Saturday, June 12, 2004

The perfectly-legal, all-seeing eye

"We're at war," [Dennis R. Schrader, director of homeland security for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.,] said.

This blanket justification for building a regional, closed-circuit, video surveillance system in Baltimore raised my blogging brow, but it was Schrader's flawed logic that pushed me over the edge:
Cameras will only observe and record that which a police officer or private citizen could legally see.

Each camera will only observe and record what could be legally seen! The aggregate of every camera's observation is something that no one could physically see, and it is such a limitation that is taken into account when laws are written. Remove this limitation, and we can no longer talk about what is legal or illegal until the effected laws have been revisited.

This is one of the few things that's scarier than the huge databases of information being compiled these days: decision-makers who are oblivious to the power of data. (What else is scarier? Corporations owning these databases, but that's another entry.) What may seem innocuous to one person (e.g., seeing Joe walk out of some apartment complex), may be a critical piece in someone else's puzzle: the final correlation in a list of evidence that means Joe's screwin' around, or he's an alcoholic, or a homosexual, or suffering from Parkinson's disease... The list is endless, as is the list of what people could do with that information, including nothing. The point is, it's out of Joe's hands. His privacy is in jeopardy.


Mitch said...

What bothers me is not that someone might see Joe coming out of an apartment complex and thereby know that he is an untrust-worthy gay alcoholic with parkinsons. What troubles me is that I don't know who will be deciding that something Joe is doing is wrong nor who will be deciding to do something about it.

John said...

Retired cops and college kids, apparently. I agree with you, but it gets worse than that. Once the data is collected, we're not only relying on these people to act on it responsibly, we're also relying on them to manage it properly. Otherwise, it's available to anyone with the motivation and means to get it, and you can bet that they aren't all going to be acting in our best interest (regardless of whether the powers that be have judged us as good or bad).