Wholesale Surveillance

I had an op-ed published in the Arizona Star today:

Technology is fundamentally changing the nature of surveillance. Years ago, surveillance meant trench-coated detectives following people down streets. It was laborious and expensive and was used only when there was reasonable suspicion of a crime. Modern surveillance is the policeman with a license-plate scanner, or even a remote license-plate scanner mounted on a traffic light and a policeman sitting at a computer in the station.

It's the same, but it's completely different. It's wholesale surveillance. And it disrupts the balance between the powers of the police and the rights of the people.

The news hook I used was this article, about the police testing a vehicle-mounted automatic license plate scanner. Unfortunately, I got the police department wrong. It's the Arizona State Police, not the Tucson Police.

Posted on January 11, 2007 at 1:00 PM • 34 Comments

Comments

AaronJanuary 11, 2007 1:47 PM

As much as I'd like to believe the people will get their rights back when this administration leaves office, if that happens it would be approximately the first time a government has ever given back rights taken away from its people.

TanukiJanuary 11, 2007 1:50 PM

To those of us who live in the UK [the most surveillance-happy state on the planet] numberplate scanners are nothing new; the UK police have been using them for several years, hooked up to the national vehicle-registrations database so they can pull out those vehicles which are untaxed/have false plates/questionable registration-details.

They're seemingly not so much interested in IDing cars which are implicated in crimes but are more interested in spotting cars that are evading our annual Vehicle Excise Duty (Car-tax).

Googling on 'ANPR' will tell you what you need.

bobJanuary 11, 2007 2:04 PM

@Aaron: the previous administration didnt give back the rights it took; why would you expect this one to? Reagan's was pretty much the only administration in my lifetime (starting with Eisenhower) that INCREASED the (acknowledgement of) rights of the individual (regardless of party affilitation).

David (Toronto)January 11, 2007 2:19 PM

Wan't income tax a temporary measure introduced during WW I? ...

And the GST (Canadian VAT) was supposed to be followed by a decrease in income taxes ...

The historical trend does not look encouraging.

Freedom-Or Not: You've Already Made Your ChoiceJanuary 11, 2007 2:22 PM

"Since my return here I cannot help noticing that the rank and file of Americans seem to be extremely well reconciled to the idea of an absolute state, for the most part on pragmatic or 'practical' grounds…"

It's amusing that leftist-liberals are horrified at the intrusion by the rightist-conservative State on the "privacy" rights of the individual, yet these same folks are willing, at the drop of a wallet, to champion the actions of that same State when the intrusion is on the "property" rights of the individual. As if freedom can be preserved by guarding it with your left hand, while giving it away with your right.

The confusion stems from the misunderstanding of the nature of liberty: by its nature, freedom is not something you can compartmentalize. If you're willing to surrender it in one area, it's naive to believe that State officials won't then come knocking to confiscate a portion of your freedom in another area. Freedom disappears bit by bit, piece by piece. Encouraging State encroachment of individual rights here (property), and declaring outrage there (privacy), is a game you won't win.

It's also naive to believe that more than 1% of the population will figure that out, before their freedom is completely usurped. The irony is, all anyone has to do is educate themselves: http://www.mises.org/story/2412

FlynnJanuary 11, 2007 2:34 PM

"if that happens it would be approximately the first time a government has ever given back rights taken away from its people."

Ummmm... the Emancipation Proclamation? The end of Prohibition (of alcohol, at least) Granting women the right to vote? The end of the draft? The end of the poll tax?

I'm pretty pessimistic about government, but c'mon, there's LOTS of examples. Although I admit that the first one in my list required a pretty big war. :-)

AnonymousJanuary 11, 2007 3:21 PM

@Flynn

"I'm pretty pessimistic about government, but c'mon, there's LOTS of examples. Although I admit that the first one in my list required a pretty big war. :-)"

And two federal Constitutional Amendments. Yeah, government officials relinquish power reeeeeeeally easily (are you picking up on my sarcasm? Cuz I'm laying it on pretty thick.)

D. B. CooperJanuary 11, 2007 3:31 PM

"Criminal penalties are severe in order to create a deterrent, because it is hard to catch wrongdoers."

My head is starting to hurt.

"As they become easier to catch, a realignment is necessary. When the police can automate the detection of a wrongdoing, perhaps there should no longer be any criminal penalty attached."

These are the most absurd things I’ve ever read.

markmJanuary 11, 2007 3:41 PM

"Wan't income tax a temporary measure introduced during WW I?" If you are talking about the USA, it was a temporary measure during the Civil War. (This was one time the government did give back most of the rights it took when the war ended - except for whites from the rebel states, that is.) An attempt was made to bring back the income tax as a permanent rather than temporary measure late in the 19th Century, but it was blocked by the Supreme Court, which now didn't have to worry about Lincoln's troops hauling them away if they took notice of blatant unconstitutionality...

So the "progressives" kept pushing and eventually the 16th Amendment made it through Congress, under Taft, and was ratified by the requisite number of states shortly before WWI started. (And there is some sort of argument about whether the ratification was valid.)

Originally, the tax rate was a few percent, the personal exemption was large enough that only about the top 1% of Americans had to fill out a tax return, and if owed, taxes were due in a lump sum the year after the income was earned. All that changed in WWII - the rates went sky high, exemptions and deductions shrank so most wage earners were taxed, and they introduced with-holding of the tax from each paycheck as you earned the income so they could collect two years taxes in one year! Is anyone surprised that that "temporary" measure was never reversed?

AndrewSJanuary 11, 2007 3:51 PM

"if that happens it would be approximately the first time a government has ever given back rights taken away from its people."

Add the Alien and Sedition act to the list of examples.

Privacy is PurpleJanuary 11, 2007 4:18 PM

@Freedom-Or Not:
"It's amusing that leftist-liberals are horrified at the intrusion by the rightist-conservative State on the "privacy" rights of the individual..."

Conservatives used to be concerned about personal (non-property) privacy as well. There's an interesting op-ed in Forbes (01/04/07) describing Gerald Ford's active but little remembered role in championing privacy.

http://www.forbes.com/opinions/2007/01/04/privacy-protection-ford-oped-cx_res_0105privacy.html

Acc'd to the article, Ford helped kill an effort called FEDNET that would have tied together a bunch of gov't databases, and ran for re-election on a platform that said: "We question the need for all these computers to be storing records of our lives. Safeguards must protect us against this information being misused or disclosed..."

The article is well worth a read for anyone who frequents this forum, IMHO.

But I admit that your overall point that liberals are generally less concerned about property rights is a true perception. But then there are also people like Bill Gates, Sr. who are not liberals and vocally favor maintaining the estate tax.
http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/technology/2003-01-12-gates_x.htm

Most liberals (myself included), who fear too much police power, also know that they rely on the police to protect the weak. The state must have power which is derived "of, by, and for" the people. It's a matter of balance.

AnonymousJanuary 11, 2007 4:32 PM

@Andrew

"Add the Alien and Sedition act to the list of examples."

No. None of these acts applied to citizens, except the Sedition Act. And it was Thomas Jefferson himself who released those imprisoned under that act. I doubt all of the post-Jefferson U.S. Presidents COMBINED revered freedom from State action as much as he.

AnonymousJanuary 11, 2007 4:41 PM

@D. B. Cooper "As they become easier to catch, a realignment is necessary."

That's exactly what has happened in the UK; certain traffic/parking offences used to have serious consequences on your driving licence. Now its so automated that you just get a fine with 50% discount for prompt payment if you don't fight it.

I drove for almost 30 years without getting a 'citation' - but I've had 3 in the last year, all from remote cameras. I could have appealed against them all, but I'm afraid to say it was not worth the effort to fight them or risk of the extra cost if I lost. Naturally none of my 'offences' inconvenienced any other road user nor has it made any noticeable difference to the quality of motoring that I witness.

GlennJanuary 11, 2007 4:59 PM

@Aaron:

"...it would be approximately the first time a government has ever given back rights taken away from its people."

In addition to Flynn's good examples, within my lifetime (and bob's) Congress restricted the government's right to spy on US citizens. That was triggered by actions the Nixon administration took.

Davi OttenheimerJanuary 11, 2007 5:05 PM

"Years ago, surveillance meant trench-coated detectives following people down streets. It was laborious and expensive and was used only when there was reasonable suspicion of a crime."

Interesting picture, but I'm not sure how expensive and tough it was for the secret police to use informants like students, professors and ultimately the archbishop of the Church in Poland.

http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/01/05/news/poland.php

"...the documents published by Rzeczpospolita and other newspapers suggest that Wielgus was recruited by the SB in 1967 when he was a philosophy student at a university in Lublin, in eastern Poland, more than a decade before he signed the cooperation agreement. It cited other documents in which the SB claimed that Wielgus gave them information about activities at the university, where he later worked as a professor of medieval philosophy."

RoyJanuary 11, 2007 5:15 PM

It is not always a policeman sitting at the console watching the surveillance watching the people. Increasingly, private contractors are taking over the work that used to be done only by government employees. (In the US military, contractors are a major force component and almost no one knows anything about them.)

I expect we will have private industry carve out huge territories in surveillance, making it retail, not wholesale.

PublicNoBetterThanPrivateJanuary 11, 2007 5:48 PM

@Roy

But bear in mind, reigning in the excesses of private enforcement agencies is much easier than doing to same to public enforcement agencies.

Whether done by private or public agencies, it's the legalization and enforcement of the erosion of your freedom that is the problem. You're no more free just because the court officer who seizes your property, or the police officer who insists on searching your car because he can, gets his paycheck from a state agency.

Jim LippardJanuary 11, 2007 6:28 PM

"Unfortunately, I got the police department wrong. It's the Arizona State Police, not the Tucson Police."

The Arizona State Police would be the campus cops at Arizona State University in Tempe. The state's police force is the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS)--they're called "DPS Officers."

CDJanuary 11, 2007 9:39 PM

@Freedom-Or Not

You've identified a manifestation of a much more fundamental disagreement between the "right" and "left". Let's assume your allocation between property and privacy is correct, and let's accept your labels of "left" and "right". The right believes that culture will shape society; as such, the government should take an active hand in shaping the culture (through expectations of self-reliance, say) while keeping its filthy paws off of individuals' property rights. The left counters with an equally obvious truism about the structure of property defining society, so individuals' freedom is derived not from their property, but by being unencumbered in their beliefs and in the voluntary associations and structures of their communities. Both believe that the other side of privacy/property will sort itself out, since it is contingent on what they believe requires regulation.

Consider the externalities of total freedom in either respect to see why it is threatening to either side. Absolute privacy shields the individual from cultural audit: the right claims the society will fall into hedonistic chaos because the culture's influence is blunted. Absolute property rights shield those with advantage from their obligations to the structure that "granted" them that privilege: the left claims society will fail because property will define individuals' roles and holders of capital will become a static oligarchy (if enforcement of property "rights" create an oligopsony).

On close inspection, both of these views are neither correct nor mutually exclusive. A careless reading of Hegel yields the view from the "right"; Marx's careless reading of Hegel yielded the oft-repeated view from the "left". The truth- while unsatisfying to righteous indignation- is that privacy/cultural rights and property rights define not only society, but each other.

So: yes, "freedom" cannot be "compartmentalized" (as you assert), but I don't think you're correct in the way you believe yourself to be. The monotonically decreasing set of rights you refer to is a poor metaphor, since particular rights are not defined as an enumeration. The US constitution is a surprisingly good example, despite literally being an enumeration: the particular rights it guarantees are through a broad revocation of the State's rights with a specific account of its limited privileges. The implications of these principles have been explored in law for over 200 years, but always in the context of the structure of capital (both social and monetary). Though Scalia has disagreed, layered interpretation defines the State's role in a society of laws, not static documents.

So your argument that a redefinition of rights ("giving away") inevitably causes them to be redefined in another is absolutely true, but viewing both as a revocation, a diminishment, or a product of naivete is not sound. A minor quibble in effect, perhaps, but a fairly major epistemological one.

Filias CupioJanuary 11, 2007 9:42 PM

" When the police can automate the detection of a wrongdoing, perhaps there should no longer be any criminal penalty attached."

'These are the most absurd things I’ve ever read.'

It does make sense. If I'm contemplating stealing $100, and I estimate I have a 10% chance of being caught, then the break-even fine is $1000 - I'll do it if the fine is less, but not if the fine is more (assuming rationality etc.)

In comparison, if I estimate the chance of being caught is 100%, then a $100 fine (taking back what I stole) is enough deterence.

It isn't the automation of crime detection which matters, it is the efficiency.

asdfJanuary 12, 2007 12:02 AM

@DB Cooper:

btw, interesting name to choose. :)

As for Bruce's statement: "Criminal penalties are severe in order to create a deterrent, because it is hard to catch wrongdoers. As they become easier to catch, a realignment is necessary. When the police can automate the detection of a wrongdoing, perhaps there should no longer be any criminal penalty attached."

I agree with Bruce 100%. I'm making this % up, but 99% of the population at one time or another breaks the law by speeding. Are we going to label every single person in the country a criminal? Give me a f---ing break.

Prohibition taught us that criminalizing something that everybody does only results in disdain and disrespect for the law. Organized crime and the mob were born during the Prohibition.

DanCJanuary 12, 2007 7:29 AM

We don't need a terror level alert system as much as we need an "impending loss of constitutional rights alert." Although they do appear to be directly proportional to one another.

D. B. CooperJanuary 12, 2007 10:39 AM

@asdf

In regards to your comment, "99% of the population at one time or another breaks the law by speeding. Are we going to label every single person in the country a criminal?"

Er, not everyone, 1% isn't doing it. Seriously, shouldn't the penalty for a crime be based upon the potential or actual harm perpetrated upon society? Euclid, there’s some logic lost here.

Freedom-Or NotJanuary 12, 2007 3:46 PM

@CD

"The monotonically decreasing set of rights you refer to is a poor metaphor, since particular rights are not defined as an enumeration."

Well, the fact that freedom disappears bit by bit doesn't mean that there's a particular set of enumerated rights that decrease monotonically. Nor does there have to be, for freedom to be eroded, piece by piece.

In most instances of encroachment of individual rights by State officials, the diminishment of freedom appears minor. If a bureaucrat declared, all at once, that 50% of one's property was to be handed over to the State, people wouldn't stand for it. But slowly increment the percentage from 0 to 50 over a period of years, and like a frog in a pot of heating water, we tolerate each degree of increased heat, until we're boiled.

Chip, chip away at privacy rights, and they'll disappear more surely than if they were yanked out from underneath us all at once, like a tablecloth at a magician's bar mitzvah.

(Maybe some bad similes will work better than the metaphors.)

GUy AvitalJanuary 12, 2007 9:44 PM

CCTV Camera and security DVR system technology is advancing at a blistering speed. So fast that by the time you purchase your new CCTV DVR, it’s probably already obsolete or out of date. A simple observation of home security and security camera will tell you security cameras are everywhere these days

WayneJanuary 15, 2007 12:51 AM

Oh, man! The ASU police? What a bunch of... Well, never mind. I don't think much of campus police, they should simply expand the city's police dept and put a dedicated station on the campus.

ANYWAY, back to the subject, as I understand it in Mexico they have something similar. I heard that they are bar-coding license plates so that they are both machine and people readable and that the cars they have driving down the street reading plates have greatly reduced trafficking in stolen vehicles.

Unfortunately I have no cites at hand to back that up. Regardless of a benefit provided, it would still be ripe for abuse.

TarkeelJanuary 15, 2007 5:51 AM

@David (Toronto)
For the UK; the income tax was implemented during the Napoleon wars, and to my knowledge is still to this date being reintroduced as a bill every year. It's the prime example of temporary bills becoming permanent fixtures.

derfJanuary 16, 2007 4:48 PM

I haven't even heard a whisper about a new Boston Tea Party and today's taxes take a rather large bite from everyone's wallet.

I doubt the TSA's shenanigans, wholesale surveillance, or even a full police state will do more than cause a couple of editorials to be ignored.

jeffJanuary 16, 2007 11:28 PM

Don’t forget how all this surveillance may be abused in the private sector. The story about monitoring cell phones brings to mind a story from my past. I used to have a friend who was a cable TV equipment installer.

He was at a retirement community in Arizona installing cable TV equipment. This was one of those places with houses and condo’s targeted to those looking for a final home. In the middle of it all was the sales center, where you went to get the pitch on the properties.

One day, he found himself in the sales center running cable TV connections to some of the conference rooms.

When you’re running cable in an existing building, you are always looking for nooks and crannies to snake the cable through. He reached a point where he needed to run a cable through a wall. On the wall there was a wall plate with a small round hole like the type used to run telephone cables. There was one on the other side of the wall as well, both looking like abandoned telephone connections.

Thinking this was a portal to run the cable through, he removed the wall plate expecting to find a path through the wall. Instead, he found an Altec microphone behind each plate.

This aroused his curiosity, so he looked into the microphone wiring. He found several more, all wired to a closet filled with P.A. equipment. The equipment was on a hinged mount that could be moved to reveal an audio mixer, tape recorders, and headsets hidden behind.

He figured it worked like this: A retiring couple goes to the place to look at properties. The salesman shows them around and brings them back to the sales center. He brings them to a conference room and says something like “I’ll leave you folks alone to talk about what you’ve seen��? and leaves the room. The salesman then eavesdrops on the conversation to figure out what he needs to say to complete the sale.

This all took place in 1975. My friend brought one of the microphones home to show me. Imagine what they must do today.


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