Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sunday Rumination: Privacy and Law

It's a nice, sunny, cool winter's morning outside. WPFW is featuring chromatic harmonica music this morning. Usually you only hear Stevie Wonder play it, it's good to hear what different people can do with a chromatic harmonica. But you're always going to think of Stevie Wonder when you hear that sound, I think.

Three of the four members of my family have now received speeding tickets in the mail, having been caught by cameras. There's something kind of creepy about it, you get a letter in the mail with pictures of your car, showing it on the road, close-ups of your license plate. Forty bucks. The only one who hasn't gotten one of these tickets is the one the insurance company is most worried about, the Seventeen-Year-Old Boy.

There is a difficult topic here that I don't have an opinion about, but I'd like to put it on the table. It is a topic that has to do with two things, and I am sensing a connection between them but I don't really understand it.

The first thing involved is something that has been mentioned here before, it is the subject of obedience to the law, and whether it's optional or mandatory. My usual example is Prohibition, when alcohol was forbidden, and people drank more than ever. Why did that happen, how was it possible for a whole nation of respectable adults to suddenly become criminals? Well, for one thing, people didn't think it was anybody's business if they drank booze or not. They did not, of course, consider themselves criminals, though they broke the law -- a federal law in fact, a Constitutional Amendment. They figured the normal thing was to drink, and if that meant breaking the law, then so be it, they broke the law. So it seems to me the first thing to consider is the position that people actually take in relation to the law in a democratic society where they make the law, where it's theirs.

For discussion on this blog, of course we could compare Prohibition to laws that make it illegal to have sex with someone of your own gender, someone you're not married to, or someone under a certain age. Nearly everyone breaks those laws. If we know that half of teenagers have had sexual intercourse before they finish high school, and it's illegal to have sex with someone under the age of eighteen, then -- there's half the population right there. Subtract the percentage of people who are virgins when they marry from a hundred, and you'll have pretty close to ninety-nine.

Speeding laws are a classic. A street in my neighborhood is set for twenty-five miles per hour, but you can safely go forty, and people do. You try going the speed limit on 270 or the Beltway and see what happens to you. Everybody understands the law is really this: obey the speed limit if you think there's a cop nearby. You ever see the brake-lights flashing when a trooper parks alongside the highway?

I'm not saying how it should be, I'm just talking about how people interpret the law. I remember when I was a kid and Mad magazine had a cartoon about a guy who died on a street corner because the "walk" sign was broken, and it kept telling him to wait. At some point you walk, or go on the red, or speed, or whatever. I am not advocating a position here, but pointing out that in ordinary practice, we do not behave as if the law were a command that must be obeyed no matter what, we treat it as a guideline or a price you pay sometimes when you get caught doing something everybody does.

The second thing is also difficult, and that is the topic of privacy. I said it is creepy to see a picture of your own car going a little too fast on a deserted street in the middle of the night, and that's because you feel that your privacy has been invaded.

I don't think we have a very good understanding of privacy. Like, why does anybody need privacy? Do you have a good reason for it? Why would you do anything differently in public from what you'd do by yourself? It's hard to explain, but it's a fact that we act differently when we're alone with a close friend or lover, say, than we would if we were sitting in a restaurant where people could hear us talking. We use a different kind of language, express different opinions, laugh at different things.

I think there are people who believe you should always act like you act in public. Isn't this part of the function of a god, that you always feel like somebody's watching you? Even what you think. An all-knowing god makes you monitor your own mind like you monitor your behavior when people can see you. You can't pick your mental nose when God is watching, you'd better not have impure thoughts.

Imagine that the way the world worked was, when there was a law everybody had to obey it at all times or they'd pay the price, and you could never get away with anything. You people reading this who have smoked marijuana or snorted coke or inhaled White-Out fumes, or drank when you were underage, or had sex with someone you weren't married to, would have criminal records, your names would be in the paper. Those of you who wrote the wrong date on a check to try and trick a company into thinking you paid on time and your check was delayed in the mail: busted. You who took a grape off a bunch in the grocery store and popped it into your mouth when nobody was looking: it's on your record.

If that was the case, then the fact is everybody would be in jail. I hate to say that, because my view is that people are generally good at the core. I'm not saying you should pop the occasional grape, but I am personally willing to overlook it. In fact, I will go ahead and say that it is necessary for people to get away with it sometimes.

I don't know about you, but I can tell you how I feel about privacy. I need a lot of privacy because I need to make a lot of mistakes. I need to do things wrong, I'm a trial-and-error guy. But I'm a regular guy, too, and I hate it when people see me screwing up. I like to go "Look ma, no hands" and speed by with my hands in the air, gloriously, and I hate for people to see me crashing and getting up, crashing and getting up, as I learn my impressive trick. I need to do things I'm not supposed to do sometimes, I can't tell you why, but it's gotten me into some really interesting and wonderful situations. It's gotten me into trouble sometimes, too, but mostly it works out okay. I'm not trying to paint myself as a maverick or something, I'm just saying that's how I am, and I know a lot of you are that way, too.

I just thought of this: why does anybody smoke? Nobody smokes because they're supposed to, because somebody told them it was a good idea. In fact, it appears most of them smoke for exactly the opposite reason, because it will annoy and disappoint people.

Some laws are there to prevent harm, some exist only to create and preserve order. If you drove on the left side of a deserted street in the middle of the night, nothing would be harmed, but in general it's best if we know what side people are going to drive on, it makes life orderly. When I was in China last year, it appeared to me that nobody obeyed any traffic laws at all, and that people just adjusted to whatever was going on around them. It was like THIS everywhere I went (though that video was made in India). And in China I never saw a car with a dent, or emergency vehicles rushing to the scene of an accident. So strict traffic laws aren't really necessary, they're just our solution to the problem of creating order on busy streets.

Underlying the topic I am discussing, the concept that ties the subjects of law and privacy together, is the idea we call freedom. You could technically have freedom without privacy, I suppose, if somebody was watching you every second and they allowed you to do things, even break the rules. But would you really feel free, for instance, if there was a microphone in your car, and the police could listen to every conversation you had driving around? And -- maybe this is really the question here -- is there any difference between feeling free and being free? Imagine you and your friend driving around speculating about what it would take to put a bag over one of the traffic cameras, or paint the lens black or something. As it is now, you'd feel free to discuss that. If there was a microphone in your car transmitting your conversation to the police or some authorities who could hear everything in everybody's cars, would you feel that way? Even if the police had a rule that they would never pursue anyone or suspect them on the basis of conversations they heard over their surveillance monitors, would you have the freedom to speak freely with your friend in your car?

You know, the 9/11 terrorists made a lot of their plans sitting in parked cars, talking. If the police could have listened to those conversations they could have prevented it.

Some laws seem to be passed just to make criminals out of people who do something somebody else doesn't like. Sodomy laws for instance don't make the world safer or more orderly, they just allow the state to imprison gay people. Drug laws mostly just function to punish people who are stimulating their pleasure centers without paying the price to society, they don't make the world safer or smoother-functioning. These kinds of laws don't really affect anybody's behavior beyond making them paranoid; nobody adjusts their behavior because of these laws, other than being secretive about it.

It is common, but I think incorrect, to treat all these kinds of laws as if they were equal. I really want the cops to catch murderers, rapists, and robbers, and lock them up before they do more harm; they should go to extraordinary lengths to catch those kinds of criminals. I want the cops to catch the guy who switches lanes in front of me without signaling, or the one who runs through a red light while people are going across the intersection -- but the fact is, if a guy gets tired of waiting for a red light at three in the morning with nobody around (like that stupid one at Shady Grove when you come off of 270), I don't care. And if somebody goes a safe speed that is higher than the posted limit on a quiet street, it doesn't bother me. There is no benefit to society, no increase in safety or order, when drivers are caught exceeding arbitrary parameters.

There is something uncivil about the idea of enforcing all laws as inviolable mandates, using technology to catch people who really aren't hurting anything. It doesn't really matter that I was going eleven miles over the posted speed limit when the camera triggers at ten miles over, at ten o'clock at night on a road that nobody else was driving on. It doesn't make the world a better place, it's just a creepy reminder that the authorities are always watching.

I discussed this with my daughter recently, and pointed out to her that it is indefensible to argue that we should only have to obey the law when a cop is watching. It can't work that way, of course, we have to treat the law as if it were a real mandate, and not something we decide to obey sometimes. If the speed limit is twenty-five, then we really shouldn't go twenty-six, we should keep our agreement with our fellow citizens to obey the law, and if we violate that agreement we should pay the ticket without complaining. The result of this attitude should be reasonable laws, but it isn't.

I just realized that another theme is relevant here, which has been discussed on this blog: the idea that people are good because of the law. I don't think so, I don't believe anybody doesn't-kill somebody because they are concerned about breaking the law. I have the feeling that if you made the speed limit on our neighborhood street seventy-five instead of twenty-five, people would still go forty, because it's a reasonable and safe speed for that stretch of road. We have the idea that everything un-nice needs to be illegal or people will do it, but there are places where people go the other way -- in the Netherlands there is no law requiring you to wear clothes, you can walk around naked if you want to, but nobody does.

Depending on how different things get after the election -- and I don't really have my hopes up -- these issues about the elimination of privacy by the use of technology will become a serious topic that everyone will be thinking about. We'll have to face some things about ourselves, the fact that we don't want to live in a perfect world, for instance. These are things we've never had to deal with before, because people could always get away with things under cover of darkness or in the privacy of their own homes, but those private zones are shrinking. So far it hasn't really hit people, but it will, there will be a time when you'll think back to when you were free and wish it could be like that again, but it'll be too late, and you'll know you'd better not say anything out loud.

The guy on the radio just said it's going to get cloudy today and rain, or maybe snow, later. I'm kind of hoping it does snow a little bit, I was out of town when it snowed earlier in the winter.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought the county was so strapped for $?

ACS Expands Speed Enforcement Camera Contract With Montgomery County, Maryland
DALLAS, Dec. 13 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- Affiliated Computer Services, Inc. (NYSE: ACS) today announced that it will install and maintain an additional 24 fixed speed enforcement cameras in Montgomery County, Maryland, as part of an amended and expanded contract. The estimated value of the contract is $19 million if all renewal options are exercised.

A national leader in public safety solutions, ACS currently provides Montgomery County with six mobile speed enforcement units, as well as turnkey violation processing and customer services. The expanded contract brings the total number of speed enforcement units ACS provides to the county to 30 units. The contract amendment and expansion was reflected in ACS' first quarter fiscal year 2008 results.

"Montgomery County is pleased to have an experienced partner like ACS to help us meet the demands of increasing traffic and the public safety issues that result," said Maurice Nelson, director, Automated Traffic Enforcement Unit, Montgomery County Department of Police. "Through the use of red light and speed enforcement cameras, we are making Montgomery County a safer place to live and work."

Under the contract, ACS processes violations; generates and mails notices; schedules adjudication and appeals appointments; provides document imaging and correspondence management; provides walk-in customer service; maintains camera equipment; and provides pay-by-web, pay-by-phone, and integrated voice response systems.

"Public safety cameras have proven to reduce death and injury time and again," said Norman Dong, ACS vice president, Transportation Solutions. "We applaud Montgomery County for its concern for its citizens and its use of technology to make them safer."

In addition to Montgomery County, ACS has photo enforcement contracts in Atlanta, Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Providence, San Francisco, and the State of Illinois.

January 14, 2008 1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The claimed "turnkey violation processing and customer services" works for the former, not the latter. If turnkey customer service means none, that it is correct. Try asking a question or getting more information.

Thanks Mont. Co. for hiring new staff rather than contractors. Now you cannot cancel the program because you have a bunch of new mouths to feed. Hmmmmm, revenue generating scheme or public service; you decide.

June 13, 2008 9:41 AM  

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