Life Between Two Sheets: The Police As Mother

We will have soon have more computerized red-light runner-watchers, it seems. I mean those automatic cameras that take a picture of your license plate when you go through an intersection without stopping. Police departments say they work, sometimes amazingly well. Violations drop from thousands to hundreds. So cops and local governments want to put in more of the things.

Like complications in the tax code, like most things governments do, the idea makes sense in the short run. Lots of people, including me, are tired of nearly being hit by people who blast through lights. Cameras are cheaper than cops. As people drive with less and less consideration and attention to traffic laws-and they do seem to get worse year by year-some means of controlling misbehavior looks to be desirable. Fine.

Thing is, cameras are getting not just a little cheaper, but lots cheaper. So is networking, to connect cameras with computers downtown. Now we have them mostly at big intersections and those that have been particularly dangerous. Putting them pretty much everywhere is not a technical challenge, and what works tends to be done.

A few days ago I was waiting for a break in traffic to cross a street that had a camera. A woman was doing the same thing. We got our chance and crossed, against the light. Jaywalking. She said, “I hope they don’t take a picture of us and send us a ticket.”

She was kidding, I think, or mostly kidding. It was the first instance I had encountered of semi-serious concern about being watched by machine.

Of course the current cameras don’t photograph jaywalkers. But-they could. It wouldn’t be hard to trigger cameras by, say, IR beam-breaking when someone crossed illegally. The reasons would be benign. If an intersection had a history of accidents involving pedestrians, photos would be useful in determining liability, for example. Better yet, jaywalking could trigger a warning bell, or even a recording that would say, “You are jaywalking. Please return to the curb.”

You can bet some bureaucrat would sign off on the idea, and not unreasonably. Isn’t preventing traffic deaths a good idea? The system wouldn’t be intrusive, see, or not for those who obeyed the law-which we’re all supposed to do, right?

And you can bet it would work. Who would want to be embarrassed by an automated mommy? Bureaucrats would point to the decrease in violations and injuries, and want more cameras. Police departments cost a lot of money. Cameras would allow more officers to do things that really counted, like catching murderers, instead of worrying about jaywalkers. How do you argue with that?

Technology is hard to resist. And it improves. A year or so ago I did a story for a high-tech journal on a company called Photobit, which makes the light sensors for digital photography, scanners, and suchlike. They had found a way to reduce costs a lot. (If you’re a computer weenie, they do CMOS chips, which can be made with normal photolithographic processes, and so are cheaper than CCDs.) Complete cameras end up being very small, durable, simple. You could build them into stop signs.

There is no ill-will involved here, no nefarious design aimed at turning us into an electronically monitored society. But-think of the wonderful possibilities. If, say, tailgating is a problem on a certain stretch of road, why not electronically monitor speeds and distances between cars? For a decent engineer, it wouldn’t be hard. A sign by the road could than flash, “You are driving too close!” And photograph license plates.

Which would save lives. And free up more cops.

How about cameras to watch open-air drug markets? Nobody has suggested this, so far as I know, but–why not? Think of the efficiency.

People have worried about accidental totalitarianism for a long time, but it has only recently become a technical possibility. Some parts of it are already in place, though in ways that don’t really offer much threat. In all sorts of places, from banks to Seven-Elevens, you end up on videotape every time you enter. So what? Unless there’s a robbery nobody ever looks at them. There’s no facility for recognizing individuals automatically. But–it’s becoming possible. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an alarm go off when a wanted criminal came into the convenience store?

This isn’t paranoia. All of these things are possible, or becoming possible, and they’re starting to be used. No, the intentions aren’t totalitarian. They don’t have to be.

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