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Friday, October 24, 2008

Re: Michael Coren and the surveillance society

As a follow up to Lindy's post about Michael Coren's support of CCTV cameras in cities, consider this parable David Brin uses in his book "The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?"

(Yes, yes, I know: this solidifies Kathy Shaidle's impression that libertarians read too much dystopian sci-fi, but bear with me. At least Brin has a PhD in the hard sciences. He's also an incredibly sensible libertarian; see his 2002 speech to the Libertarian Party convention, especially the bit on pragmatism.)

Here is Brin's Tale of Two Cities:

Consider City 1. In this city, there are cameras everywhere, and the feed goes right to police headquarters.

In City 2, there are cameras everywhere, but any citizen can view any camera at any time, including the cameras at police headquarters.

Brin supposes that in each society there is a marked absence of street crime. In City 1, the police use state-of-the-art image recognition software that allows them to efficiently scan for potential criminal activity.

In City 2, the police may still use that kind of software. At the same time:

Each and every citizen of this metropolis can lift his or her wristwatch/TV and call up images from any camera in town.

Here a late-evening stroller checks to make sure no one lurks beyond the corner she is about to turn.

Over there a tardy young man dials to see if his dinner date still waits for him by a city fountain.

A block away, an anxious parent scans the area and finds which way her child wandered off.

Over by the mall, a teenage shoplifter is taken into custody gingerly, with minute attention to ritual and rights, because the arresting officer knows the entire process is being scrutinized by untold numbers who watch intently, lest her neutral professionalism lapse.

Because the police know their own activities may be under surveillance, they are reluctant to abuse the camera system: "Any citizen may tune in on bookings, arraignments, and especially the camera control room itself, making sure that the agents on duty look out for violent crime, and only crime."

Both societies may be inferior to a camera-free society, but Brin's point is that City 2 is almost certainly preferable to City 1. And, he argues, a camera-free society may no longer be a feasible possibility. The question isn't about whether Toronto, Winnipeg, etc. will have cameras, but who will control those cameras?

His answer is that it is better -- for our freedoms, anyway -- if everyone can control the cameras, at any time. This is the choice we moderns face between privacy and freedom.

Shaidle is right, I think, to suggest that what bothers libertarians about the surveillance society is the very presence of the cameras. We don't like being spied on. But one reason we don't like being spied on by the law is because we think the law is often wrong. To the extent that the law is wrong, it's a good thing that it is also inefficient.

Cameras have the potential to increase the efficiency of law enforcement, without ensuring that the law will become more just. That's a problem for libertarians, not merely a symptom of their "virtually cryogenic state of adolescence."

At least in City 2, society gets the benefit of cameras, but also some additional assurance that the cameras will be used for good and not evil.

Posted by Terrence Watson on October 24, 2008 | Permalink


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Tracked on 2008-10-24 12:21:21 PM


It's possible to read too much dystopic scifi?

Posted by: Janet | 2008-10-24 11:32:15 AM


I'm not sure.

Maybe someone should write a science fiction story about a future society in which everyone commits suicide because they fear the coming of Big Brother/Brave New World/Neuromancer-style hyper-capitalism/nuclear holocaust/overpopulation/a cyborg uprising/etc.

Only those who read nothing but Danielle Steele live to tell the tale.

P.S. My favorite dystopia is actually Brave New World, because it's actually hard to make a case that it _is_ a dystopia.

I never thought the hyper-capitalist world of Neuromancer was really that bad.


Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-10-24 11:46:05 AM

Take a look at Brave New "War"...
It punches real holes in the idea that government can give us any kind of security whatsoever.
Its written by an ex US Intel officer who (seemingly) knows the ropes. Certainly it will give us all some new thoughts.

Posted by: JC | 2008-10-24 6:27:02 PM

Government Surveillance Threatens Your Freedom, Even If You Have Nothing To Hide
By John Dean, FindLaw.com. Posted October 20, 2007.


"I've got nothing to hide, so electronic surveillance doesn't bother me. To the contrary, I'm delighted that the Bush Administration is monitoring calls and electronic traffic on a massive scale, because catching terrorists is far more important that worrying about the government's listening to my phone calls, or reading my emails." So the argument goes. It is a powerful one that has seduced too many people.
Millions of Americans buy this logic, and in accepting it, believe they are doing the right thing for themselves, their family, and their friends, neighbors, community and country. They are sadly wrong. If you accept this argument, you have been badly fooled.
This contention is being bantered about once again, so there is no better time than the present to set thinking people straight. Bush and Cheney want to make permanent unchecked Executive powers to electronically eavesdrop on anyone whom any president feels to be of interest. In August, before the summer recess, Congress enacted the Protect America Act, which provided only temporary approval for the expanding Executive powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). These temporary powers expire in February 2008, so Congress is once again addressing the subject.

Click link above to continue reading.

Posted by: JC | 2008-10-24 8:34:54 PM


Reverse the argument. It's OK for the Brits to surveille all. So why shouldn't the Bush administrations do the same.

And Canada. What? A camera pointed at the 401 and DVP. Boring!

I'd much rather know what's happening in the radical mosques/NDP headquarters.

Posted by: h2o273kk9 | 2008-10-24 8:47:39 PM

Reverse the argument. It's OK for the Brits to surveille all. So why shouldn't the Bush administrations do the same.
Posted by: h2o273kk9 | 24-Oct-08 8:47:39 PM

Disagree h2...
Its not ok, not in England, or the US and especially not where I live here in Canada. In the city where I live there are cameras on almost every street corner. And that's just not necessary at all.
Did you happen to click the link and read the article?
It makes its point very well.

Posted by: JC | 2008-10-24 10:18:47 PM

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