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We Know Where You Are September 29, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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While that summary statement seems slightly threatening, it may or may not be, depending upon how that information is used. The question is how we get that information in the first place, and that’s the tale in a fascinating Wall Street Journal feature today.

The article focuses on license plate tracking; any time you come within range of a static or mobile (police car) camera, your license plate is recorded and kept in a database, along with when and where it was recorded (the article notes that my home state is one of the few that bans this technology).

It gets more interesting. Because the cell phone companies can track your phone, this data is generally available to law enforcement for a fee, but not a search warrant. And it also delves briefly into the home, where electric smart grid technology to track individual and family behaviors, as well as information gleaned by cable TV and even e-reader data.

It’s easy to say that if you are innocently going about your business, you have nothing to worry about. But that begs a number of uncomfortable questions. From a tactical standpoint, when does your behavior cross over from innocuous to suspicious? Who makes that call? Software?

But it’s worse from a constitutional point of view. Does this amount to illegal surveillance and search? If the authorities can query the database in real time, can they intervene before your intent is clear? If they can, what have we become?

Of course, tracking and behavior data can also be a godsend to safety and security. We can be more easily found if we are lost or in trouble, and even a home invasion or other tragedy may be quickly discovered and corrected.

I’ll admit to being personally conflicted. I like giving law enforcement more tools; they need them. But that sort of tracking and use of the resulting data is against our nature. I would prefer that it not happen, and that we perhaps be a little less secure, but a little more human, as a result. Others may reasonably feel differently.

But the important thing is that we as a free and representative society make that call. Right now, it is being made without a national discussion, and that needs to change.

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