Saturday, July 04, 2015

A Word about Surveillance

Happy Fourth of July. I've got something to say about a controversial subject on a day the United States likes to reserve for a celebration of freedom.

It's common for ivory tower dwellers to scream about surveillance being a violation of privacy. And taken to pedantic extremes, they are correct. It certainly seems wrong to have your communications monitored and your actions tracked without your knowledge and consent.

People who have spent much of their lives in the ivory tower though are often challenged when it comes to separating fantasy from reality. The unfortunate reality is that humans are flawed; we will be dishonest for a number of reasons, we will succumb to base emotions, we allow hate and disrespect into our lives. We murder, steal, and cheat.

Perhaps that would be acceptable if our transgressions would hurt only ourselves but they don't. They infringe on the rights of others, and the idyllic image of a world totally "free" and totally "equal" is one that any reasonable and sane human understands is near impossible.

While it's easy to take the side of freedom in an argument, most people arguing for unbridled freedom are making assumptions that humans will always do the right thing. That assumption's been proven false since day one. It is more challenging to empathize with the other side. What would someone supporting surveillance say?

We can start with some true stories. I have a friend whose daughter lost her iPhone. But they'd installed a tracking app on it, and were able to find its location. My friend drove to the location, a residential address, and rang the doorbell. A young boy answered, and my friend said, "Call your parents over because I'd like to talk to them about the iPhone you stole." The boy was understandably shocked. When his mother called out, "Who's at the door," he responded with, "I've got it," and then surrendered the iPhone to my friend. Later, my friend proudly proclaimed, "I'm Batman!"

Here's another one. I recently was involved in an auto accident. A lady at a train crossing saw the crossing lights start to flash, and she braked abruptly, perhaps two to three car lengths ahead of the stopping line where you would expect stopping cars to line up. I jammed on my brakes in response, and was able to stop without hitting her. The young man following us was not able to stop and rear-ended my vehicle. The damage was mild and no one was hurt. We exchanged insurance information and I took several pictures of the scene, including a photo of the rear of the other vehicle. I did that to get the license plate, but it turns out it was a good idea because it shows no damage to the other vehicle's rear.

We then cleared the traffic pattern. The other driver seemed very nice and I didn't expect any problems. After filing a report with the other driver's insurance company, I found he lied about the incident, saying there was a third car involved that hit him from behind and pushed him into me. The insurance company stood by him because there was no other witness, even with my picture showing there was no impact damage to his vehicle. So to repair my vehicle I must now pay my deductible and my insurance company will pay the remainder. If the other guy had told the truth, everything would be covered by his insurance. What a pain in the ass.

The evidence I have should help my insurance company go after the other guy's insurance company and recover the costs, but why should they have to? Gee, you know what would have been really awesome here? A bit of footage from a traffic camera showing what happened. Oh, but that would have been more of the evil surveillance wouldn't it?

These are just simple personal anecdotes. You can find many stories of how traffic cameras and store cameras have helped uncover the truth about an incident where someone is lying. And when a criminal is caught, the people screaming for freedom from surveillance don't then go scream about the criminal being wronged, do they?

I sure hope they don't, because it means they do understand the challenge of navigating the line between freedom and security. They're quick to quote Benjamin Franklin, when Franklin said that a society willing to give up freedom for temporary security deserves neither freedom or security. But Mr. Franklin said that a LONG time ago and times have changed, people haven't. And old wily Ben Franklin was pretty smart...look carefully at the quote. He notes it is "temporary security" that a compromise of freedom gives, a fact that many drop from the quote when referring to it. So what would the price of more lasting security be?

Ask yourself this: at what point does a lack of security begin to infringe on freedom? If you cannot navigate in a society without your every step being compromised by the dishonest, how free are you? Where do you find fertile ground for enterprise? For family? The point I'm getting at here is that the people demanding total freedom incorrectly assume that freedom and security are mutually exclusive. Freedom and security are indeed strange partners, sometimes at odds but also sometimes allies. And when there's an altercation between them, how do we resolve it? Usually, we depend on that most neutral of third parties: the truth.

I'm not talking in absolutes; wisdom has taught me that a position of an absolute is usually wrong. And I remember my literature too, and would prefer not to be Winston Smith, screwing my girlfriend in a field while filmed by cameras in wheat stalks. But the world is an imperfect place, and in the battle to make it a better and more just one, the truth has a place.

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