Monday, August 02, 2010

On meddling detectors.

IT ALWAYS STARTS WITH SOMETHING BIG, something on which "all reasonable people can agree."

In this case, one might say it started with airport metal detectors
first implemented in response to a spate of aircraft hijackings in the early 1970s. We couldn't have wackos and political zealots carrying guns on planes, right? (Here's an interesting short piece about the history of airport security.) Over time metal detectors spread to other settings, like public buildings and particularly schools, where the justification was street gangs and the rising tide of urban thuggery. Post-9/11 came the Patriot Act, which allowed an unprecedented level of (warrant-less) federal eavesdropping in areas that had always been considered off-limits: emails, browsing preferences, church attendance (specifically, mosque attendance) and the like. After all, people were afraid to get on a plane. We felt violated and vulnerable. We were willing to forsake a certain amount (in truth, a pretty large amount) of privacy in order to regain some of the peace of mind we'd lost at Ground Zero and the Pentagon and on that bucolic stretch of land in Western Pennsylvania. For similar reasons, security cameras began popping up in major downtowns across the nation, silently/passively chronicling all activity morning, noon and night.

When the economy faltered and then collapsed, cities large and small began losing a goodly chunk of their tax base and needed a reliable means of generating compensatory revenue. Hey, some municipal Einstein reasoned, why not put up red-light cameras that snap photos of all the motorists who barrel
through intersections? This seemed like a swell idea, especially since some of those very cities had been forced to cut back on law-enforcement man-hours. Indeed, the cameras could bust a far greater number of lawbreaking motorists than even the most energetic, overzealous traffic cop!

Now I read in my local paper that my governor, Ed Rendell, is considering deploying a new set of cameras that will photograph all vehicular license plates, then feed the yield into computers that compare the info gleaned from the plates with insurance data maintained in state files. Anyone suspected of driving sans insurance will be fined in absentia.

Maybe you're thinking, Big deal. If you have insurance, all you need to do is produce the proof. So who's hurt?

I have some follow-up questions:

1. Have you ever tried to correct a bureaucratic snafu? Have you ever done battle with a stubborn computer that refuses to listen to reason?

2. Is that really the point here? What happened to due process, the presumption of innocence, and the simple Constitutional right to be free of unreasonable search, seizure and harassment?

Folks, we may know where all this started, at least for the purposes of this post
i.e. the airport metal detectorsbut we have no real clue where it ends. How long before every single aspect of daily living is photographed, tape-recorded or otherwise surveilled and scrutinized in some high-tech fashion (and that whole process is justified based on some overriding "imperative")?

This stuff is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. And we have to take a stand on it.


mp said...

"Maybe you're thinking, Big deal. If you have insurance, all you need to do is produce the proof. So who's hurt?"

I really really hope no one is thinking that.
(But of course some one is thinking that, or we wouldn't be where we are.)

Couldn't agree more with the last line, Steve. Thanks for writing this post.

If anyone doesn't take question (1) seriously, here's a story for you.

Wandrin said...

So true. Where does it end.

Why isn't auto liability insurance added to the price of the fuel that is purchased -- a penny per gallon. If you drive, you have liability insurance because you put fuel in your tank. However, the insurance company lobbies will never let that happen.

Chad Hogg said...

For the record, I was once involved in a a collision while I did not have current proof of insurance in my car (but was properly insured). All I had to do was find said proof, take it to a district magistrate's office with a form given to me by the responding officer, and wait in line to show the clerk my documents. Obviously, that's not the same as trying to argue with a database that believes you are uninsured, but I still think a valid insurance card, combined perhaps with proof of payment, would make any claims to the contrary go away without much difficulty.

Anyway, I am generally opposed to expansion of surveillance, security theater, and the like, but can't get too excited about this. If the state wants to photograph me while I am driving, go for it.

The article says that the administration believes this could raise $30 million each year. According to Subsection 1786f of Chapter 17 of the PA Vehicle Code (, the fine for driving without insurance is $300. That means that either the administration believes there are 100,000 people are committing this summary offense in the state, or that some people could be caught more than once each year. Even if the first is true, will that remain so when it becomes known that it is nearly impossible to get away with it? I cannot see this producing nearly as much revenue as projected.

Steve Salerno said...

CH: Interesting analysis. If more people did that--looked at the available info, undertook a bit of firsthand research, then tried to reconcile the numbers (or arguments)--we'd be a lot less susceptible as a culture to political demagoguery than we (manifestly) are.

Wandrin: I'm not so sure I like the idea of simply tacking on a few cents to the price of gas. Such a "flat tax" approach ignores the fact that it's often the same drivers who are having (or causing) the accidents over and over again. Why should I, a generally safe driver (at least when there are no deer on the road), subsidize the reckless habits of the guy down the block?

But you're right. None of this will happen anyway so it's a moot point.

NormDPlume said...

One of the biggest headaches in my life came about after 9/11 when the former $9 airport Barny Fife-wannabees screeners became $50K a year + benefits federal "TSA agents". The power handed to those inept twirps made business flying a living hell (proper wingtips have thin, metal plates in their soles; collar stay are made of brass...). I was often hassled.

However, this did help me pull off my greatest corporate prank involving a despised VP nicknamed "Silent G" (his first name: Angus) who on his way to London. Anyway, a light dusting of nitrogen-rich fertilizer and maybe a drop or three of rubbing alcohol somehow picked up by the bottom of his carry-on bag had a conflict with the (very recently installed) chemical screening system at the airport. Silent G was know for his insulting, condescending ways and hatred for all things American. Silent G had his chain yanked in a truly epic fashion. He was still in town the following Monday. And the cubicles were filled with a new found belief in karmic justice.

Anonymous said...

Take a look at this, it will curl your hair.

These are techniques being used to catch cheaters but what stops anyone from using them on anyone? GPS devices to track someone's every move, how is that right??

Anonymous said...

Well speed cameras are excellent focal points for rage against the system, at least that seems to be what alot of people think.

Anonymous said...

In fact, google Captain Gatso for an idea of where this policy generally leads Steve.

Anonymous said...

And finally a nice gallery which shows that many people have the same sort of attitude to speed cameras that the French resistance had to the gestapo. See ya.

Steve Salerno said...

Apropos of the civil-disobedience thread that has emerged here: Some years ago I read, I believe in Car & Driver, a story about a guy who rigged up some sort of anti-radar-surveillance device that would exponentially magnify the signal from the police unit, bounce it back at the patrol car and cause the officer's radar gun to blow up in his face. I don't recall whether this device was simply described in theoretical terms or actually field-tested, but it was a perversely enjoyable read, to be sure. ;)

Anonymous said...

On the other hand these things may be useful like this guy thinks. Cheaper than cops and harder to bribe?