Big Brother and the Surveillance State

I recently got a mysterious, official-looking letter in the mail. I opened it up and it informed me that a couple of weeks ago, I was speeding. Apparently they have devices that use radar, photography, and/or lasers to automatically ticket speeders. *This time* it was a warning, since this was my first offense, but in the future they would simply mail me a ticket.

I know a lot of people freak out about red light cameras, but those never bothered me. After all, going through a red light is breaking the law, and it’s breaking the law whether there is an officer to see you or not. It is something you Should Not Do. If you do something you Should Not Do, how can you complain about getting caught by it, whether by man or robot?

On the other hand, this felt ENTIRELY DIFFERENT, but I can’t explain why (and no, not because it Happened To Me; I’ve *ahem* been on the receiving end of a red light ticket or two). Same argument applies, no? But for some reason this just really rubbed me the wrong way; some streets are now equipped with hidden monitoring equipment, which will slap you with a fine if you step out of line. I suddenly felt the oppressive hand of Big Brother on my shoulder.

Okay, but again, why did this feel different than red light cameras? I came up with a couple of possible explanations:

1) Speeding is not as cut and dried as running a red light. By and large, if you run a red light, you are in the wrong. Speeding is…more arbitrary. On many highways around Chicago, the speed limit is 55, and it would be *extremely unsafe* to travel at that speed. Traffic flows at 70. Try that in any small town in the Midwest and see if they feel 70 in a 55 is appropriate. The fact is, there is a “speed limit”, and there is a speed limit. Sometimes they match, sometimes they don’t.

2) As a corollary to #1, this means it is sometimes “okay” to speed and sometimes it is not. This means that we’ve ALL broken that law at some point. Legally speaking, speeding might be just as wrong as running a red light, but it doesn’t *feel* that way.

3) However, I think the biggest reason that this felt different is that, I don’t know if I committed this crime or not. I mean, I assume I did, and I’m sure they probably have some kind of photographic evidence that I did, but when I run a red light with a camera and I see that flash go off, I know they’ve got me dead to rights. I know immediately that I’ve done something wrong, I’ve been caught, and now I’ve got to pay. It’s the same feeling as seeing those flashing lights in your rear-view. That’s vastly different than receiving a notice weeks later that says, “Trust me, you’re a criminal. Take my word for it. We’re the cops, we wouldn’t lie to you.”

It’s the slippery slope argument. Suddenly, the onus is on me to somehow prove that I wasn’t speeding on some day I can’t recall, on some street I don’t even remember being on. Most people in that position will just say, “Eh, okay, I guess so,” and pay the fine. Maybe there was some reason I was speeding. Maybe there was a mistake. Maybe there was a glitch in the software. I don’t know, and I can’t know. Suddenly I’ve got to prove I’m innocent, instead of them proving that I’m guilty, and the deck is totally stacked against me.

Furthermore, it sets up a conflict of interest for the police. They now have a situation where they can assess more fines, at little or no cost to themselves, while also reducing their police force and thereby their payroll. There is no downside whatsoever to catching as many speeders as they possibly can, only upside. At least before there was an opportunity cost that they only had so many officers, so if they were catching speeders they weren’t solving murders. But now? Put a monitor on every street! And if they happen to catch one or two that were really innocent, well, who’s to know? Who’s to prove them wrong, or call them on it? Maybe they fudge some of the numbers, get a little extra cash in their pocket…

Is that how the justice system is supposed to work? Now the old, “Well, there’s nothing we can do, it’s in the computer system that way,” is a legitimate excuse for the cops too?

I know it’s somewhat ironic that someone who programs computers for a living would say, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t rely on these things *quite* so much.” On the other hand, I know how often they make mistakes. I see, every day, that no matter how hard you try, they’re pretty unreliable. For some things, sure: if my search for the name of the actor who was in some movie doesn’t work, we’ll all go on just fine. But law enforcement?

Color me very, very uneasy about this whole development.

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One thought on “Big Brother and the Surveillance State

  1. Pingback: The Scourge of Speed Cameras | Is this thing on?

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