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Home > Privacy Fundamentals > Book Reviews > The Open Society Paradox: Why the 21st Century Calls for More Openness Not Less

Book Review: The Open Society Paradox: Why the 21st Century Calls for More Openness Not Less, by Dennis Bailey, Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 229 pages

It is deeply ironic that the author of a book calling for less anonymity and less privacy would fail to reveal highly relevant personal information. This book and all promotional materials for it identify Dennis Bailey as merely an "information technology consultant." He is, in fact, an employee of a firm that does top-secret work for government clients.

This, more than anything, explains the nonchalance Bailey displays toward creating a national ID system and giving government authorities access to comprehensive information about citizens. He trusts the government because he's on the government team.

The Open Society Paradox takes an appealing notion and turns it back on itself. "Openness" in society is an important aspiration (if George Soros, founder of the Open Society Institute, hasn't tarnished it too much with his partisanship). But openness has always implied open institutions, like governments and businesses. As such, openness empowers people to decide how they want to shape society.

Bailey turns this openness inside out, arguing to make individuals the objects of exposure. Bailey makes the case for a national ID, for increased government surveillance, and for government mining of private data. He imagines this leading to a renewal of trust and a greater sense of community.

In the last century, we saw several societies where individual interests were subordinated to governments. These did not result in the rosy scenarios Bailey imagines for a 21st Century American surveillance state.

To be fair, Bailey admits to concerns that increased government tracking and surveillance may lead to harmful results. His answer is to argue that the U.S. government today is more open and subject to criticism than ever before. If this is true, one reason is our historical rejection of the intrusive powers Bailey wants us to accept. "It'll be alright" is not an explanation.

There are strengths in the book: Bailey chides many privacy advocates for their overwrought and unfocused arguments. He points out correctly that privacy for the masses is a relatively new phenomenon, reserved for wealthy societies. But neither point supports his argument for undoing privacy, particularly privacy from government.

The weaknesses of The Open Society Paradox far outweigh its strengths. Bailey does not, because he cannot, explain how a national ID would thwart terrorism. "Of course, a national ID isn't going to prevent a terrorist . . . from committing a terrorist act," he says. (page 63)

Yet a report on terrorism from the Markle Foundation, which Bailey contributed to, promoted a national ID to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. The 9/11 Commission recommended a stronger national ID system to Congress. That recommendation was made law as part of intelligence reform legislation in late 2004.

This is not a good book. It is an important book, because it provides a small window onto the quiet advance of the surveillance-industrial complex.


Comments? (Subject: Philosophical Dimensions)

[updated 01/14/05]

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