Constantly monitor those in power

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

That’s a question we should be asking more in this day and age of constant surveillance.

I’m toying with a proposal: Anyone who goes into public office should have absolutely no privacy whatsoever. Every movement should be available on video, every email and message logged and read, and every conversation recorded. Even the most top secret and sensitive state negotiations should be watched by duly vetted, randomized—and constantly monitored—professional monitors. As with state secrets, maybe for things like sex, bathroom breaks, etc., only some special monitors would have access.

Whether or not monitors actually saw every moment and heard every word, it would all be there, available to the law, not capable of being tampered with. And perhaps we would want monitors to actually watch it all, people duly tasked to catch any whiff of impropriety.

No one would go into public office then, you say? Nonsense. Power is powerfully attractive. No dishonest, secretive person would go into public office—that seems clear.

It would be humiliating, you say? Well, power ought to be a humbling thing. Only those really willing and able to wield it in the full light of day it should be able to.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant—and power, throughout human history, has so often been so profoundly dirty.

It is not as if we don’t have the technology. (Well, we do if we create legal consequences for tampering with the monitoring devices.)

Power corrupts, they say; but consider that it corrupts primarily in private. If all email, phone, etc., were transacted under massive, constant monitoring, only honest public servants would go into politics.

What state interest—to use the language of the lawyers—is really served by public officials having privacy, in light of the awful consequences of allowing power to be wielded in secret? Is the privacy of a President, Senator, or big city mayor really so important that it outweighs the public’s profound interest in making sure that power is never abused?

We might have a similar legal requirements regarding executives of companies worth over $N. Clearly, they too wield far much power for us to trust them to exercise that power responsibly. They need a rolling, anonymized, and confirmed-independent cadre of monitors.

The precise social and technical requirements of monitors as a citizen role (and, perhaps, profession) would be difficult to work out, granted, but not insurmountable. Monitors might sell secrets? This is why monitors themselves would be monitored. They might collude with each other and with power to overlook misdeeds? This is why they would be unknown to each other and reassigned on a rolling basis. Isn’t there still a need for privacy even for the most powerful positions, in the case of sex or using valuable cryptocurrency keys? These are technical problems with technical solutions, to a certain extent, and the punishment for violating your trust as monitor would be harsh.

What kind of person would a monitor be? Professional monitors would be vetted for honesty, intelligence, and responsibility, I imagine, not unlike judges. It is probably important that the monitors be drawn from pre-vetted but fairly large public pool, not (or not just) a privileged professional class. The role would be like jury duty. And again, the consequences for a monitor divulging legitimate secrets would be very serious.

It is also possible that people would be available only to do random spot checks; or even less, just to monitor that the system is working reliable and recording everything. The mere fact that the data is being saved constantly would probably be an adequate disincentive for most criminal politicians and executives.

Finally, this proposal would make leadership more of a moral calling. That’s what it would be, then, too: difficult and wise leadership, not morally fraught power. It would require real personal sacrifice; it would require you to be on your best behavior, and that your best really can stand up to close scrutiny.

Obviously, I’m not sure of the details. But it sure is fun to think about a system in which there is totalitarian surveillance of the powerful and not of the people.

Totalitarianism only for the powerful—never for the people.




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Please do dive in (politely). I want your reactions!

2 responses to “Constantly monitor those in power”

  1. Clairvaux

    This is the basis for a novel ; it can’t be a serious proposal.

    Although on the literary level it has terrific potential, in the real world, it would be a catastrophy. Actually, it’s inapplicable.

    First of all, where does public office stop ? I’m sure you have only very powerful men in mind. Say, the president of the country.

    But why stop there ? Any politician, however minor, should be discriminated in that way. By then, no one would want to take the burden, because the drawbacks would far outweigh the benefits of power.

    And why stop at politicians ? Civil servants should be included. They are paid by our taxes. They can put us in jail. So every act of every lowly policeman should be recorded for ever. Good luck finding policemen then.

    Also, this assumes only politicians are fallible. Ordinary citizens are not. Full transparency would have citizens chastise politicians for good reasons. This is not the case. It’s much more likely they would nitpick on minor faults, or even take politicians to task for positive acts that inconvenience private interests.

    And finally, total transparency is a bad thing in itself when managing people and organisations. If some meetings take place in private, it’s for good reasons. If some of them are even unannounced, it’s also for a reason. People would not take part if that was not the case. Or they would not talk freely.

    Secrecy is often necessary, and not only in the diplomatic, military or intelligence field. There’s a time for telling all, and there’s a time for secrecy.

  2. […] Every movement should be available on video, every email and message logged and read, and every conversation recorded. Even the most top secret and sensitive state negotiations should be watched by duly vetted, randomized—and constantly monitored—professional monitors. + […]

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