other diners. Moreover, our culture deems such intrusion to be a worse sin than anything that may be overheard.” Real people, he argues, don’t need screens.

Most restaurants I’ve been to have alcoves for groups who would prefer to keep their business or pleasure to themselves; many have private rooms. Privacy is still a value even among the “enlightened”.

And, if Gates is so supportive of transparency, we can surely expect to see more of the company’s source code opened to public view.

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Tags david brinbill gatesbruce schneier

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