I'm a Techno-enthusiast, But…

I heard an interesting NPR report this week, an interview with a police officer who has a high tech police car. He talked about a new technology they had piloted in Southern California: two cameras mounted in the police car taking pictures of all of the cars they drive by. The pictures were digitized and the color, make, model and tag number of all of the cars was automatically entered into a database which was compared to a database of stolen cars, missing persons, and outstanding warrants for arrest.

In the 90 day trial period (I think I’m remembering that number correctly) the team would have normally found 3 stolen cars. With the new technology they found over 100! As the officer drives by a stolen vehicle the system immediately notifies him of the stolen car. I loath theft by taking. Stealing cars is wrong. Catching and prosecuting car thieves is a good thing. I was all on board.

Then the officer said something that got me thinking past the immediately obvious but superficial. He said that the system can, over time, learn where all of the “bad guys” drive, where they go, and presumably what they do based on their travel patterns. Well, if they can do this for the “bad guys” then they can do it for us “good guys” too.

Then tonight I flipped on the TV. I caught the end of some exposé-type show. The narrator said, “The average citizen is photographed over 300 times a day by surveillance cameras.” As I travel down the roads to and from work, I pass a surveillance camera atop a tall pole every quarter of a mile. I have often wondered who authorized this. There was no vote. It just happened.

As far as I am concerned, all of this begs some substantive national discussion. Who is watching whom? How much did the equipment cost? How much does it cost to maintain? What is being done with this data? Who would want this data? Who would sell this data to whom and for what reasons?

I am one of the good guys. I’ve never stolen a car nor do I ever plan to. I’m not out there doing anything wrong and really have nothing to hide. But this is about much more than that. Who decides the definition of “the good guys”? With the Patriot Act, fundamental civil rights are suddenly a mushy vague and illusive vapor. And I’m being watched, my phone calls are being monitored, my banking transactions are subject to analysis (on and on)…by whom, and why exactly? As long as we fear an invisible enemy, who decides if you are “one of them?”

Who really is in charge? Are we still a government of the people, for the people, and by the people? Is the expense of surveillance truly cost effective? Would some money be well spent addressing the cause of people stealing cars so as to reduce the number stolen? I think, in the world according to Tim, we need to have a deep national conversation about all of this because I suspect that tyranny and loss of freedom slips up on a nation in very slow and measured ways. No one just pushes a button, or can they do that now, too?