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Technology for good and evil

October 27, 2010

Electronic devices make our lives easier and safer. They can also enable some of the more fascist elements of society easier access to the elements of monitoring and control. Sometimes I see the benefits, and sometimes I wonder if Ben Franklin didn't have it right when he said Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.
 
There's the story of the college student who found an FBI GPS device on his car. Another individual, a US citizen from Yemen Abdo Alwareeth, apparently had the same thing happen.

At his home in San Rafael, he sifts through a binder of papers he's gathered trying to understand why he was targeted. The U.S. citizen from Yemen says in all his 40 years living here, he's received nothing more than a traffic ticket.

"Why I been singled out? Let them tell me, 'We are singling you out because you are an Arab and a Muslim and that's it,' " he says. "That's what I want to know."

Well yes Abdo, it's because you're an Arab and a Muslim. Or maybe more importantly because you are a Muslim. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (who you would think would be all over individual rights) said it's okay for the FBI (or I would presume any law enforcement agency) to put GPS devices on people's cars without a warrant. And we know the FBI and police departments profile. It's a thin line, and it's certainly not fair or right. We may as a society acknowledge something is wrong when African Americans are targeted by the police more often than white people or people who "look" Latino in Arizona will now be asked for their citizenship papers. But although Juan Williams was fired for making anti-Muslim comments, his biased opinion is one that has a lot of sympathy in this country. As long as it is the other who gets the closer look at airport lines, not "us", because clearly "we" are not terrorists, "they" are. I think I can be sympathetic with the fear that gets people there, but not with the biases they insist on holding.

 
At the same time, I can't be sympathetic with a Muslim American who doesn't understand why they are receiving extra scrutiny. I'm not saying it's right, but I'm saying it should be pretty clear to them what forces are at work there. But how easy to drop a GPS device on someone's car? And for now, these agencies don't even need a warrant. Presumably if I put my own GPS device on somebody else's car that would be illegal, but for now the government has a legal right to do so to anyone it pleases. And I trust the government, but do not trust the individuals who must carry out these tasks. The laws of the bureaucracy usually have the best intentions and it's overzealous crackpots like the Arizona Sherrif Joe Arpaio who are able to bend the system to fit their devious means. And what makes them any better than an actual terrorist who slips through our security? How can you separate one as having any better intentions than the other?
 
The inevitable drumbeat of technology brings us closer to a future that will be determined by what kind of people we are. Technology is only a tool. Webcams can monitor hurricanes, tornadoes, weather disasters, and fires to prevent loss of life and aid in where to quickly send emergency personnel. But they can also be used by schools to spy on their students or cameras in general, as in most of London, whose goal is to keep street crime down but are everywhere monitoring the citizenry. For those of you worried about being targetted by tracking devices, you can use one of the many anti-GPS tracking devices out there. They emit a frequency in a range that should block GPS devices on your car from working. Though I suspect there's some legality issues as private citizens are not supposed to be operating jamming devices of any kind. It's kind of amusing that the FBI that was so anti-computer when Robert Mueller took over in 2001 would have progressed so far to using the tools of technology as part of this post-9/11 security frenzy. But I think in the end it's not the devices nor the government that we need to worry about. It's ourselves. We allow the hysteria and the racism and the hatred and set the moral bar for what will and will not be allowed. I know libertarians like to blame the government for encroachments on our freedoms and liberty, but in the end it's a society that sets the standard, and we are each one of us a part of that.
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