Friday, December 23, 2005

Privacy Is Not A Right

...Aparently. According to a recent article in The Independent, soon Britain will be putting into place a system of cameras that can recognize car license plates. Computers will then keep a record of every single car and where it travels, going back several years. Further software analysis of the data will be able to tell the government which cars associated with which the most. In addition, the system will keep track of who is late on registration fees and other such details.

If the British government looks at driving in the same way as the U.S. government, then they view driving as a "privilege - not a right". This seemed perfectly reasonable back when cars were first coming out and still fairly rare.

But this perspective has developed over time to have a number of modern consequences that would otherwise be unthinkable in other areas of our life. For example, the government can deny motorists the right to drive in certain areas, can take away driving 'privileges', can monitor and search, conduct roadside checkpoints, demand to see our 'papers' at any time (which we are required to carry) and so on. Many of these activities would be viewed as totalitarian if applied to people walking on the sidewalk.

Unlike the days when motor vehicles were 'special', the ability to drive is now crucial to mobility in many areas of both nations. Evidently, this evolution has happened slowly and insidiously with the growth of automobile use and dependency. That being the case, our very mobility and means of livelihood has now ended up a "privilege" in the eyes of the government.

Given the modern role that driving plays in today’s world, retaining this 'privilege, not a right' policy on driving would be harmful enough to our liberty. But to make matters worse, this entire matter that has evolved concerning automobiles has a degrading and perverting effect on all of our other rights. When you take the unusual as a privilege, and then it becomes usual, it tends to make citizens and government alike start to treat other usual activities as a privilege instead of a right.

For example, once people get accustomed to the privilege-based restrictions and governmental powers associated with their car or their driving, they then think, "what's the difference between having a checkpoint on the road or on the sidewalk?" or "what's the difference between requiring me to carry my ID inside my car, or inside my friend's house?"

You have whole generations of people, myself included, who grew up in a world where cars were not a special privilege, but a common and crucial element to our mobility and freedom of movement. Yet, we also grew up in a world where the government treats that mobility as a privilege. The result is a world the founding fathers would have considered nightmarish, and we go along with it because the mantra of "driving is a privilege" has been such a long-running theme. In the meantime, we grow up accustomed to a government with powers far beyond those intended - all because of the quirky evolution of our perceptions regarding one invention, which later evolved into a necessity of civilization.

Back to the article, here is an example of how clueless even the writer is...

"But others concerned about civil liberties will be worried that the movements of millions of law-abiding people will soon be routinely recorded and kept on a central computer database for years." (bold mine)

They will be "worried" that the movements of millions of law-abiding people will soon be routinely recorded? How do you "worry" about something that you're being told IS happening? There is no "worry" it will happen - it's happening, period.

There's no question that they're going to catch some more bad guys with this. But, in order to circumvent this billion-dollar system, all a criminal has to do is put a fake or stolen license plate on his car right before driving out to commit the crime. Meanwhile, all of the law-abiding people are having their privacy violated and being held to the grindstone over nitty-gritty details such as registration being a day late. "Is the benefit worth the cost?" is rarely a question governments will ask when the cost involves only loss of liberty. It's up to people to ask that question.

When it comes to other uses this system might have in more secretive agencies, Chief Constable Frank Whiteley said,

"The security services will use it for purposes that I frankly don't have access to."
One can only imagine.


Anonymous HolyRomanEmperor said...

While I generally agree with all of your sentiments regarding personal privacy, I do think you may be jumping the gun a little bit with the "privilege or right" arguments regarding driving.

Of course our mobility is crucial to our daily lives, but consider carefully the ramifications before you decide to label driving as a "right". (I guess semantics plays a role here as well, when we consider what a "right" is and is not).

For example, if you truly consider driving to be a "right", then will you next be proposing that poor people are being denied their "rights" because they can't afford a car? Do you feel that a person shouldn't have to pass a driving test to be given a drivers license (in fact, why even have a license at all...they very idea of a "right" is that all people should enjoy it, not just those that pass some test).

Don't misunderstand my argument. i totally agree that this monitoring of every car at all times business is something the government should not be getting into. I think it violates our privacy because it isn't really the cars that the government is tracking, but the activities of the people involved. that is just plain wrong.

All I'm saying is that I think (in the grand scheme of things) that driving a car is not a "right" in the same sense that freedom of speech is. I think the government is well within it's bounds to "regulate" driving to some extent. they can surely determine who can drive and who can't (so long as such choices do not violate other fundamental human rights - i.e. not based on race, etc.), they can determine how fast people can drive, they can determine certain vehicles to be unsafe or unfit to drive on public roads, they can require inspection stickers, and on and on. None of these things seem like abuses of governmental power to me, and in that way the "right" to drive is not what I would consider to be regarded in the same way as other "rights" we have.

9:34 AM  
Blogger DT Strain said...

Hey, thanks for the comment. :)

I'm not sure that there's only one type of "right", or that something being a right works the same or to the same degree in every case. I'm not arguing for driving cars to be a right per se, so much as I am a more general right to move about using the means which are central to that society.

A better analogy would be this: we have a 'right to move about' within the country. But that doesn't mean that we therefore have a right to free transportation. We also have a 'right to freedom of speech', but that doesn't mean that we therefore have a right to get free media time on any station, or to have our speech published for free. We also have a right to live anywhere we want, in general, but that doesn't mean a right to specific property or housing for free. We have a right to vote, but that doesn't mean a right to be taken to voting stations.

But if we were to compare these rights to driving a car, we could not say that we had a similar situation with them. In other words, there is no "right to drive a car, provided that you pass tests, pay for it yourself, and don't break the law". That is what I'm arguing for, but that is something we don't currently enjoy in this country. The fact that we happen to keep our license if we do these things is only a matter of mere policy at the moment.

Unlike speech and general mobility and freedom of residency, access to an automobile is considered by our government to be something they 'allow' us to do at their complete discretion. This is why the DMV is always stating in its literature that "driving is a privilege, not a right". No government branch would ever say that "living where you like in the nation is a privilege" or that "voting is a privilege", but they *do* claim this about driving often and loudly.

Of course, the government wouldn't start to revoke driving privileges to people at random simply because some people would start to lose elections. But there is no legal issue with them doing that at present. This subtle (or not so subtle) distinction has a number of unfortunate effects on our perspectives concerning other rights, which I elaborated on in the original post.

My argument is that driving needs to be considered the same as these other areas of life, because it has become so central to mobility and livelihood since its invention.

1:33 PM  

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