The Naked Crowd

A new book by US legal theorist Jeffrey Rosen explains how risk-aversion threatens our freedom, technology, and security.

Sandy Starr

Topics Science & Tech

‘The risk-averse democracies of the West continue to demand ever-increasing levels of surveillance and exposure in a search for an illusory and emotional feeling of security.’ (1)

This is the provocative charge levelled by Jeffrey Rosen, in his new book The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age. Rosen, professor of law at George Washington University and legal affairs editor of The New Republic, argues that risk-aversion – particularly since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 – is eroding our freedom. He sees ‘politicians, the media, interest groups, and an adversarial legal system’ all contributing to an unhealthy climate of panic, and calls for us to ‘overcome the paralysing fears that threaten our liberties…rather than demanding salvation from judges or technologists or other illusory protectors’ (2).

The Naked Crowd takes in sociological, psychological, technological and legal perspectives on the relationship between risk and freedom. It opens with an unsettling account of a world where surveillance intrudes unchecked into every conceivable public space, and where society’s predominant emotion is suspicion. No, it isn’t some far-fetched science fiction dystopia – it’s a case study of the UK.

Rosen’s outsider perspective makes for refreshing, if disconcerting, reading. Why does the widespread proliferation of closed-circuit television cameras in the UK go unchallenged, and even unnoticed? ‘CCTV cameras have a mysterious knack for justifying themselves regardless of what happens to crime’, Rosen explains. ‘When crime goes up, the cameras get credit for detecting it, and when crime goes down, they get the credit for preventing it.’ Worse, ‘Britain’s experience under the watchful eye of the CCTV cameras is a vision of what Americans can expect if we choose to go down the same road in our efforts to achieve homeland security’ (3).

I asked Rosen what led him to explore the example of the UK. ‘I never found a topic which more dramatically illuminated the importance of cultural differences in responses to privacy’, he said. ‘The British pre-9/11 response seemed so foreign to anything that could have been imaginable in America. There are important constitutional differences between America and Britain, that haven’t quite brought us down the British path.’

Until now, that is. Advocates of freedom in the USA have long benefited from a strong tradition of civil liberties, and from a clear Constitution enshrining the principles that they hold dear. But even a society with such a robust constitutional basis is susceptible to changes in the political climate. How can one make the case for safeguarding freedom and privacy today? ‘spiked is doing the most important work on this subject, and long may you prosper, but it’s a terribly uphill battle’, replies Rosen. ‘The case against surveillance cameras is especially difficult to make, because their harm seems so elusive. We can talk about abstractions like dignity and autonomy, but these don’t tend to resonate with the public. You really need an instinct of suspicion of government – you need a libertarian culture.’

Rosen makes a strong case for the importance of libertarianism, but how is one supposed to go about fostering such a culture, if it is lacking? Isn’t it incumbent upon defenders of freedom to make a convincing case, so that it no longer appears to be an abstract cause? ‘It is, and I’m delighted to be an evangelist. It’s a fair criticism to ask whether I’ve been too pessimistic, in believing that the public can ultimately balance these complicated values in a thoughtful way. It’s arguable that the public, when in fact presented with careful arguments, may make reasonable choices based on the best available evidence. If this is correct, then it’s all the more incumbent upon commentators to try to devote themselves to public education.’

This broader focus makes a refreshing change from some recent studies, which blame our current propensity to panic solely on the media (4). The media doesn’t escape Rosen’s criticism, though. ‘The media is a democratic institution – it’s an institution of public opinion’, he explains. ‘I would by no means posit some sort of media conspiracy, which driving an unknowing public to greater heights of emotionalism. But the media’s effort to respond to public demands can create self-perpetuating cycles of fear, which are hard to break.’

According to Rosen, these ‘cycles of fear’ have a destructive impact upon public morale – yet they don’t even prompt better security. In fact, security measures promoted by risk aversion tend to be ineffective. Looking at the measures introduced in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for instance, Rosen makes the simple point that ‘there is no reason to believe that terrorists in the future will resemble those in the past’ (5).

He goes on in the book to set up a thought experiment that demonstrates the financial and social costs of organising society on the basis of averting risk. ‘Imagine a profiling system that was set up to identify the 19 hijackers of 9/11…. Even assuming the profiling system were 99 percent accurate…three million…of those identified as potential terrorists by the system would be wrongly accused. Such a system would bring the nation’s airports to a halt.’ (6)

Bearing this in mind, I was curious as to why Rosen’s book is subtitled ‘Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age’. Could this be construed as a sop to advocates of security measures? (7) ‘I’m not sure what the publisher had in mind’, says Rosen. ‘But my own thought, in accepting that subtitle, was the idea of psychological security, which consists in an ability to live with uncertainty.’

The ‘ability to live with uncertainty’ is an important cause to champion, at a time when the loss of this ability by our governing, business and scientific institutions threatens to restrict both freedom and progress. As it happens, this ability is also essential for managing risk. Rosen does a good job of explaining why a paranoid outlook, which cannot tolerate the degree of uncertainty that inevitably surrounds risks, is incapable of anticipating and reacting to those risks (8). ‘It’s important for those of us who are defenders of privacy not to be glib or dismissive of the gravity of the security threat’, he says, ‘and also not to be luddites who resist useful technology’.

The charge of luddism is something that Rosen is particularly sensitive to – The Naked Crowd was originally written in response to a challenge by another prominent US legal theorist, Lawrence Lessig, who accused Rosen of being a luddite for expressing misgivings about recent developments in technology. ‘He’s withdrawn his charge’, explains Rosen. ‘In attempting to respond to his challenge, I identified all sorts of technologies that, if well designed, should indeed be embraced.’

In The Naked Crowd, Rosen uses Larry Ellison – the outspoken chief executive of the technology giant Oracle, whose immediate response to 9/11 was to offer the US authorities software to support a national identity card system – as a foil for his arguments. Confronting Ellison and his ilk, Rosen detects ‘something especially presumptuous about Silicon Valley’s conceit…that machines can classify, analyse, and understand all of the fragmented data in the world’ (9). He draws a comparison between this enterprise and an earlier, ill-fated project: the Biblical Tower of Babel.

By deploying analogies such as this, does Rosen not risk sounding a bit down on technological ambition? ‘In fact, I would say it’s a lack of ambition that leads technologists like Ellison to refuse to think at a creative and constitutional level. I don’t mean strictly legal thinking, but recognition of the importance of constructing technological checks and balances, that are no less ambitious and fundamental than those that the framers of the American Constitution demanded in establishing our government. It’s a sign of the magnitude of the task in front of us, that with all the best minds and monies supporting these projects, we’ve progressed so little in actually constructing and implementing genuinely ambitious technologies.’

Rosen’s determination that technological progress, efficient security and human freedom can all coexist and prosper is inspiring. After all, as he explains at length in his book, these three things have a common enemy in risk aversion. If there is a shortcoming in the book, it is perhaps Rosen’s tendency to rely upon psychological rather than political models of public opinion and behaviour.

This tendency is reflected in the book’s title, The Naked Crowd, conjuring up a vision of a fickle, fearful, emotion-led collective that the authorities can easily appeal to. The book sometimes walks a fine line between legitimate criticisms of crass populism, in policy and law, and contempt for the public’s rational faculties – Rosen asserts, for example, that ‘the crowd, which thinks in terms of images rather than arguments, demands a sense of emotional connection with everyone who catches its fleeting attention’ (10). How would he respond to the charge that his book expresses a certain contempt for the public?

‘I hope it doesn’t. You’re correct to describe it as walking a fine line. My effort, in talking about the pathologies of public opinion, is to root the criticisms in well-established realities of public psychology. The goal is not to be contemptuous, but just hard-headed about the rigours of the challenges we face. I wanted to think through for myself what the most pragmatic hopes for privacy and freedom consisted in.’ Apart from the fact that discussing public opinion in terms of ‘pathologies’ expresses rather low expectations of public rationality, neither is it perhaps the most advisable strategy for winning public support for an argument.

Rosen’s book is an important contribution to the ongoing debate over freedom and security. His call for society to be willing to take risks is crucial in winning the argument for freedom today. However, we must take care not to disparage the public when we challenge the culture of fear, as The Naked Crowd sometimes verges on doing. Instead, we must appeal to, and make the case for, the public’s inherent rationality.

The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age, by Jeffrey Rosen, is published by Random House. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

‘We can never be safe – but at least we can be free’, by Jennie Bristow

Defending dissent, by Josie Appleton

spiked-issue: Privacy

spiked-issue: After 11 September

spiked-issue: Interviews

(1) The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age, Jeffrey Rosen, Random House, 2004, p7

(2) The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age, Jeffrey Rosen, Random House, 2004, p84, 225

(3) The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age, Jeffrey Rosen, Random House, 2004, p49, 37

(4) See Shooting the messenger, by Rob Lyons; Immune to the facts, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

(5) The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age, Jeffrey Rosen, Random House, 2004, p104

(6) The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age, Jeffrey Rosen, Random House, 2004, p106

(7) The American Civil Liberties Union’s post-9/11 slogan ‘Safe and free’ is a similar example, that could be construed as a sop to advocates of security measures. See the Safe and free section of the American Civil Liberties Union website

(8) For an account of how a paranoid outlook has contributed to the decline of US intelligence, see Dumb intelligence, by Sandy Starr

(9) The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age, Jeffrey Rosen, Random House, 2004, p128. See Online insecurity, by Sandy Starr

(10) The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age, Jeffrey Rosen, Random House, 2004, p161

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Topics Science & Tech


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