Jack Zaleski, Published March 01 2014
Zaleski: This stuff would stun George Orwell
Hold on, you say. The book “1984” was about a totalitarian nation that was manipulating information, dividing the people with fear and creating false enemies to keep the population in line. Orwell’s sheep sacrificed privacy and freedom in order to feel safe. None of that is happening today, right?
It’s a creeping phenomenon; a change so stealthy we don’t notice it. It’s the small things, such as police cameras, allegedly placed to deter crime. It’s a new application for aerial drones, such as corralling a fleeing criminal, so we can all feel safe. It’s flying a drone with high-resolution optics to rescue someone caught in a flood, or to monitor crop progress in vast agricultural fields, or to do a wildlife census – all uses that are innovative, less expensive than other means, and generally benign.
But as history teaches, new technology, however benign initially, will be misused for sinister purposes. Spying/drone advances already have outrun laws and regulations. Proponents of drones, including researchers in North Dakota, have lobbied successfully against effective regulations, mouthing promises that the machines will not be misused. We hear similar platitudes from law enforcement and other government sectors, but as yet not much is stopping officialdom from flying a drone into any private space, even if only a squishy case can be made that the incursion is a necessary function of law enforcement or emergency services.
The record shows that if they have it, they will use it, justified or not. They have heavily armed SWAT teams in low-crime towns. What the hell for? They have armored vehicles for police work. What they hell for? “Protect and serve” is a far different ethic, a far different motivator, than a “war on crime.” And now police drones to do what? Check every fenced backyard for the possibility of criminal activity? Run down a pathetic small-time loser in a corn field? Do unrestricted nighttime sweeps of home gardens to see if anyone is growing marijuana?
The potential for misuse of spying technology, which will carry with it the erosion of basic privacy expectations, cannot be minimized. Adequate controls are not enough. They should be iron-clad. But they won’t be because we all want to be “safe.” The question: How much personal privacy, how much home inviolability, will we blithely give up for what, in effect, can only be a false sense of safety?
Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.