Safety vs. privacy? Oh, stop it.

Photo: Anthony Moretti 18July2016

Well, here we go again. Time to have the safety vs. privacy argument.

This time, we can thank the Washington Post for its story about residents of a Colorado neighborhood who are either smugly satisfied or deeply disturbed over cameras that record the license plates of cars driving in and around their community.

As you might guess, the arguments inside Paradise Hills come down to always convenient but flawed sides: “You have nothing to worry about if you’re doing nothing wrong” and “like Big Brother much?”

If you’re thinking that a name like Paradise Hills suggests a rather benign place, you’d be quite right. So, just how much crime do you think exists in Paradise Hills? Quoting the Post:

The Paradise Hills opponents were right to be skeptical about a local crime wave. According to Jefferson County sheriff’s records shared with The Post, the only crime reports written up since September 2020 included two damaged mailboxes, a fraudulent unemployment claim and some stuff stolen out of three parked cars, two of which had been left unlocked.

Seems like the biggest problem in Paradise Hills is either a lack of common sense (lock your doors, people!) or the occasional forgetfulness brought about by juggling work, family, friendships, the kids, the groceries and more.

The people of Paradise Hills ought not be classified as unnecessarily frightened middle class folks or as gasbag lefties hoping to create a problem that doesn’t exist. Their conversation turned debate turned verbal fight turned loss of friendship takes place all across America. And it misses a relevant point.

Let’s begin with safety. Too many people refuse to accept the fact that crime has been on a steady decline in the U.S. for the past three decades. A complex series of factors — and, yes, more police on the streets is one — explains why Americans are far less likely today than they were 30 years ago to be a victim of crime.

We’re really not talking about personal security, though try telling that to people who triple bolt their doors while employing a home security system, and owning a gun and a dog that is more than happy to make a any person’s arm a chew toy.

Meantime, the privacy argument also misses the mark; in the U.S., once you or I are in a public setting, we abandon any rights we have to left alone. Any surveillance cameras inside any store (or yes in any neighborhood) can identify where and when I was shopping, walking or driving on a particular date and time. (They have.) If I’m attending a sports event, the in-stadium cameras might find me. (They have, and yes I smiled and waved.) And if I’m at the bank or library, I might have the unfortunate moment when someone I really don’t want to talk to is also there, and he or she says that there was a “strange” car parked outside my house the other night. In fact, there was: My wife invited a couple of friends over. “And how are your wife and sons these days?” Sadly, it then takes 10 more minutes to extricate myself from this…this…invasion of my privacy!

Yes, we all know that a whole lot of people we work with and live near have nothing better to do than keep and eye on the rest of us. But let’s leave their pathetic existences to the side because Curious Colleague and Nosy Neighbor are not the issue.

What we’re really talking about in this debate about modern technology and its intrusion in our lives is the fundamental erosion of our right to be a person who can think, write, feel, believe, wonder, doubt, love, like, hate and dream without fearing any of those emotions could be turned against us.

Let’s put some (perhaps uncomfortable) points on the table:

  1. All of you are aware that the largest of technology companies know more about you than they ought to, right? Many people will reply with an indifference, acknowledging they “have nothing to hide.” Neither do I, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily want my Internet habits dissected in order to make a case that I ought to buy this or that product. But what happens when you decide to look at something risque, non-mainstream or so-called un-American? “Oh, that’s no one’s business.” Oh, you think so?
  2. We give away our personal secrets, preferences and more for free every single day for the “fun” of being on a social media platform. If you examined my social media use, you’d need no more than two minutes to determine what topics interest me: Education, politics, history, sports and celebrating people I admire and like. All of that means you can begin to prepare a profile about me, including noting my political ideology, identifying different books I (might) have read, finding any controversial (to you) opinions I hold and knowing my sports viewing habits. From this the leap to “hey, do you think Anthony might be a _____?” is a short one. Say it often enough and to enough people and soon your question becomes a statement of fact.
  3. When the U.S. and its allies engage in this snooping and intrusive behavior, it is framed as safety vs. privacy. When a non-allied nation engages in the same activity, then that government is seeking societal control. Nonsense. Do not fall for the spin that claims the erosion of our right to be a person is acceptable because “we” do it for the “right” reasons but “they” do it for the “wrong” ones.

In 1882, the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote “An Enemy of the People“, which outlines how a medical doctor becomes a pariah in his town because he dared to speak out about bacteria at a spa even though he knew the personal and professional lives of many people were at stake. If it’s possible to turn a learned and honorable doctor into something nefarious simply through word of mouth, imagine the level to which that can be done in an era in which we leave evidence about our thoughts, plans, goals, interests, wants and more for ordinary citizens and big tech firms to digest.

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