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Who is minding your business?

By Lisa S. Dean
web posted August 13, 2001

The latest in the privacy scandals rocking America is the issue of traffic surveillance cameras posted in various cities around the country. The cameras snap your picture as you run a red light and because of the face recognition software installed in the cameras, the officials looking at your mugshot can identify you by matching up your face to the one that they have on file in the states' database of criminals.

An automobile passes a soon-to-be operating traffic camera to monitor speeding, on the George Washington Parkway near Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va.
An automobile passes a soon-to-be operating traffic camera to monitor speeding, on the George Washington Parkway near Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va.

"But I'm not a criminal and therefore my identity is protected," you say. Not for long. Officials around the country say that the criminal database isn't enough and are debating whether or not to link driver's photos to the face recognition software. So whether you are a criminal or not may soon no longer matter. If you're driving and you commit a traffic violation, law enforcement will know exactly who you are.

But it won't end there. In addition to having your photo in a database, the government also has countless databases containing everything from your home address and Social Security number to your bank account information and medical records. There's already some discussion about whether to link that information to the other government databases.

To the average law-abiding citizen, this may seem like a harmless way to catch a crook but that's not how we should look at it. The issue is not about guilt or innocence. This issue is about control.

Over two years ago, Paul Weyrich caused an uproar within the conservative movement around the country by announcing that "we've lost the culture war". The culture has become so secularized that the moral foundation that once governed American society and made us a decent people, is no more. People have lost perspective about what's right and wrong, and stopped taking responsibility for their actions with the predictable results. Government, which once had a limited role, has become increasingly larger and more controlling. Regulating what we can and cannot say, do and not do.

In talking to the average citizen Joe, you find that while he doesn't trust his neighbor or coworkers, he still trusts the government to do the right thing. Why? Our form of government reflects the attitudes and morals of the people so why would a government official be more trustworthy than the family who lives next door or the man in the office next to you?

On the contrary, with more self-granted power, the potential for abuse is that much greater. No need to use hypotheticals to prove the case here. News reports give actual cases.

Just recently the Detroit Free Press reported that some police officers in Michigan are abusing their access to government databases that contain our personal information. The thrust of the article was that police frequently access personal information about motorists whom they saw on the highway because they found the person attractive and wanted to know more about him. When caught abusing the system, punishment, when administered, is pretty lenient.

Between the FBI's National Crime Information Center and other government databases available to law enforcement, the officer doesn't need a lot of information about the person in order to find out where he lives, where he works, his salary, financial information, his health records and so on.

The article reported that one officer actually stalked someone whom he met online by accessing the government databases and learning her home telephone number and where she lived. While the officer was fired for conduct unbecoming an officer, those officers who helped him get the information were not.

Another example cited was of an officer threatening another by using the information he gleaned from the databases. The officer targeted by his colleagues admitted that they were just trying to intimidate him. Given the bond that exists between police officers, imagine what they would do to a citizen on the street.

So the next time you're driving along or even walking down the street, minding your own business, remember that the person behind the camera is minding your business too! ESR

Lisa Dean is Vice President for Technology Policy at the Free Congress Foundation.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • Prying eyes by Lisa S. Dean (July 16, 2001)
    The rise of the traffic light surveillance system spells nothing but trouble for Americans, writes Lisa D. Dean. The time to act is now
  • What has happened to our privacy? by Lisa S. Dean (May 14, 2001)
    House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and Virginia Gov. James Gilmore are fighting the installation of cameras across the nation courtesy of the Interior Department, writes Lisa S. Dean
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