THE BLOG

Saying "Nyet" to RoboCop in Colorado Springs

06/08/2010 05:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Imagine the security and public safety that could be achieved in the Surveillance State that beckons: the all-seeing eyes and all-hearing ears of authorities could prevent and deter crime, thwart terrorism, speed emergency response times, etc. -- all while saving taxpayer money and making more efficient use of government manpower and resources. It's a temptation that's easy to justify and hard to resist. Sure, some potential abuses of power or invasions of privacy might occur, somewhere down the road. But all we need to do is put a few "safeguards" in place. Big Brother isn't something to fear, as long as the authorities exercise proper restraint and oversight. The slope is only as slippery as we allow it to be.

Or so goes one side of the continuing argument between security and liberty.

Security scored a point today, when The Denver Post editorialized in support of expanding the use of police cameras in the city. But even an editorial that paints Big Brother as a benign helping hand for cops shows that a slippery slope really does beckon once you start too far down this road. The Post has no problem with monitoring people on public streets: it's "creepy" but constitutional, according to the editorial.

While it's creepy to think of the digital eyes that are peeping at you, you have no real privacy protections when you're walking down public streets. This is long established in constitutional case law.

Of greater apparent concern to the Post is the presence of cameras in high schools. But police officials assured the editorial writer that they would be peeping inside schools only occasionally, under certain circumstances, and that reassurance is good enough for the Post, which is content to "hope" the police will "stay true to those guidelines." Hope is a slender thread to hang on, given the propensity of government, historically, to abuse what powers it's granted.

And what about police intercepting text messages being typed-out on handheld devices in public places? The Post says such detailed monitoring might soon become possible, raising questions about potential violations of a person's Fourth Amendment rights. But "for now" that's not really a problem, says the Post, so why worry?

Police cameras on streets beget police cameras in classrooms; cameras trained on people can also be trained on their handheld devices: thus we see how the slippery slope beckons once we accept the premise that security is more important than the liberty to move through our lives free from government monitoring. The Post's position is that Big Brother is permitted, as long as be doesn't become too big; he's our helper until he demonstrates the capacity to become a threat.

I believe the best way to avoid the slippery slope, and the temptations of the surveillance state, is to say "no" to these potentially problematic techniques early and often, even when they appear benign or beneficial. The best way to avoid Big Brother is by saying "no" to Little Brother, before he gets too big for his britches.

That's one reason I'll be voting against an ordinance that will inaugurate the use of photo radar and photo red light enforcement in Colorado Springs. I wasn't on City Council last summer when it put this in motion. But as a skeptic of RoboCop technologies, I'll be voting "no," despite the considerable time and effort invested in tailoring a photo radar program to fit the city's needs.

Those supporting the idea don't have bad intentions; they're not the conscious agents of Big Brother or the Surveillance State. They simply choose to see the short-term "good" such technologies can do, while ignoring the long-term harm they can bring if over-used, misused or abused. The best way to preempt future abuses of power, and future misuses of technology, is to remove the tools and the temptations.

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