MA Plan Reawakens Freedom v. Safety Debate

Every day, the latest chapters in a domestic battle which was waged in earnest when the public was at its most vulnerable and which has burned hotly since are being written. At the core of the debate, begun in the aftermath of the horrors of 9/11, is the question, 'to what extent are Americans willing to give up personal, even constitutional, freedoms in return for public safety.' The main competing theories (among many others) are easy to identify.

The first is the idea that, if we have the technology to prevent or thwart crime, we should do so. This is most often played against the idea that increased safety is not worth the price, namely living in a country which is crawling slowly but inexorably toward being a police state. Such concerns came to the forefront with the passage of the original PATRIOT ACT and have continued, and perhaps even heated up, as increasing numbers of 'average' Americans have been impacted through changes like new TSA regulations and even publicly available tools such as Google Earth.

The average American (let's define this person as someone not suspected of any crime who has no reason to believe that he or she is under surveillance) will soon have another intrusion to fear, at least if a plan in Massachusetts is taken to fruition. The Boston Herald is reporting that the state is planning on mounting scanners on police cruisers which can record thousands of license plates per hour in an attempt to keep criminals off the road and allow law enforcement officials to react quickly in time sensitive situations. Civil libertarians are obviously concerned not only that this is being done, but that the data is, according to the plan, going to be saved indefinitely.

Oftentimes those speaking out against what they claim are Orwellian means of control are accused of being alarmist or even a bit unhinged. However, if you boil this scheme down to a core of 'the state records where and when its citizens are coming and going and keeps the data indefinitely' it doesn't seem to this writer at least that it is unreasonable for citizens of The Bay State to have concerns about potential misuse and even outright abuse by officials. When outside concerns such as hacking are adding to concerns about internal governmental uses, the collection and storage of data becomes even more ominous.

In fairness, the plan was not likely proposed with nefarious ends in mind. Citizens will no doubt hear that there will be no data mining, that specific data will only be accessed intentionally, with plate searches occurring only once there is reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed or that a threat exists. And there is no doubt that, if put into place as proposed, success stories will shortly thereafter be trumpeted on the front page of the region's newspapers.  However, success stories could be had if the police surveilled every citizen or broke down every homeowner's door in the state as well. This doesn't make such practices right or legal.

Blawgconomics expects some vigorous debate over this plan, and likely even lawsuits. Even if state officials are ultimately able to put it into place, we would expect that some limitations would be put on data storage or access. For example, perhaps the data would only be held for a short period, say a month (as in a local plan highlighted in the story), which should be an entirely reasonable time period if it truly is imminent threats which are being targeted. Perhaps a court-granted warrant will be required to enter the database. Maybe someone will act as a gatekeeper if federal or local authorities wish to use it. Any of these safeguards would go some way toward alleviating 'Big Brother' concerns that citizens might have; putting all of them in place would be even better.

What do the citizens have to say? According to a poll located within the Herald story (which is, in fairness, linked to The Drudge Report at this point, meaning that some out-of-state influence could have pervaded the results) 78% of respondents are against the plan. This is with a sample set approaching 6,000 at the time we published this piece. Without putting our undergraduate-level statistics knowledge to the test, we would say that there are some strong feelings about this one, and that maybe the alarmists and crazies weren't so off base after all...

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