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Synthesis on Civil Liberties and Technology

Helmer, Robert J.

Comp. II



"Fear succeeds crime - it is its punishment."


Al Capone would be scared. Gotti wasn’t scared enough. Where should most Americans stand?

The nature of crime really doesn’t change. In his book, The Business of Crime, Robert Rice describes crime as a "...natural extension of the sort of behavior that is often considered perfectly respectable in legitimate business"(1). So long as a given substance is wanted, someone will be in the business of providing it. So long as a behavior is illegal, someone will have the desire to do it. Laws are a method of social control. Even in a republic, the law serves as a way of enforcing the will of one group over the wishes of another. Crimes may vary in degrees of severity, compare murder to speeding, but all criminals risk some sort of punishment. In a society such as America, the laws seem to grow like weeds until no man or woman can function from day to day without breaking a few. Americans must decide what limits on law enforcement are reasonable.

Consensus is almost always impossible in the realm of civil liberties. The law that man ‘A’ finds silly is deathly important to man ‘B’. Most drivers exceed the speed limit from time to time, and most feel like victims when they receive tickets. But for some reason, speed limits remain. For a long time, a man who came to a ‘rolling’ stop at a stop sign where he had good view of the intersection could hope for a ‘good will’ interpretation by a traffic cop. Short of him tearing out into moving traffic, he probably wouldn’t get a ticket. That time has past.

Several states, California in the lead, are now using automated surveillance at intersections. That same man who makes a rolling stop will get a ticket, regardless of the circumstances. Once a sensor is tripped, ‘robo-cop’ photographs the offender’s car from several angles; a few days later, the owner of that car will receive an order to appear in court. Now one city clerk can do the work of an entire force of traffic police.

Two years ago, several open air markets in London began using video surveillance to counter pick pockets and shop lifters. No major American store is complete without a series of black domes on the ceiling. ATMs have long grabbed photos of customers, now similar security devices are appearing on phone booths, vending machines and even post boxes. The message seems to be clear: vandals beware.

Indeed, most resistance to these new toys of tyranny is met with the question, "Well, what do you have to hide?". And, frightfully, these security devices seem to actually be effective. The teenage shoplifter should be concerned, and setting a Coke machine on fire is a less attractive dare, but serious criminals aren’t really affected. A serious criminal takes surveillance cameras into account while planning. These technologies are not infallible; although the percentage of gas stations with cameras has almost reached one hundred, the number of convenience store robberies has continued to increase. Clearly these devices often fail to even intimidate criminals.

The example of an automated traffic monitor illustrates the failings of a robo-cop world. In the tradition of binary mentality, these computers exist in a world consisting entirely of on and off; these systems take no account of details, conditions, or traffic situations. The instant a vehicle crosses into the crosswalk, the photos are snapped and the case is closed. The computer sees no difference between stopping a foot over the line and simply blowing through the stop light. That a system so flawed is admissible in court speaks poorly for the American judicial system; that so flawed a system seems acceptable to Americans is disappointing.

"I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpation’s."

President James Madison(1)

To paint vendors and shopkeepers as an underground movement towards fascism is excessive. Their motives are noble; they merely wish to protect their property as best they can. Even to see the government, state or federal, as a shadow force pushing to destroy American democracy is a bit extreme. The intentions of the vast majority of supporters are good, but as the saying goes, "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions". The greater threat is not the spontaneous birth of a totalitarian regime but a gradual evolution into a powerful and domineering central government.

"As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air - however slight - lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness."

Justice William O. Douglas

(Marx, 319)

Computer databases are not, in and of themselves, evil. They have many good purposes. A doctor today can easily review a patient’s medical history to avoid a potentially dangerous drug interaction. Consumers can quickly find the best rates for insurance, mortgages, and car rentals. Realtors can better serve their clients by searching for houses with a pre-set list of features. Unfortunately, these advantages face off against some significant dangers.

The danger manifests when two companies merge. All of the data in one computer, medical records for example, then becomes accessible to the other system, such as a credit report service. Then, in addition to traditional factors, a bank might consider a person’s health history; what bank wants to lend money to a man who has back problems that might prevent him from working. The next merger might bring a real estate database, or an employment firm’s network. In just two or three mergers a credit report might include health status, education, or even politics. Gene Stevens illustrates this point simply, "Even if no one were constantly listening or watching the individual, his activities could be recovered through computer access - from the note his third grade teacher put into his file about ‘homosexual tendencies’ to his past-due accounts with the credit bureau."(Stephens 302). As disturbing as commercial use of records is, the uses the government would find are more concerning.

"So efficient are the available instruments of slavery - fingerprints, lie detectors, brainwashing, gas chambers -that we shiver at the though of political change which might put these instruments in the hands of men of hate."

Berard M. Barucg(1)


Contrary to the hopes of many optimists, surveillance cameras, phone taps, and other developing technologies are sure to further empower the government against all citizens, not just criminals. While the ability to monitor civilians would increase the over all effectiveness of law enforcement, the ultimate threat to individual civil liberty outweighs any apparent advantage. Even someone with great respect for the law would be subject to government manipulation. A ‘know all, see all’ government would know this good citizen as well as a criminal, and agents of the government would be certain to use this information to blackmail or coerce.

No democracy can survive in the face of such tyranny. When all candidates, commentators, and journalists begin to truly fear the government, the democratic process is derailed. These dossiers will allow those currently in power to pick and choose candidates, and control the flow of discussion in newspapers and on television and radio. Perhaps the most terrifying possibility is that the overwhelming majority may still believe in the integrity of the electoral process; anyone making a ‘break’ and trying to reveal the truth would simply be labeled a nutcase.

Of course, the American government can surely be trusted with this power; it has always fully respected and followed the will of the Constitution and the people. The government has never performed radiation experiments on people without their knowledge, or locked Asian Americans up in concentration camps. The government would never attack one of its own ships in order to justify an undeclared war. The American people might even prefer the safety of sugar-coated fascism.

1.Quotations drawn from: The International Thesaurus of Quotations, 1987, Harper & Row

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