Posts tagged transparency
When we open up data, are we empowering people to come together? Or to come apart? Who defines the values that we should be working towards? Who checks to make sure that our data projects are moving us towards those values? If we aren’t clear about what we want and the trade-offs that are involved, simply opening up data can — and often does — reify existing inequities and structural problems in society. Is that really what we’re aiming to do?
In the next ten years we will see data-driven technologies reconfigure systems in many different sectors, from autonomous vehicles to personalized learning, predictive policing to precision medicine. While the changes that we will see will create new opportunities, they will also create new challenges — and new worries — and it behooves us to start grappling with these issues now so that we can build healthy sociotechnical systems.
Clarity is an ambiguous virtue today. It’s more frequently called “transparency” now, and the naive still advance it as a simple salve for all ills. But the ills of the early 1990s never left us. If anything, they doubled down, demonstrating how comparatively oversimplified issues like ozone depletion, statist territorialism, and rain forest conservation really were—simply being able to see the issues were supposed to lead to the implementation of their obvious remedies. Today that false dream remains, in the form of technological innovation that promises to “change the world” by producing an even more commercialized version of progress than we endured two decades ago. Would it be a step too far to call Silicon Valley one big, compostable bottle of Crystal Pepsi? Probably. The nostalgia you drink when you drink a reissued Crystal Pepsi is not a nostalgia for taste, nor for the gewgaws of the 1990s, nor even for the youth that might have accompanied the original. It is a nostalgia for a moment when a new secular, global righteousness seemed simple enough that drinking a branded cola could legitimately contribute to it.
In western liberal democracies (where Tor is overwhelmingly based, and by raw numbers, largely serves) human-rights advocacy has better optics than privacy. But the opposite is true in the regions that Tor aims to serve. Privacy empowers the individual. Empowering the individual naturally dovetails with human rights, so its plausible that greater human rights is a natural byproduct of privacy advocacy. However, Tor’s pivot from “Privacy Enthusiasts” to “Human Rights Watch for Nerds” substantially increases the risk of imprisonment to those operating a Tor relay or using the Tor Browser Bundle from less HR-friendly regions.
How could anyone be against transparency? Its virtues and its utilities seem so crushingly obvious. But I have increasingly come to worry that there is an error at the core of this unquestioned goodness. We are not thinking critically enough about where and when transparency works, and where and when it may lead to confusion, or to worse. And I fear that the inevitable success of this movement–if pursued alone, without any sensitivity to the full complexity of the idea of perfect openness–will inspire not reform, but disgust. The “naked transparency movement,” as I will call it here, is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.
Knowing how the government spies on us is important. Not only because so much of it is illegal – or, to be as charitable as possible, based on novel interpretations of the law – but because we have a right to know. Democracy requires an informed citizenry in order to function properly, and transparency and accountability are essential parts of that. That means knowing what our government is doing to us, in our name. That means knowing that the government is operating within the constraints of the law. Otherwise, we’re living in a police state.