Published August 11, 2010
Today, we take it for granted that we're being constantly watchedGregg Sapp, Contributing writer
I had to slap myself to check my grasp on reality, but even upon second thought, I had to admit that I was actually agreeing with Tim Eyman about something. The issue was his sponsorship of an initiative allowing the citizens of Mukilteo to vote on whether to place red light cameras and automatic ticketing systems in their city. I’m pleased that a Snohomish County Superior Court ruled that, come November, the citizens of that city will have their say. It’s a right we should have in Olympia, too. Given Eyman’s anti-tax-for-any-reason crusade, I gather that central to his argument is that the revenue generated by such enforcement constitutes a kind of tax. I think he’s right. Clearly, for all of the pious, official rationalizations about enhancing public safety, there is a winking admission that, in the fiscal bottom line, this is free money for any city’s coffers. It’s like fishing in a stocked lake, and none squirm off the hook. That’s not what bothers me most, though. Frankly, I’m upset that it is a right-wing gadfly championing the rights of citizens to vote on whether to accept technological monitoring of their daily movements, when it should be the American Civil Liberties Union. I’m astonished at how passively people shrug off the loss of privacy as just part of living in today’s world. In his 1998 book, “The Transparent Society,” David Brin wrote on how surveillance technology, combined with massively connected networks, would invariably lead to a social order in which the concepts of privacy and freedom will need to be redefined, based upon how much real and potential oversight of our daily lives we are willing to tolerate. And that was before 9/11. It is only now coming to light just how extensive and unregulated covert surveillance was (some of which was subcontracted), and how many innocent people were implicated. Who knows, really, whose cell phone calls were reviewed, whose credit card transactions were analyzed, and whose photos were taken, where and with whom, by hidden security cameras? OK, maybe it is an overstatement to link red light cameras to post 9/11 civil rights abuses, but an unyielding eye-in-the-sky is still a downright Orwellian concept. The trend is toward increased reconnaissance of all of our affairs. Today, we just take it for granted that we’re being constantly watched, in ways and by people that we don’t know. I think that it won’t be long before employers begin using video cameras to supervise us in the workplace (if they aren’t already). At some public places, I can accept an argument for the prudent deployment of cameras, like in airline security lines or in front of ATM machines. But, minimally, I think that people have a right to know that cameras are being used, and in cases when they are watching us in open and free public places, we should have a right to contest those laws or policies that permit their use. To many, red light cameras are just one (and perhaps a small) aspect of living in a transparent society. To them, though, I’d argue that it is also a matter of simple fairness. I ask you: if somebody driving late at night runs a red light on a totally empty highway, has that person committed a traffic violation? Technology can’t consider context. No camera should issue a ticket that a fair-minded police officer might overlook. Gregg Sapp (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer in Olympia. His first novel, “Dollarapalooza,” will be published in spring, 2011 by Switchgrass Books of Northern Illinois University Press.