Re: [AP] Automated video-scanning for criminal mugshots

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From: Matt Jensen (
Date: Thu Feb 01 2001 - 10:49:34 PST

On Wed, 31 Jan 2001, Rohit Khare wrote:

> Tampa Crowd Scanned for Suspects ...
> ``If these surveillance systems spread, there may be a considerable
> margin of error in determining the identity of people who get
> snagged. And that is a big price to pay for your civil rights.''
> [said Christine Borgman, UCLA.]

I hope Prof. Borgman was misquoted, because her quote makes no sense.

The bargain people make by acquiescing to this is not "take my civil
rights, and in exchange you can falsely arrest me." Rather, the deal
is "take my civil rights, and in exchange give me a sense of security."

So what she perhaps could have said instead is "And that [false arrest] is
a big price to pay for more security."

Any false arrests are a side effect of the main deal, and most such errors
will be corrected by you and your lawyer. That's not the major harm of
this. The major *practical* harm is a chilling effect, as people
subconsciously restrict their lives more.

But the difficulty in defending against government surveillance is that
people often frame the issue in terms of risks and benefits like that
above, and in that framework "more surveillance" usually wins.

(As in this Super Bowl case. If there's a 1 in 1,000 chance that a
terrorist might try an attack, and they might kill 50,000 people if
successful, that's a non-trivial risk. Isn't your discomfort at being
unobtrusively checked with the video mug shot checker a trivial complaint
in comparison?)

I think the best way to defend privacy, without resorting to complex
philosophy, is to simply say "Our society values privacy, like it values
free speech, freedom of religion, etc. We do not need to rationalize it
or quantify its value; it is one of our axioms."

One good way to do that is to pass a constitutional amendment enshrining
the right to privacy. Currently that right, in a legal sense, depends
only on some Supreme Court decisions, which could be reversed or scaled
back at any time.

-Matt Jensen

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