How Much Watching from Big Brother Do We Want?

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From our American correspondent, Esteban:

I recently read an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution regarding the installation of speeding cameras in some Atlanta-area cities. If you’re not familiar with them, they’re similar to red light cameras – an autonomous radar-equipped camera that takes photos of speeding cars and their license plates, with a citation and fine sent in the mail where a violation is detected.

The author of the article was highly critical of this practice for a variety of reasons, most rather nebulous. His two main arguments were that the cities were really doing this for revenue reasons not public safety and that they don’t actually work to reduce speeding. His argument on behalf of the second point was logically bereft, which didn’t surprise me, I’ve read his work before. Regarding his first point, it’s certainly possible, and clearly likely that increased revenue is an enticement to cities. I was amused to find that there was finally a situation in which this AJC writer (who leans a bit to the left politically) wasn’t excited about a government body exerting more control over people’s behavior and collecting more revenue. FWIW he gave the game away early in the article that he has a lead foot and doesn’t want to slow down.

However, this topic brought to mind a bigger question regarding this type of technology. Imagine that we reach the point that we could inexpensively monitor the speed of every car on the road, would you be in favor of it? I know, self-driving cars will eliminate this particular question in time, but plenty of similar ones will come along in this brave new world. On the one hand I’m inclined to agree that if we can eliminate dangerous driving as opposed to just reduce it, shouldn’t we? I also know there are a lot of people who would oppose it, because like the author above they don’t want to drive at or below the posted limit which is often lower than necessary (i.e. in ideal conditions with no other cars nearby it’s often safe to go 20 MPH above the posted limit.)

Then there is the whole other can of worms – do we want government to have this much power, even if it will improve safety? It might not seem like a lot of power, they can post a cop alongside any road today and write tickets just like the cameras do, right? Yes, but they can’t police every inch of roadway, and they can’t track your comings and goings easily. Imagine if they decide for whatever reason to limit your driving to 100 miles per week or to lower the speed limit drastically, do you want them to be able to enforce it easily?

An interesting aspect of this broad debate over technology in government’s hands is that it often cuts across normal ideological lines. When Apple was resistant to help the FBI break into the encrypted phone of a now-dead terrorist, there were people on the political left and right on both sides:

· He was a terrorist who just murdered 14 people, screw his privacy rights. We need to know if he has allies waiting to commit another attack.

· The government has no right to force Apple to provide a back door into its products. How do we know the government won’t misuse this?

It’s already true that in most major cities you’re on a camera most of the time and if they have justification law enforcement can access this. In time it may be economically feasible for the government to have “eyes on” almost everywhere 24/7. There are obvious benefits to this ability, immediate and tangible. The potential downside is theoretical and distant, however large the imagined consequences may be. Given that, I wonder if it will be possible to prevent it, assuming we wish to do so?

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Phoenix44
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Phoenix44

The arguments about reducing speeding reducing accidents are very poor. The police say that speeding is “part” of many accidents, but that is sophistry. As we all know, lots of people speed lots of the time without having an accident. That makes it safe. You don’t determine how unsafe an activity is by excluding all those who do it safely from your analysis. Moreover, the siting of speed cameras – where there has been an above average number of accidents – is utterly stupid. Randomness always causes clumping, and accidents happen in random locations (unless there is a physical/geographical issue,… Read more »

Spike
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Spike

That’s right; high speed is not a mishap. It magnifies the severity of a mishap. Speed limits are a gigantic crackdown on the innocent.

And the American impeachment sideshow should be an illustration that, even in a government nominally controlled by the people, any power it has, it will abuse. President Jimmy Carter’s response to an energy shortage entirely caused by federal energy policy was to mandate individual curtailment: a crackdown on the innocent. Beware too, politicians insisting that “all we want is good data.”

Briny
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Briny

Autobahn anyone? You only get cited when you have an accident.