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How much do we really want people to obey laws?

The question hasn’t mattered greatly in the past since there was often no way to enforce laws beyond a certain point. You could enforce speeding laws in front of a school with nearly perfect effectiveness, and you could occasionally catch people speeding on rural roads. Yet compliance was largely discretionary. The lack of inescapable surveillance meant that at three a.m. on the Interstate, a driver could crank it up to eighty-five and be left alone. Obedience was not exactly optional, but at times when obedience didn’t really matter you didn’t really have to obey.

The rapid increase in surveillance of everybody and everything is taking, or so it seems to me, a new and unwholesome turn. We move toward a world in which many laws can be enforced strictly and unfailingly, everywhere and at all times. To continue the example of speeding, the technology exists now to catch every hypervelocitous driver whatsoever on any road we choose. It could be done in several ways. For example, there exist little transponders called radio-frequency identification devices (RFIDs) that transmit a serial number when they pass by a reader. They are about the size of a grain of rice, cost a few cents, and don’t need batteries. Requiring them on cars (they’re just like license plates, the argument will run) would allow readers along roads to calculate the speed of every car. Easy.

This isn’t a column about the technology itself, so for the moment let’s stipulate that the combination of data bases, cameras, networks, and so on can, or could if put to the use, make it impossible to break large categories of laws without being caught. I’m not making this up. I follow the technology closely in my guise as a tech columnist for the Washington Times. The level of surveillance I’m talking about is absolutely possible, right now, and is being put in place in bits and pieces. What would be the pros and cons?

Certain kinds of major crime could be eliminated almost completely. Theft of automobiles would become exceedingly difficult if readers on street corners, perhaps built into stoplights, checked every passing car against a list of stolen vehicles. The idea is appealing. Few of us favor having our cars expropriated.

But it’s the little laws that are worrisome. Today we have cameras that photograph the license plates of cars that run stoplights. Nobody seems to like them except the governments that get the revenue from fines. The same technology could catch people who roll stop signs. Speeding, walking on the grass, urinating in a dark alley could all be automated out of existence. Do we want to live in a world in which we really have to obey all the laws all the time?

A problem with strict enforcement of laws by unlimited surveillance is that it will inevitably be misused. For example, the British have cameras that automatically read the license plates of every car passing on a highway. (This is not particularly high technology.) At first the purpose was said to be the detection of serious crimes, such as car theft. Other possible uses were soon put forward: Finding people who hadn’t paid their insurance, or who had outstanding tickets, or who owed wife-support. What starts with a noble purpose soon becomes a means of nannying everyone.

Automated surveillance goes beyond what most people think of as surveillance. Recently a fellow in England came up with software called ChatNannies. Its intended purpose is the apprehension of pedophiles, which few will dare oppose. It is truly clever. It automatically logs on to large numbers of chat rooms on the Internet and proceeds to "chat" like a real child. ("Hey, you see Lord of the Rings?") It knows kid culture and convincingly simulates being a child. When someone begins to respond, it analyses the responses trying to determine whether the chatter is a pedophile trying to ensnare a kid.

Am I alone in thinking that the idea is both eerie and disturbing? Children in thousands of kid-chat rooms will have to wonder whether they are talking to another kid or to the government. Inevitably the technology will be used for other and less agreeable things. Mr. Bush and his War on Terrorism come to mind. While fooling adults would be harder than fooling children, the telegraphic nature of conversation in chat rooms makes it not all that difficult.

You chat with what you believe to be a person about the chemistry of nerve gas. (Why not? The subject is interesting and the chemistry well known.) A remote computer flags you as a possible terrorist. You don’t know that it has happened, any more than you know when the government is screening your email.

The scope for automated control of behavior is great. Toyota recently unveiled a car that requires you to insert your driver’s license to start it. It then checks your driving record and if, for example, you have a record for speeding, it limits the horsepower that the engine will deliver. (Toyota says it has no plans to put this atrocity into production. Then why build the demonstrator?)

Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather live in a world with less enforcement of laws and more freedom to choose. Years back, this worked. In a society in which reasonable responsibility was culturally mandated, people took laws as guidelines. There were far fewer laws in the first place. The United States is now a country in which personal responsibility is attacked as elitist and electronic control of behavior seems set to become a substitute.

The Watchful State isn’t really here in force yet, but it is aborning. All the pieces exist. We may find that laws that made sense when they weren’t enforced very well become a smothering blanket when backed up by mindless software with police powers. A nation with no slop in the legal gears will be, I suspect, a nation of robots.

Fred Reed [send him mail] is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.

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