Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Watchmen

It is, I believe, fashionable to worry about the surveillance state in the United States. As it becomes more and more evident that privacy is undergoing erosion on several fronts (not all of them state actors, to be sure) there are calls to beef up protections for the ability of Americans to do things without being observed, and potentially, called to account for them later.

I am of the opinion that this is, to a certain degree, part of people's search for significance. For the most part, people don't care about what random other people do or say. I'm not aware of very many blackmail attempts that have originated in some random contractor writing down what was said in a recorded snippet of conversation with Siri. Not that most people lack things that they legitimately understand to be worth hiding. But the chances of someone in Eastern Europe coming to see their ticket to wealth being the random chitchat of some Bellevue housewife seem to be somewhere between fat and slim.

Likewise, it's entirely possible that street-safety applications could lead to people "being unfairly tried and convicted in the court of public opinion." Although I would point out that given that the court of public opinion offers no protections against double-jeopardy or self incrimination, has abysmal standards of evidence and fails to guarantee any right to either confront accusers or see the evidence of guilt, describing any proceeding in that particular venue as "fair" stretches the (admittedly subjective) word to its breaking point. But the real problem with the court of public opinion isn't really that much different then the problem a person may have with the formal criminal-justice systems of the local, state and federal level: there are simply too many rules; just in general and that people disagree about.

In the piece from The Atlantic, the author notes: "In San Francisco, license-plate information collected by law enforcement and private operations was stored in a database that Immigration and Customs Enforcement gained access to; privacy and immigration advocates warned that ICE could easily use it to target undocumented immigrants. What if that car blocking the bike lane belongs to someone whose immigration status is uncertain, and their license plate information—and location—is used to speed their deportation?" On the one hand, I get it; The Atlantic is more or less left-leaning, and that means something of an unstated opposition to the idea that current immigration laws should be followed. On the other hand, "undocumented" immigrants are in the country illegally; "undocumented" is simply a euphemism for that status, given the general dislike that activists have for the term "illegal immigrant." And the determination that allowing license-plate information to be accessible to a specific law-enforcement agency is bad springs from this anarchist idea. And a certain amount of irony, given the fact that the article sees the impetus for street-safety applications this way:

In other words, government inaction, not the technology itself, has conscripted this militia into surveilling its fellow citizens through doorbells and smartphones. And government action can quell this need.
Why should "government" be more concerned with whether cars are blocking bicycle lanes than it is with the enforcement of any other of its myriad laws?

In the piece, co-developer of "How's My Driving/OurStreets," Mark Sussman notes: “If you ask any parking-enforcement agency, they’re going to say we don’t have enough resources to [issue the fines], and this is a way to maximize the resources that they do have. All of a sudden, if you have a lot more eyes on the streets that are tagging vehicles that are doing dangerous things, you have a lot more reach across the city.”

And it's this sentiment that often goes unstated in debates about the state of surveillance (and potential surveillance) in the United States today; there are, put simply, far more rules than there are resources to enforce them to most arbitrary levels of satisfaction, and that people want the rules that are important to them enforced. This means that as there are more and more rules, there is a greater and greater drive for technology to allow for efficient enforcement. But there is little will to work for rolling back rules. Sometimes, this is because of process problems. Doing away with immigration rules that advocates for poor immigrants find burdensome would generally take an act of Congress. Despairing of that, people push for a sort of anarchic response, seeking to hobble enforcement efforts. Court of Public Opinion offenses, on the other hand, are simply difficult to do anything with. Encouraging the nouveau riche to tolerate the noise of their less-affluent neighbors, or to see those of different backgrounds as other than potential threats is going to be a long slog. It's understandable why people might want to simply strip them of the tools needed to enforce their will on others.

The apparatus of enforcement, whether that be criminal, civil or informal, will continue to grow until it encompasses the level of effectiveness that some critical mass of people want. Demanding that those people remain unsatisfied doesn't strike me as a winning strategy.

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