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Cameras are part of a bigger picture

Missoulian | July 4, 2005

Let's cheer one small step away from constant surveillance of citizens.

It may be but a small step backward for Big Brother, but we'll take it: Virginia the other day shut down its network of cameras recording the license numbers of vehicles passing through intersections.

A lot of cities and states use such cameras in the name of improving traffic safety, a goal officials are quick to embrace when they learn that "automated enforcement technology" can be the next best thing to printing money. Never mind the fact that the technology doesn't always work right. Never mind that drivers paranoid about getting ticketed tend to slam on their brakes, causing lots of rear-end collisions. We don't like the cameras because we don't like being under constant surveillance.

The arguments for watching people pass through intersections are much the same as watching them come and go in buildings, in stadiums and at airports. The reasoning is similar to why authorities want to be able to see what you're checking out of the library or thumbing through at the bookstore. It's basically why Congress has ordered up standardized personal identification cards, why government agencies dabble with things like biometric face-scanning systems. It's all for our own protection.

The problem, of course, is that our own government's oft-demonstrated inclination to redirect its "protective" powers in ways that undermine the liberty of citizens winds up being more dangerous than what we're supposedly being protected from. History is not short on examples of what we're talking about, but the example that often comes to mind began as Cold War counter-espionage measures that somehow led to constant surveillance and bugging of Martin Luther King Jr. The government's more intrusive measures to protect us have even greater potential to "protect" those in government from us.

We harbor some pretty harsh thoughts about drivers careless or reckless enough to run red lights.

They're a true menace. But they're a menace we can effectively counter with a little added caution - we always double-check oncoming traffic before entering a Missoula intersection after a light turns green. We're less confident of our ability to counter the government's terrorism-inspired inclination to spy on citizens and employ technology to track our every movement.

Now, of course, we know shutting off some cameras in Virginia isn't going to change a whole lot. It's no one thing but hundreds of Orwellian measures that threatens our liberties. But just as a little tea dumped in Boston Harbor contributed to the Independence we celebrate today, Virginia's pulling the plug on traffic surveillance cameras will help if it focuses people on the bigger picture.



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