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Communications of the ACM

Accountability Through Transparency;: Life in 2050


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The year is 2050 and we, the People of the United States, live in a truly "cammed nation."

The eyes of digital video surveillance devices are tucked into every nook and cranny of our lives, like sand in a two-year-old's swimsuit after a day at the beach. Scandal these days is bred not when such a device is discovered in a covert location but in its absence.

Other societies are in various stages of being fully cammed; the 24-hour streaming news Web sites bring us gritty details of the sometimes violent conflicts as citizens battle authorities over the issue of full video accountability.

Yes, at the mid-point of the 21st century, it will be the people that rise up to demand their governments, and their police force, and their municipalities be as cammed as their own lives. It will be a revolution of geopolitical dimension; as deeply personal as your firstborn.

The lust for privacy will have rightly been morphed into a respect for transparency. A grassroots movement that marries technology and ideology will emerge under the banner of "technological moralism." Politicians will endorse it, political parties will nail it to the party platforms, and the people will embrace it.

At its most basic level, technological moralism is all about accountability. "Windows, not walls" will adorn bumper stickers; protesters will grow hoarse chanting it as their mantra. The people will demand that if every aspect of their lives is cammed, then those in control of the cameras should have cameras turned on them, too.

The rise of technological moralism will grow from the Citizens Accountability Movement, or CAM, for short. It starts as a project funded by well-heeled, ex-dot-com millionaires. These new activists, technologically hip and angered at the lingering brutality of oppression and racism of authorities hiding behind technology and a title, begin to give away personal video cameras to young men.

The devices are no bigger than the button on a shirt and continuously stream digital video to 100,000 different Web sites via high-speed wireless connections. The devices are built on the same technology the military and intelligence communities have had for a dozen years, technology that migrated to the cops five years before.

Now the watched become the watchers. At every traffic stop the cop knows he's being monitored, by someone, somewhere. A video chronicle of law enforcement performance, the latter-day offspring of the Rodney King video.

False arrests and incidents of police brutality plummet. Soon women's groups join the CAM forces and sexual assaults, both on the streets and at work, begin to drop. Accountability through transparency, it becomes the great equalizer.

The movement has its share of scandal. A few years after the "Truth in Video Accountability Act" is passed, a law that requires the offices of government officials be cammed, the President is caught in a cover-up concerning the details of how and why the cam in the "Lewinsky Suite" (as the little room outside the Oval Office has come to be known) was tampered with and offline for more than 30 minutes.

And some time around the quarter century mark, there was the Great Blank Rebellion. A group of people moved to Wyoming and Montana and proceeded to carve out entire communities that were offline. "Blank and brave, we won't cave" the supporters chanted, even as they were surrounded by the quasi-governmental troops of the Sunshine Patrol, so named because they often moved into blackout pockets of the nation to install video cams.

For a while the Blank Rebellion catches the imagination of the masses, who, it must be admitted, watched the whole debacle on closed-circuit TV coverage supplied by WorldQwesta huge telecommunications, video, and data company formed by the merger of WorldCom, Qwest, AT&T, and America Online in 2010.

And large amounts of people are jailed when, at the prompting of the leaders of the Blanks, they begin to traffic in black-market "off" buttonsoutlawed in 2020for their TVs and computers.

It's not that transparency ends privacy in 2050, quite the contrary. As David Brin first prophesied in his 1998 book, The Transparent Society: "Transparency is not about eliminating privacy. It is about giving us the power to hold accountable those who violate it."

But even by 2050, the shared power structure between those in authority, including the corporate world, and everyone else is an uneasy alliance.

Governments and corporations continually develop technologies to subvert the always-watching video eye, even as self-appointed members of the public watch every move in their research and development labs and report all they see in real time back to the collective conscious of the Web.

And such attempts to subvert the basic tenets of accountability would be tragic, except that mostly the circular nature of deceit and disclosure makes for hysterical political theater, which truth be told, many people in 2050 find just as amusing as reruns of the Clinton Impeachment hearings.

Full transparency, of course, remains elusive. Deals are still done, on paper, via email, on the margins of the video camera, buried in the digital noise that few have the time or inclination to decipher.

Privacy is a quid pro quo now. If my tax returns are made public, so are yours and those of your neighbors. If that galls you, know that your elected officials will have to cough up their tax returns, too, as well as the fat cats of corporate America.

People may know all your shopping habits, but the public will never again be surprised by a foreign national trying to buy influence in Washington via a fat checkbook. As soon as the check clears the bank, you'll have access to it.

The question people in 2050 will grapple with is how little privacy can they really live with? If "Windows, not walls" is the true rallying cry, the answer may be less than we ever imagined.

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Author

Brock Meeks (brock.meeks@msnbc.com) is chief Washington correspondent for MSNBC.


Copyright held by author.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2001 ACM, Inc.


 

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