Thursday, October 02, 2008

Big Brother Tech

Lately I’ve been seeing many articles and blog posts talking about more and more technology being used to track and pinpoint you and aspects of your life.  I work in an industry that when the technology is being applied to businesses and government, the thought pattern is that the more detail you can get, the better you can understand, research and track the people you serve, the better and more efficient your business or government entity can be.

However, like all things technological, we have to be careful with what we invent.  Often times the human tendency is to get all excited about what we CAN do, and we ignore the question of whether we SHOULD do it.

Take for instance this story in the Wall Street Journal (hat tip to Slash Geo) on using web technology to better pinpoint your IP address.  Now, for the time being they can only narrow your location down to the city you are connecting from, but I notice that there’s interest in narrowing that field.

Or perhaps think about how location technology is used in transportation.  Failing to get popular support for a national ID program, Australia is mulling the creation of a nationwide automatic number plate recognition system.  “In addition to being able to recognize plates, the system would also collect images of drivers and passengers with high enough resolution for identification purposes.”  How scary does that sound?

Think about it.  At the moment you have honorable government workers and police investigators dreaming of the ease of locating people when they need to, like criminals.  At the back end you have a system where the powers that be can find YOU any time your driving around and track your movements.  Am I being paranoid?

Aerial photography is now being used to help tax assessors review your property and make adjustments to the value of your home and land.  On it’s surface this isn’t a big deal.  Housing prices are in great flux right now, with the mortgage crisis we’ve been dealing with (and will continue to deal with).  However, the more our private property (as well as ourselves) can be scrutinized and tallied by those who wish to extract whatever taxes they can, the harder it’s going to be to function. 

Take Atlantic City, New Jersey.  They recently implemented a system where the tax assessor’s department reviews photos that can spot a new porch on someone’s house that they didn’t take out a permit on, and subsequently fine the home owner.  I understand the permit process, and why home construction is coded.  However I’ve made small improvements on my home, for which I’ve been told I should have had a permit for.  The permit and code process was supposed to be designed for safer houses, not to help fund the government.

And yet that’s what I’m seeing here.

      At stake is an untold amount of tax revenue. Cape May County appears to be ground zero on the issue as it was one of the first in the nation to buy into the system, purchasing its first pictures in 2003.

      While Van Drew ponders writing a law to limit the uses of Pictometry, Cape May County Tax Administrator George R. Brown III is already using it to adjust assessments on farms. He doesn't consider it a Big Brother tactic. He calls it "a great assessment tool," one of many to make sure people pay their fair share of taxes.

So is the permit process about managing safety and construction codes, or is it about money?
In one of the first real disputes to this system, a farmer noted that when informed by the county that they found she wasn’t farming enough of her land, and therefore would have to pay more taxes (farmers have to farm enough of a percentage of their land to get the tax break), and “Brown disputed the number of acres of pumpkins growing when the pictures were taken in March.

‘We don't grow pumpkins in March,’ Rea said.”

This, of course, reminded me of the current use of red-light cameras starting to proliferate around the country.  Despite the growing evidence that they actually are increasing accidents at intersections (although they differ in kind), and that they are subject to wide abuse (adjusting the yellow timing to catch more offenders) they still continue to grow in number.  The only conclusion we are left with is that municipalities that implement red-light camera systems do so for the money they generate, not because of actual safety.

All these technologies are neat, and can lead to much benefit to our society.  However, their implementation and general acceptance by the powers that be concerns me.  Where’s the oversight?  Where are the checks and balances?  This isn’t a Bush thing.  No one person or group of people sets out to create Orwell’s Big Brother.  I didn’t get the impression when reading that book that the society he created was the work of one person.  The closest thing to that was the Soviet Union and it’s satellites.  That wasn’t the work of one person either (although there were a few strong personalities involved).  It’s the little steps forward, that ordinary people don’t detect, that you have to watch out for and think carefully about before just implementing them outright.

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