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Just a guy in a lawnchair with a pen and a notebook

Is the evolution of the Surveillance State more or less a naturally-occurring phenomenon, or is it an insidious encroachment being intentionally foisted on us as part of a long-range plan hatched by shadowy FederalGovCo malefactors? Is there any realistic way to slow, halt, or reverse its growth, or to do away with it altogether once it’s fully implemented? Interesting questions, and with every passing day, more urgent ones.

When you think about what our emerging surveillance state will look like, you think 1984. You imagine East Germany powered by Google and Amazon. You recall your favorite dystopian sci-fi film – or maybe horror stories of China’s social credit system. Thoughts of a frustrated middle-aged police chief from a mid-sized Midwestern town attempting to procure security cameras with innovative new features probably don’t come to mind. You definitely don’t think of a guy in a lawn chair jotting down the license plate numbers of passing vehicles in a notebook. And that’s partly how the surveillance state is going to emerge as it creeps its way into one small town at a time.

Whether a surveillance state is the end goal is hard to say. The police chief of Pawnee, Indiana probably isn’t plotting the development of his own mini-Oceania. But, 18,000-plus mini-Oceanias operating across multiple platforms with varying degrees of integration, both locally and nationally, is undoubtedly the direction in which we are heading as salespeople peddle shiny new surveillance gadgets to cities big and small, making often unverified but intuitively appealing claims of how their devices will decrease crime or prove to be useful investigative tools.

Automatic license plate readers, or ALPRs, can be used to log a person’s movements through the license plates of their vehicles. Given the exponential increase in their use over the past few years and the ease with which data from the cameras of some vendors are integrated, they also pose a threat to privacy on par with facial recognition and cell site simulators.

Often positioned on street lights, traffic lights, independent structures, or police vehicles, ALPRs are a type of camera that captures the license plate and other identifying information of passing vehicles before comparing the information in real time to “hot lists” of vehicles actively being sought by law enforcement and transmitting the information to a searchable database. ALPRs sold by some companies are even said to be able to assess a car’s driving patterns to determine whether the person behind the wheel is “driving like a criminal.” 

You have nothing to worry about, you’re told. The town down the road brought them in six months back. Chief Jones over there said they helped solve that murder from the news. And, by the way, they’re not really that much different from a concerned citizen just keeping an eye on things. 

At the town hall in Urbana, for example, then-police chief, Bryant Seraphin, worked to dismiss the notion that ALPRs actually pose a threat to privacy or even constitute a surveillance tool. 

Repeatedly, he emphasized that ALPRs do not capture any information about the person driving a car or automatically link to information about the person to whom a vehicle is registered. Their ubiquity in the area was accentuated. Supposed success stories were shared.

To allay any remaining notion that there might be something scary about ALPRs, Seraphin described them with a folksy metaphor: “One of the things that I’ve talked about with these things is that if you pictured somebody sitting in a lawn chair writing down every plate that went by, the date, and the time when they wrote ‘red Toyota ABC123’, and then they would make a phone call and check the databases and then hang up and then go on to the next one – that’s what [an ALPR] does automatically and it can do it over and over again…with incredible speed.”

Yet, when Anita Chan, the director of the University of Illinois Community Data Clinic, proceeded to raise concerns regarding “the potential violation of civil liberties” and how a license plate alone is sufficient for the police to not just find out “where you live and where you work but also…who potentially your friends are, what religious affiliation you might have, essentially where you get medical services…[and] suss out essentially who’s traveling and where,” Seraphin acknowledged all this is possible. However, he assured her with a frustrated chuckle, ALPRs simply provide a notebook that would only be referenced when investigating serious crimes.

By the same logic, facial recognition simply provides a notebook as well. As do cell site simulators. As do any surveillance device. Yet, there is a fundamental question of whether such a notebook should exist. Does the chief of police in Urbana or the sheriff in Pawnee need a notebook containing your approximate location three Thursdays ago at 8:15pm, as well as a record of who attended last week’s political rally, in order to solve a murder? Should he be allowed to keep such a notebook if it might help solve an extra murder in his town each year? If the answer is yes, then what are the limits to the tools he and his department should be afforded?

Furthermore, there is also something a little off about the disarming metaphor of a guy who spends his days sitting around in a lawn chair jotting down the license plate numbers of passing vehicles. Something a little insidious. Something that perhaps Anita Chan was picking up on.

Although they’re not mentioned in the article, it brings to mind the strident denunciations of smartphones, social media, and even the internet itself currently prevalent among many on Our Side of the political aisle, all of which devices are apparently tools of the Devil Himself: a spy in your pocket or on your desk, devouring your liberty and eliminating your personal privacy and security whether you foolish, unwitting Sheeples realize it or not.

This is an old, old debate, going back at least to the early days of television itself if not even farther. While I am certainly not one to dismiss legitimate concerns of broad Snooperstate infringement on the citizenry’s right to privacy and essential liberty, to me it seems that what we’re witnessing is an inevitable byproduct of the ongoing march of technological advancement and innovation.

What we have here might be thought of as a clock that cannot be turned back to the semi-mythical Golden Days of yore, which exist now only in our collective cultural memory. T’was ever thus, I think; as wondrous new technologies become available and affordable—therefore ubiquitous, eventually—the convenience, assistance, and entertainment they provide are also accompanied by some less salutary and desirable secondary aspects as well. To imagine nefarious, skulking Bad Actors might not exploit those secondary aspects to the fullest possible extent is nothing but a fool’s hope. Such a fantasy ignores the very nature of government itself, even after the Founders explicitly forewarned us in their Declaration, Constitution, and Federalist Papers.

That being so, the remedy ought to be damned obvious to every right-thinking American: we do not ban the devices and technologies, thereby denying ourselves the myriad positive aspects they bring to the world. Instead, the right way to go about it is to keep the Bad Actors firmly and securely leashed, and severely punish any of them who dares to exceed his proper Constitutional remit at the very first hint he’s even considering such a thing.

Don’t like being surveilled, tracked, and/or put into a database by your smartphone? Don’t blame the smartphone, then; blame the assholes who use it not for its original intended purpose, but as a spy’s tool and a dictator’s security blanket. THEY’RE the problem, not technological progress and the near-magical, undreamed-of devices that enhance life for Normals. Blame the warped assholes and their villainous schemes, and make sure they pay a high price for their perverse authoritarian impulses—each and every time, always and forever, no exceptions. As the Founders knew, it really is the only way.

(Via WRSA)

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2 thoughts on “Just a guy in a lawnchair with a pen and a notebook

  1. “…and severely punish any of them who dares to exceed his proper Constitutional remit at the very first hint he’s even considering such a thing.”

    The problem being that the offenders are also the enforcers. Any enforcement is required to come extrajudicially.

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    1. Extrajudicial enforcement. Nice ring to that. Might as well get comfortable with the notion, because it will be upon us all too soon in the WROL environment “coming to a theatre near you”.

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