GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK: News of the World survived nearly 170 years before News International's most recent phone-hacking scandal. The public was fine with the tabloid's exploitation of celebrities and royals but did not like it when the focus shifted to crime victims and war casualties. Image: COURTESY OF NEWS OF THE WORLD, VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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Voice mail hacking was practiced for years at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid in the U.K. prior to its dramatic public implosion a few weeks ago. Murdoch's media empire was shaken this time because his employees were found to be spying on victims of tragedy, including a murdered teen and families of dead soldiers, rather than on celebrities and royals. This revelation prompted retaliatory online hacks against several of Murdoch's media properties by a group known as Lulz Security (LulzSec).
One victim of this scuffle between an elite, multinational corporation and a shadowy network of cyber vigilantes may be privacy itself. Despite Murdoch's grilling by Parliament and the FBI's takedown of several members of another prominent hacker group—called Anonymous—this week, information seems to be more than ever at the mercy of those with the means to take it.
Award-winning science fiction author and physicist David Brin has a long-held belief that the loss of privacy is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as this transparency applies to everyone. Scientific American spoke with Brin about Murdoch's fall from grace, the state of privacy as hacking becomes more endemic, and why Wikileaks is in a better position than hacker groups like LulzSec and Anonymous to defend against abuses of power.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Does the phone-hacking scandal at News International raise any new issues surrounding privacy and access to information that have not already been raised in the past?
The fundamental matter is equality of vision. For 6,000 years, civilizations were hierarchical pyramids with a few on top hoarding not only wealth, power and access to weapons but also information. It's very human—you and I would do it—and ethics never prevented it. One thing does: Light. The Enlightenment's great innovation wasn't sweetness or morality—it was reciprocal accountability, empowering many groups to hold each other accountable.
Instead of being appalled that some oligarchs obey human nature and abuse power, we should focus on how they were caught. Can we make the Enlightenment's immune system work even better, next time?
Given that News International has been in trouble in the past for phone hacking, why is it such a big deal this time?
The thing that broke this story from mere rumor to fill-blown scandal was our modern, sliding scale of victimhood. In Britain everyone knew about hacking and snooping and bribes under the table. But the public shrugged, so long as it involved celebrities. That changed when tabloids were caught preying on innocent families, even teenaged crime victims. In the U.S. private citizens can sue over privacy violations, while public figures can't. Laws differ in Britain. Yet, in both places there's an implicit sliding scale. We assume the mighty won't shrivel under a spotlight. The meek deserve to be left alone.
Even though News International employees and even the U.K.'s Metropolitan Police were eventually caught up in this scandal, their actions went on for years before anyone took action. Does this mean people should have no expectation of privacy and that the only time when it will be defended is when the people invading it slip up?
In The Transparent Society I forecast that tomorrow's "privacy" will be smaller and redefined. But humans need some privacy. Ironically, we'll keep some if most of us can see most of what's going on, most of the time, maintaining our power to catch those peering at us. "Sousveillance" means looking back at the mighty, from below.
Take the struggle being waged now across America, as police officers arrest bystanders for filming them in action. Now, I sympathize with skilled professionals doing a difficult job, and one can see that all these cameras add more stress. But there can only be one acceptable outcome—an absolute right to record our encounters with authority. What recourse does a citizen have, other than the truth? Anyway, technology will settle this in our favor, even if the law doesn't.