Total freedom in exchange for total surveillance

Today I signed up for TSA Pre-Check.  I gave the some (rather minor) details about my background and scanned my fingerprints.  In two weeks, I’ll get a known traveler ID, and will then be able to skip the line and keep my jacket/shoes/belt on when traveling domestically. Convenience in exchange for surveillance.  It’s a trade I’m gladly willing to make, in this case.

This touches on a bigger question that’s been on my mind recently, especially in regards to regulation 2.0, which is: are we trading total freedom for total surveillance?

That’s a provocative way of putting it, but to some extent that’s at the heart of what’s happening now, as we develop new systems for establishing & maintaining trust, both in the private sector (on platforms like ebay and airbnb) and in the public sector (regulations like business and driver licensing).

I’ve put it like this before:

Another way of describing this is:

1.0: establish trust by passing an up-front test (i.e., licensing)

2.0: establishing trust by tracking and publishing your activities (i.e., surveillance)

So, in the case of ebay, airbnb, etc the idea is: have at it, start transacting, with a relatively low barrier to entry; but everything you do will be tracked and analyzed, and used to build your reputation and trustworthiness in the long run.  Freedom to act & transact, in exchange for data-driven accountability.

There are lots of reasons why this model is incredible and groundbreaking.  First off, it’s scalable.  1.0 / licensing-based schemes require a ton of overhead, and can easily be overloaded at high capacity. 2.0 regulation is less expensive and completely scalable.  Secondly, it lowers the barrier to participation, making it easy to get started and experiment.  Whether you’re selling baskets on etsy (that could one day become a huge business) or starting a blog (which one day could become the huffpo) this low barrier to entry is one of the key characteristics of web-enabled innovation.  So, we want to preserve and enhance both of those.

BUT, there is a tension here, which is that innovation/creativity/experimentation means — by definition — stretching/breaking boundaries and acting outside of the status quo.  So while transparency on the one hand increases freedom (by being able to “just get started” in exchange for data), it can also stifle it, by snuffing out good ideas that are outside the norm, or by making it unsafe to challenge power.

In the more mild cases, this can be seen as “weird” and in the more severe cases can be seen as “radical” and threatening to power.  So there is an inherent need to experiment outside of the sunlight of transparency.

A friend recently made the point that we need to think about personal privacy differently than we do institutional privacy (govts, corporations) because of the institutional power that comes with mass data collection, and the potential for that power to be used to manipulate (on the corporate side) or persecute (on the government side) individuals.

Yet at the same time this personal data holds the key to certain kinds of freedom (in the “just get started” kind of way), and also will play a huge role in solving epic societal problems (cancer).

So, if your interest is in supporting experimentation & innovation (as mine is) how can we reconcile these two competing forces?

(p.s., I am going to see how many posts in a row I can use that graphic in)

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