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Does the Murdoch Hacking Scandal Signify the End of Privacy?

As the media mogul struggles to hold together his empire, an outspoken advocate of transparency argues that privacy must be redefined
Murdoch, news, hacking



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.

Once word got out to a larger audience that News International had been paying people to hack into phones, News Corp. itself became a victim of hacking. Does this sort of vigilante hacking help defend our privacy through some form of poetic justice or does it exacerbate the problem by making people generally feel their privacy is less secure?
Republicans and Democrats share the same reflex—suspicion of authority—though aiming it in different directions. But reciprocal accountability only happens when people get truth about all elites, their conspiracies or human failings. It takes courage to step up and reveal shenanigans of the mighty. Whistle-blowers are our paladins and they need more protection.

That doesn't mean all secrecy is evil, or that all revelations are justified. But this News Corp. scandal shows us the future. Only fools will proceed into the 21st century without constantly asking: "What will happen to us if this thing we're doing appears on page one?"

You point to the group of hackers calling themselves Anonymous as an example of how such posturing becomes a problem. How so?
Hacking has become associated with romantic anti-authoritarianism by bright, privileged guys who themselves represent an elite of technical competence. In these situations self-righteousness generally trumps everything else. Thus, when Anonymous went after the banks that cut off credit to WikiLeaks, they were in turn attacked by so-called "patriotic hackers." Each side styles itself as the brave defender of goodness, pouring light upon evil. And each feels justified in evading light aimed at them. Ironic? It's human. Only now it may lead to tit-for-tat cyber wars that drag us all in, without our say-so, with the real players masked.

In a further irony, hacker groups are always ripe to be suborned by those with real power. What would you do if you were the National Security Agency? You'd set up dummy memberships in Anonymous.

No. If reciprocal accountability is the essential ingredient of the Enlightenment, then instead of silly gestures, what you want is revelation. Julian Assange's Wikileaks organization did that. And now we get the biggest irony of all. Sure, those 250,000 leaked U.S. State Department cables exposed a few minor embarrassments. But in fact, as Assange recently admitted, the main effect was to boost the U.S. government's reputation at a critical time among young activists of the recent "Arab Spring" by revealing how many of our foreign service officers candidly despised the dictators they had to deal with. The leaks helped to damp any anti-U.S. flavor to the Arab revolutions. Surely not Assange's intent.

That's not to say the next spill won't reveal dastardly things. The State Department survived a tsunami of revelation because there wasn't much there. Fine. But smart folks will learn a vital lesson—to prepare for a more transparent world.

And make your enemies come to the same understanding.

So hackers like Anonymous and LulzSec and whistle-blowers like Wikileaks are in a way redefining privacy using different approaches. Posturing aside, does hacking (computers, networks, phones or otherwise) have a legitimate role in society?
Look, the odds have always been stacked against freedom, against the Enlightenment experiment. The normal condition—top-down tyranny—may return, enhanced by brutally efficient surveillance technologies. I suppose if that happens, our hope may lie with "cyberpunks" skulking and undermining the tyrants from within.

Alas, though, I doubt many of today's romantic, attention-seeking hackers will be around. Any real dictatorship will gather them up, in a trice. No, if despotism looms, our heroes will be those who quietly developed their skills without ego or grandstanding.

As it happens, we're not in a tyranny, but [rather] a vastly intricate, awkwardly immature, intermediate-stage Enlightenment that may finish off tyranny forever—if we can innovate the right set of tools, skills and attitudes. Refining reciprocal accountability will take skill and goodwill and negotiation, a willingness to face complexity, not the drug high of indignation. But above all, it will take the courage to face a world filled with light.

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