Transparency in Government

Our goal at Qbix is to build software that empowers people and unites communities. Often, power concentrates in the hands of a few leaders (in corporations, governments etc). And as Lord Acton’s famous maxim goes:

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.

Surveilling the Public

This is how our large systems work. Whether prompted or not, leaders in power often push for more surveillance, because it gives them an easier way to exercise control, including preventing bad things.

We all heard about the Snowden revelations about the NSA warrantless mass spying on US citizens, but there are plenty of domestic agencies that can already legally surveil the public. For instance the PATRIOT ACT, passed in the wake of 9/11, expanded the surveillance state by allowing the FBI to wiretap American citizens without proving probable cause. Meanwhile, across the ocean, London police have already deployed ubiquitous surveillance through 50,000 CCTV cameras and are now rolling out facial recognition and AI.

The drive to consolidate power, or to make profits for shareholders, tends to corrupt even well-intentioned people. Even self-styled libertarian Peter Thiel chose to start Palantir Technologies, and work with governments to do surveillance and precrime.

But it’s not just about preventing crime – sometimes it’s to collect revenues to pay for large government spending. For instance the Biden administration directed the IRS to collect data on any payment over $600. They appeared to back down in 2021, but then in Jan 2022 the government went ahead and required all third-party payment processors in the US to report payments received for goods and services totalling over $600. And this is not just on the country level. Trans-national organizations like FATCA can practically force all countries to implement the “Travel Rule”, requiring reporting of any transaction over $1000 – although recently FINCEN in the USA has pushed to lower this threshold to a mere $250!

Transparency for Government

With all this concern about the destruction that individual citizens may bring about, or the relatively small amounts of money they may conceal from taxation, it is very legitimate to ask about the other end of the spectrum. How much do we really know what goes on behind closed doors when “public servants” in our governments negotiate on our behalf? Do they even try to avoid escalation and war? The US military seems to be unable to account for untold trillions of dollars yet some political parties are willing to increase their budget more than they asked for, under Trump, under Biden, and going back as far as 1995!

Many large calamities, including wars, famines and even the aftermath of natural disasters, could have been averted if our leaders had acted differently. When wars break out, the public is distracted from thinking about the failures of leaders to prevent peace talks. Here is just a small but representative list of closed-door meetings, any one of which – had it been made public – would have helped prevent the current Russia-Ukraine war:

On a related note, there are black ops military contractors for both USA (Blackwater) and Russia (Wagner Group) operating in multiple countries without people or even their representatives knowing what they are doing there. In Ukraine, the CIA had been secretly training paramilitaries to carry on an insurgency after what they assumed would be a quick Russian victory. This is similar to what had been secretly done in Afghanistan, leading to a protracted conflict in which 1-2 million Afghans died. Ever since the secret war in Laos, the CIA has armed and trained fighters across many countries and continents, often leading to very bloody wars. And the same is true of the KGB, of course. Do these secret organizations help humanity, or do they serve to destabilize countries and cause misery on a large scale? According to their own studies, the answer is the latter.

A modest proposal

Not too long ago, we produced an article about balancing privacy and accountability by employing ubiquitous encrypted surveillance and a clear process for decrypting this information. We discussed how it can solve crimes committed locally, including burglaries, rapes on campus, and more:

There is a use for these encrypted cameras that should probably be far less controversial, to anyone who believes in transparency of government, or believes in democracy – that our public servants should be work for us. Namely, why not pass laws requiring all meetings and negotiations between politicians to be recorded on encrypted video? Unlike private activities, these public servants would be filmed carrying out their duty. But in both cases, the encryption would prevent anyone from finding out what was said, unless and until it was subpoenaed during a well defined due process. Everyone can rest assured that the video can only be “declassified” through proper channels following due process, and this is enforced by the encryption itself. But in both cases, the video will at least exist.

We already do this with body cameras for cops, and a four-year experiment showed a reduction of about 50% in the use of police force. Sometimes the officer claims the body cameras “malfunctioned” at the exact time when they were supposed to capture the interaction. When it comes to political meetings, that would be harder to do, as they would be planned in advance, and multiple parties would be checking security of the area – while they work hard to protect individual politicians, they can also do something to protect the public’s interest as well – make sure the cameras are running and the feed is encrypted.

Weigh in

What are your thoughts about mandating the use of such technology? Many countries already televise the deliberations of people’s representatives, for example on C-SPAN in USA since 1979. If we the people demanded to gradually expand this to other meetings and conversations, we could greatly increase the transparency in government. If our governments want to know where we send $600, then perhaps our public servants should not object to maintaining a record of their interactions in the course of doing their job. Far from being an invasion of individual privacy, the public servants voluntarily choose (at great expense) to run for office. They are put into positions of great trust and concentration of power, and with great power comes great responsibility: if they fail to avert a disaster, the public should know why, and perhaps replace them.

Because at the end of the day, the cost disproportionally falls on the regular people, who get sent off to war, who get widowed, who have to endure bombs and rockets falling on their house, while the politicians are far away, working from their comfortable chairs and attending fancy events. With wartime presidents historically getting a boost in their popularity and approval, and even their wealth, the incentives are perverse enough that the people need more transparency in the meetings.

This change won’t happen overnight, but it can be pushed by both the public and civic-minded politicians in any country. It doesn’t have to be phased in for all types of meetings, but at least more than we have now. If We the People are successful in bringing this about in our respective countries, it will start to become the norm across the world. Suddenly, public servants not recording their meetings will raise suspicions, and they would rightly face consequences.