Behind closed doors: privacy vs transparency?

Saturday 30 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Upper Gulbenkian Gallery Lunchtime Debates

It appears that being whiter than white is no longer enough to make those in public life trustworthy and believable: they have to be altogether see-through. Transparency is the watchword, whether symbolised in the Reichstag’s glass dome expressing the ‘openness of the new German Democracy’ or David Cameron’s new ’openness agenda’ to make more government information public, including the pay of senior civil servants and the monarchy. In the world of corporate management, my door is always open has given way to the no doors, no walls, no privacy, policy of open-plan offices. Private and public sectors alike strive to make their decisions and processes fully transparent, auditable and accountable: business operations are reduced to dashboards and key performance indicators. As individuals, if we aren’t Facebooking, tweeting or blogging, might it just be that we have something to hide?

Treating something or someone as innocent and trustworthy because that is how they appear on the surface now serves to mark one out as dangerously naïve. Whether it is ‘just the tip of the iceberg’ arguments with respect to reported cases of domestic violence or rape, fury at the Catholic church for alleged cover-ups of child abuse, or outrage at the financial improprieties assumed to lurk at the heart of every big business, we seem to operate with a belief that things are never as they seem, that there is a potential Fritzl in every cellar: that we live in a sick society that the healthy winds of transparency must blow through to dispel the ill humours.

Many would point to the 2009 MPs expenses scandal as evidence of the corruption that can take place when authorities are allowed to operate away from public scrutiny. Is it necessarily the case though that closed doors equates to guilty secrets? Why are we so uncomfortable with phrases like ‘Leave it with me, you can trust me’? Why not judge people in terms of their results rather than auditing the process they follow? Good processes express the experience of those doing the work or making the decisions: if we demand transparency over these process, but lack the expertise ourselves, is there not a danger that we will feel that we are missing something, that something is being held back? That we will demand a higher and higher bar for trust? Is there an argument that trust might actually rely on privacy, on taking the risk, the leap of faith, that people will still be reliable when your back is turned? Is transparency all that it appears?

 

Speakers
Dr Norman Lewis
director (innovation), PwC; co-author, Big Potatoes: the London manifesto for innovation

Phil Booth
coordinator, medConfidential

David Aaronovitch
columnist, The Times; author, Voodoo Histories; chair, Index on Censorship

Dan Schwarzmann
UK leader of business recovery services, PwC

Chair:
Patrick Hayes
director, British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)

Produced by
Patrick Hayes director, British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)
Recommended readings
And the Firewalls Came Tumbling Down

Sunlight might be the best disinfectant, but even the most ardent advocates of transparency reach for the sunblock once it gets too bright.

Evgeny Morozov, New York Times, 12 October 2012

Open Government Brasilia 2012

From the Public Leaders Network and the Open Government Partnership

Guardian, 2012

Google and the great privacy contradiction

Why are we perturbed when a picture of our house appears on Google Maps but not when we're filmed by state CCTV?

Norman Lewis, spiked, 5 August 2010

Are embargo breaks bad for science?

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Fiona Fox, On Science and the Media Blog, 1 July 2010

'He says, she says' just doesn't work for science

The journalistic norm of balance has no corollary in the world of science ... where consensus builds on repeated testing and re-testing of an idea.

Fiona Fox, BBC College of Journalism Blog, 30 June 2010

Millions have online medical records 'without knowing it'

Millions of patients may have had their medical records uploaded to a central database without realising it as people have been discarding letters informing them of the changes, it has been warned.

Rebecca Smith, Daily Telegraph, 18 June 2010

Technology Coalition Seeks Stronger Privacy Laws

A broad coalition of technology companies, including AT&T, Google and Microsoft, and advocacy groups from across the political spectrum said Tuesday that it would push Congress to strengthen online privacy laws to protect private digital information from government access.

Miguel Helft, New York Times, 31 March 2010

Sunlight Foundation

The Sunlight Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that uses the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency, and provides new tools and resources for media and citizens, alike.


Transparency International

One global movement sharing one vision: a world in which government, business, civil society and the daily lives of people are free of corruption.


Business plans: track progress in implementing our policies

You can use this site to track the Government's progress in implementing the reforms set out in the 2012-15 Business Plans.

No.10 Downing Street

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