Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Constant Surveillance

In yesterday’s Century City, a teenage girl sought to legally force her parents to stop their constant surveillance of her. They had installed a camera in her bedroom and required her to wear a biochip that allowed her position to be tracked at all times and directed surveillance cameras wherever she was to zero in on her every move. Her parents believed that they needed to do this to keep her safe from the big, bad world and from herself. They had obtained psychiatrist’s records indicating that she had talked in therapy about contemplating suicide on occasion. Her attorneys pointed out that there was a significantly higher suicide rate among young people watched in this way than among those who weren’t and argued that this was because these kids were overwhelmed with depression over having no privacy. In other words, the measures designed to keep them safe (and earn security companies a lot of money) were actually placing them in danger.

I continue to be impressed if not dazzled by Century City’s brilliantly creative and perceptive treatment of legal, social, philosophical, and ethical issues that will surely face us in the near future when they don’t already today. Surveillance cameras already seem to be everywhere. Tracking devices can now be installed on vehicles to monitor their speed and location, and companies and parents are doing this in increasing numbers to keep tabs on their employees and children. We can even be
tracked by the chips in our cell phones that send out location signals to towers or satellites. How long will it be until the very scenario portrayed in yesterday’s program of fiction becomes tomorrow’s reality? And will we be safer and better off when it does, or will we be miserable, like the girl in the episode, over having our privacy stolen from us?

In a recent
post, I expressed approval of the prospect of having omnipresent traffic cameras monitoring our driving and nailing us for infractions such as running red lights and speeding. I said if this is what it takes to keep us safe from ourselves and each other on the nation’s highways and byways, so be it. But it would be awfully easy to extend this line of thinking and acting into an Orwellian society completely devoid of privacy. Is this what we want? Some say that it shouldn’t matter if our every move is being tracked and watched if we’re not doing anything wrong. But are they right? And if they’re not, what should we do here and now to place reasonable limits on these kinds of technologies? Or should we wait and see what develops and then try to close Pandora’s box after we know precisely what it’s let out and how badly it's harming us?

No comments: