Thursday, July 07, 2005

Michael: Homeland Security Cameras on I-19

Placing cameras on I-19 to recover stolen cars before they reach the Mexican black markets is a great idea, a clever use of current technology, and a perfect example of how government will increasingly use new information technologies to monitor Americans ever more closely. The plan has perfectly respectible, nay, laudible goals. There is no one who could seriously argue that the system of cameras and automatic database searches would not significantly benefit Arizonans in a variety of ways.

The problem is, of course, the unintended consequences of the government's new capabilities. Once such a capacity exists, there is a tremendous pressure to use the capability in new and creative ways, both legitimate and sactioned, and illicit and unsanctioned. Studies of the Nation Crime Information Center (NCIC) have shown time and again that the information network which makes crime-related dossiers available to law enforcement personnel across the country is regularly misused for private purposes, and that the information is regularly sold into the black market. NCIC gets credit for making America a safer place, but that same information which has such power to fight crime can also fuel darker schemes unless responsibly controlled. Responsibility in the context of law enforcement and intelligence gathering means independent oversight, accountability and transparency above all.

Before supporting Arizona's Homeland Security chief Frank Navarrete's plan, I recommend citizens demand to know, at minimum, how access to the information will be controlled, under exactly what conditions the system will alert, what records will be stored and which destroyed, and how, and what legal safe-guards will be in place to prevent and severely punish misuse of the information. Ideally, open meetings and consultations with civil rights organizations would be an integral part of formulating the legal framework in which such a system would operate, not some deeply secretive commission. Even though there is no constitutional bar to the type of monitoring proposed that I am aware of, new governmental powers with the sort of automaticity and intrusiveness proposed for this system rightly give people the Big Brother willies. That's the healthy response of a free people; I'll really start to worry if Americans start passively accepting such developments without any skepticism.

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