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Monday, November 17, 2008

Running Stop Lights

I was driving down I think it was Lakeline a few weeks ago, and noticed a camera pointing down at me at an intersection. I stopped a little past the line, listening to music and I suppose not doing my best driving. At any rate, I had some spell of worry after driving away, as if, somehow, the technology would record not my running the light, but my stopping past the line. After a while I recovered from my Orwellian paranoia; glad to say I haven't received a ticket from this camera yet.

Later I talked with a friend about the privacy issue, and in particular the issue of whether cameras should catch red light runners regardless of whether any human (police officer) witnessed the event. My friend took a reasonable position, saying in effect that, look, you've run the light or you haven't. Why require that a cop be present at every light? Why not use technology, if it works? After all, we don't have existential angst about police having well-calibrated radar guns to catch speeders. Who argues with this?

It was a reasonable point, I suppose. But, after puzzling about it for a while, I smelled a rat. My question was simple: suppose we had a technology that was even better than cameras, or radar guns. It represented the completion of all such technologies. It rode along with us, and, if you broke a law, it would simply record the infraction, and send the ticket. So, if you run a stop light, you get a ticket. If speeding, a ticket. If you happen to be risking more serious infractions by driving after having too many, you'll be apprehended later, sure as the sun rises, and will spend the night in jail. And on and on. The perfect completion--just the logical extension--of cameras at stop lights. Any one for this?

My friend recoiled at the suggestion. I asked why, and after some mumbling and fumbling, just declared that it wasn't right. Right.

What's interesting is how, seemingly, more security makes such good sense, to a point, and then suddenly it seems positively distopian. We're all for better security when it doesn't feel like the State sucks away our autonomy. But, as my thought experiment suggests, once we do feel this way, we recoil.

It's worth thinking about the distinction between the two cases. Just decent (not omniscient) technology like cameras at stoplights sounds great. But better and better technology, and suddently we're holed up in Montana with guns. So where does the issue really stand? I wonder. Flipping the coin, consider it this way. Why should we be allowed to break the law, ever, and get away with it, just for lack of technology? We still broke the law. Why, then, recoil when law enforcement just works better?

4 comments:

A. Larson said...

I don't think that logic and the formalized thought experiment are the correct tools here. The debate between personal liberty and public safety cannot be understood this way. We "human citizens" play a silly psychological game, and call it civilized life. Frankly, we want it all, and we can’t have it. The idea of a slippery slope is really just a good way to understand human nature. In other words, we just are the slippery slope. And most of the time, we make up the rules after we make up our (illogical) minds (don’t take my word for it, ask Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.)
Here’s how I cast the same debate: Technology as an extension of “being caught in the act by some other human” seems like dirty pool. Meaning that we all want to get away with as much as we possibly can! The human element (our need to be social and our predisposition to define ourselves as members of a larger community or social group) is largely responsible for our ethical and legal constructions. Speeding is only bad if we get caught doing it by some other member of the same group, or if, worst case scenario, our speeding costs ourselves or other members of our social group something important (accidents!)
The camera blows up the system. It is not a person, but it has the authority to “catch us” doing things that only matter relative to other people. It’s not logic, it’s human nature. Haven't we all witnessed some serious driving infraction and wished desperately that there were a cop around to see it? No one ever wished that there were a camera there.

mijopo said...

I think the problem is with surreptitious observation. We have a reasonable right to privacy and to expect that the government isn't directly observing what we're doing unless we're aware of their doing so, or unless they've accumulated reasonable evidence that we may be committing crimes. Stop light cameras violate this expectation, as do tickets from unmarked police cars in my opinion.

Erik said...

Yeah, I guess both comments stop the slippery technology slope by insisting that a human be in the loop. But still, if we all knew that cameras were perched at all stop lights, we'd eliminate the surreptitious expectation. So too my Orwellian box that rides with us, doling at tickets for infractions like a Pez dispenser. If we all knew it was there, would the privacy problem really go away?

Finally, an a.larson's point, I'm trying to get at a normative not descriptive anaysis of privacy with regard to law enforcement. Perhaps it's true (as I supect it is) that we cry foul if not a human in the loop, but this begs the question of why humans need be in the loop; laws are still laws, and infractions still well-defined in spite of the absence of humans.

The more I think about this issue the more I think it's just really troubling, and hard to unravel with classic philosophical analysis.

Any one recommend a book or article?

mijopo said...

Yes, you're right, the privacy issue isn't simply one of surreptitious observation -- it seems to also have something to do with frequency/amount of observation. If a cop blatantly trailed me all day, it's the constant attention as much as anything that constitutes my loss of privacy. Why is privacy in itself, a good thing? I'm not completely sure, but it does seem to be something that has inherent value to us.