An invasion of privacy

Nov. 1, 2009
Everywhere cameras are watching us, yet the constraints they place on our freedom may be worth the quality of life they provide
Everywhere cameras are watching us, yet the constraints they place on our freedom may be worth the quality of life they provide
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by Andy Wilson, editor
[email protected]

One or twice a year I have the pleasure of traveling to Germany to visit companies and trade shows. To take full advantage of the trip, I often fly to England to visit my brother and bring him duty-free cigarettes. Since smoking is now banned on most international flights from the United States, the six-hour trip often reduces my nails to a fraction of the length they were on boarding the aircraft.

After disembarking the aircraft, I always rush outside the terminal for my nicotine fix. But on one such trip, I found that my brother had inadvertently parked his car at the wrong terminal and I was forced to travel underground between terminals.

Despite the “no smoking” signs that were pasted all over the walls next to the traveling walkway and seeing no one in sight, I decided to chance it. After lighting up a fine Dunhill International, however, I heard a loud voice bellowing, “Put that cigarette out!” from speakers in the walkway tunnel.

Feeling rather embarrassed, I quickly crushed the cigarette out on the floor and looked about. Embedded in the roof of the walkway were surveillance cameras that some remote operator had used to discern my abhorrent behavior. Luckily, the system they had installed was not sophisticated enough to discern who I was, match it with my image from a database, and automatically send me a fine.

After safely arriving at my destination in England, I decided to venture out using my brother’s automobile to visit a few machine-vision companies. Being late for my first appointment, I thrashed the pedal to the metal through tiny English villages where I was once again confronted by Big Brother.

After a near-blinding flash, my image and the motor vehicle’s license plate were recorded by the local police who later sent my brother a $200 fine. This time, fate had not been so kind and I was forced to pay the fine.

Today, thanks to the introduction of such technology, being a bad boy does not pay. In America, to ensure that railroad engineers comply with bans on cell phones, text messaging, and unauthorized passengers in the cab, California-based Metrolink has recently installed video cameras in all of the company’s locomotives. Two cameras face the engineer and a third is pointed toward the tracks; the video is stored in crash-proof metal boxes inside the locomotive.

For reckless consumers who decide to drive under the influence, a high-technology punishment is also on the way. Several major automobile manufacturers are now developing systems to detect whether a potential driver is under the influence. These include in-car breathalyzers, video monitoring systems, and a perspiration analysis system embedded in the steering wheel.

Mad as heck

While groups such as Mothers Against Drink Driving (MADD) are overjoyed with these developments, others such as the American Civil Liberties Union complain about the invasion of privacy such technology will bring. “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety,” Benjamin Franklin wrote two centuries before the invention of the microprocessor. What, one must ponder, would be his reasoning today?

Machine-vision systems have been used to improve the quality, integrity, and safety of manufactured products for some time now. What consumer who has ever visited a doctor for an influenza shot and understood that each needle was inspected by a high-resolution imaging system could argue about the benefit of such technology?

Civil libertarians may argue that the deployment of technology in security and safety applications infringes on their personal rights. However, these very people also enjoy the benefits of the products and services that have already been impacted by such technology. Maybe those who argue in regard to their loss of liberty should realize that, like Benjamin Franklin’s, their arguments and objections are very outdated.

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