TCS Daily

The Trackable Society

By Arnold Kling - October 21, 2002 12:00 AM

"Do these slayings, or the war on terrorism, put these cameras in a different light? If technology is the only way to enforce a law, any law, is it wrong to use that technology because it's intrusive. Society will have to answer that question."
--Dana Blankenhorn

As David Brin predicted in The Transparent Society, the pressure is building for widespread surveillance. In 1999, Brin predicted that the combination of lower-cost snooping technology and increased threats from terrorism would lead to widespread use of cameras and databases.

Brin focused on the issue of how we can maintain freedom and autonomy in such an environment. His thesis is that the solution is not to try to keep government blind, deaf, and dumb by attempting to restrict its ability to use technology. Instead, Brin's solution is to make sure that ordinary civilians have enough access to surveillance technology and databases so that we can provide a check against abuse by corporations or government.

The Trackable Society

My guess is that the real revolution in law enforcement capability will come from digital radios, rather than from video cameras. Digital radios have the potential to be more pervasive and more applicable to law enforcement in the near term.
Here is what Pat Gelsinger, Intel's Chief Technology Officer, is predicting.

"Imagine being able to integrate all the features of wide-area, local-area, and personal-area networks into a single piece of silicon. What if we were able to add transmit and receive, intelligent roaming, network optimization, and permanent IP connectivity capabilities? And what if we were able to combine data, voice, and video services on that same piece of silicon? Pretty cool, right?

"Let's take it to the next level. If we can shrink this technology down to where it sits on the corner of a die, then we'll have radio on chip (RoC). Every processor will have integrated multiradio capabilities. The result will be ubiquitous radios that are always connected and seamlessly networked across offices, buildings, and even cities. "

Soon, we will have the ability to attach these chip-radios to children's clothing, pets' collars, cars, guns, explosive materials, etc. Combine these radios with Global Positioning Satellites and database technology, and you have the trackable society. In theory such a society would have better defenses against snipers, suicide bombers, and other menaces.

Bear with me, and assume that the trackable society in fact greatly increases the effectiveness of law enforcement. Also, assume that we manage to adopt an acceptable system of checks and balances that keep the systems from being abused. Those are important issues that are far from resolved. However, I want to leave aside the issues of privacy and power, as important as they are in the context of surveillance technology. Instead, I want to talk about the way in which better enforcement technology would disturb the legal equilibrium - an equilibrium which I suggest depends a great deal on the fact that many of our laws can be broken with impunity.

Legal Oxymorons

In fact, I would argue that many laws are the legal equivalent of oxymorons - legamorons, if you will. A legamoron is any law that could not stand up under widespread enforcement. Laws against marijuana use are a prime example. Rigorous enforcement of these laws on middle-class college campuses would cause a furor.

There are many other legamorons, where we have become accustomed to low levels of enforcement.

  • immigration laws
  • laws against sexual harassment
  • laws against betting on sports
  • speed limits
  • software licenses
  • laws against music sharing
  • laws requiring people to pay social security taxes for household workers

In fact, the entire tax system could be viewed as a legamoron. Congress deliberately underfunds the computer systems and audit department of the IRS. Otherwise, if households and businesses had to get everything on their returns exactly right, the cost of tax compliance probably would eat up the entire Gross Domestic Product, and there would be nothing left to tax.

Better enforcement technology, as in the trackable society, would cause us to rethink our legamorons. For example, the vast majority of drivers get away with speeding much of the time. What would happen if it became possible to detect all of these speeding violations?

In theory, perfect enforcement of speed limits would cause everyone to obey the speed limit. But that would be such a radical development that I doubt that it is desirable. If speeding is widespread, it is very likely that it is efficient from both the individual and social perspective. In fact, we probably want the vast majority of speeding violations to be overlooked.

If we introduced perfect speed-detection technology, then my guess is that we would have to rewrite the traffic laws to say what we really mean. What we really want is for people to drive in a way that does not cause undue risk to other drivers. This is much harder to codify than a speed limit, but if laws are going to be enforced strictly, then they have to be written more carefully.

Is Technology the Culprit?

Many people see the problems with strict enforcement as an argument against technology. For example Jon Udell reports on a conversation that included Eric Norlin and David Weinberger.

The subject of gays in the military came up. Somebody asked whether, in the transparent world of the NSA where "don't ask, don't tell" is irrelevant, gay employees are not tolerated.

Eric: "There were guys who were gay. But they were good, so people looked the other way."

David: "That's the problem with [Digital Rights Management]. Computers are too stupid to look the other way."

What Weinberger is saying is that casual enforcement helps bail society out of its legamorons. But that strikes me as an odd argument.

I am willing to grant that there are many laws for which better enforcement would lead to a worse outcome. However, I find it difficult to believe that putting a cramp on enforcement capability is the optimum solution. Surely, it would be better to abolish the legamorons and instead write laws that we could enforce to society's benefit rather than its detriment.

There may be valid reasons for not trying to use our most advanced technology to prevent and detect sniper attacks, terrorist attacks, and other threats. However, the possibility that advanced technology might make it harder to sustain an equilibrium of bad laws, selectively enforced, strikes me as a poor rationale to make technology the culprit.



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