Avoiding Big Brother requires a balancing act
We are monitored in so many ways today. GPS on cell phones, RFID tags, security cameras inside and outside of every retail establishment, computers in your car, “EZ Passes” for tolls, IP address tracking, wiretaps under the Patriot Act, cookies on computers and even your savings card at the local grocery store. All of these devices track your person, your purchases or your preferences, often all three.
Of course, all of these devices or methodologies have a host of important aims. Preventing crime and terrorism, ensuring that someone can be found by rescue workers, and bringing targeted advertising for products that you actually want are among the uses. Certainly, these all benefit society.
What is not as clear is the dividing line between public safety and the absence of privacy. Did George Orwell foresee a time when one’s movements within a major urban area could be tracked from one end to the other? When the cameras are turned on, for instance, you can be tracked almost from one end of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to the other.
With shopping convenience cards, customers can choose to have their purchasing habits tracked. But many don’t have the option as to whether they use RFID cards to go in and out of their office buildings, and they certainly can’t avoid being tracked in public by cameras.
Certainly, public safety advocates will point to all of the good — or prevention of bad — that such technologies bring. I can’t argue with that. Much as speed sensors and red light cameras deter traffic violators, just knowing that cameras are watching at an ATM certainly diminishes crime. Whether the concern is global terrorism or just local gang problems, it would seem that the more we can do, the better. I just wonder where the tipping point is between legitimate public good and Big Brother. I’m not suggesting that it has been reached, but certainly the time for discussion is upon us.
Indeed, what is needed is a constant re-examination of whether each of these technologies makes us safer, but perhaps less free. If we become so restrictive that we’re safe but locked into a tight, tiny box, then the terrorists have won. They will have managed to make us deprive ourselves of that which we cherish the most — our personal freedoms. This mandates a careful balancing test between what is needed and what is too intrusive.
When I was in law school, after a college degree in radio and television, and before I ever heard of land mobile radio, I was convinced that I wanted to practice in the area of First Amendment law. Thus, these issues have tremendous interest to me. I hope you share that interest, and I hope that together we can ensure a safe yet freedom-filled future.
Alan Tilles is counsel to numerous entities in the private radio and Internet industries. He is a partner in the law firm of Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker, and can be reached at [email protected].