13 March 2006

Big Brother Is Watching: And Your Problem Is...?

I've always had a general sympathy with civil libertarians, but either they've changed or I have, because the more I hear or see of them these days, the more I come to think that they have some sort of vested interest in - well, not exactly helping criminals and terrorists elude capture, but at least in giving them a fighting chance to do so.

This Guardian article describes how police are using the information encoded in Oyster cards (the semi-hi-tech computerized tickets we use on London public transportation) to track the movements of suspected criminals, and notes how this technique helped catch a teenage murderer who was using the Oyster card of his victim.

Basically, anyone with access to your Oyster card data can tell where and when you have traveled, what Underground stations you entered or exited, what buses you rode. And predictably enough:
Some civil liberties campaigners are opposed to systems such as Oyster, which is used by more than 5 million people, fearing the growth of a "Big Brother" surveillance society.
I'm tempted to ask what exactly is the problem with London Transport and/or the police knowing this information, especially if it helps catch dangerous criminals (the two kids who murdered the lawyer mentioned in the article had only moments before robbed another man at knifepoint, and apparently made a habit of such activities).

Of course I know too well what the problem is, because when I was at my most adamant about supporting civil liberties and restricting the powers of the police, it was - whether I admitted it or not - because I had quite a bit to hide. When I was running around dealing drugs and plotting to overthrow the government - hey, it was the 60s and the 70s; I just wanted to be down with the zeitgeist - I had very strong feelings about not wanting the police to know where I had been and where I might be going. Strangely enough, now that my illegal activities are confined to an occasional spate of jaywalking, I really couldn't care less if the police have a map on their station house wall detailing every journey I've taken for the past year.

This of course is the argument of many "good" citizens: if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear, and it's simplistic enough that I'm wary of embracing it too closely. Besides, while it makes sense on the surface, it doesn't take into account the possibility that the government or the police might not always be as fair or benign as we might wish in the use of their information.

So while I still don't feel the need to keep my own personal movements cloaked in secrecy, I'm not so ready to insist that everyone should have to adhere to the same standards of privacy (or lack thereof) that I'm willing to. That being said, under our present, relatively liberal system, who really needs to keep their movements secret unless they're running some sort of scam, whether it's straight-out criminal activity, or something as simple as lying to friends or family about what they're up to?

I suppose the best argument would come from those engaged in political activity and convinced that the government is out to get them as a result. And in light of some of the paranoid excesses that have come about in the wake of 9/11 - sandal-wearing old lefties being detained at airports because they once wrote a passionate letter to the article in favor of the Green Party or somesuch - they might have a case. But most police activity that I've seen around "seditious" groups and individuals has been directed either at potential Islamic terrorists or at the anti-globalization, black bloc types who stage demonstrations with the specific intent of smashing things, fighting the police, and in general trying to turn protest marches into riots.

No, I'm not suggesting that all Islamists are terrorists or that all anti-globalization marchers are violent anarchists; in fact only a tiny percentage of them are. But as I've noted before: if you accept a few psychos or thugs into your broad coalition, then you're choosing to accept and enable their behavior, and don't have much right to complain if the police trample over you and/or your rights on their way to get the criminals who genuinely need getting.

Anyway, it's all a pretty moot issue. Technology is not only not going to go away; it's going to continue to make secrecy and privacy more and more obsolete. Or, looked at another way, it's going to return society to the way it was through most of history: where people lived in smaller communities and everyone pretty much knew everyone's business. That may sound claustrophobic to some, but it's also the kind of societies that existed when basic democratic principles and the documents upholding them - from the Magna Carta to the US Constitution - were being created.


drydock said...

Maybe Martin Luther King should have been a little more cooperative with the FBI--- I mean the government was only trying to protect him.

Wesley said...

Yeah, and just think what they would have done with Rosa Parks' Oystercard records!

Oh, wait...

jenna alive said...

As someone who has, by nature, a very color-within-the-lines type personality, this kind of thing doesn't bother me, because I'm not doing anything wrong.

It probably should bother me, but it's just really low on my list of "things to get riled up about," right below Franco American changing their canned gravy recipes and selling out to Campbell's.

Anonymous said...

1. The fantastic advances in the field of electronic communication constitute a greater danger to the privacy of the individual.

2. It would indeed be ironic if, in the name of national defense, we would sanction the subversion of one of those liberties...which make the defense of our nation worthwhile.

3. Life and liberty can be as much endangered from illegal methods used to convict those thought to be criminals as from the actual criminals themselves.

Earl Warren.