My Quiet Life My Quiet Life

monitoring and abuse of authority

This started as a half-formed tweet but quickly took the shape of a tweetstorm, and I hate those, so:

Every time there’s a horrific police shooting, I hear a lot of talk about the need for more police body/dash/helmet/whatever-cams. I feel like I’m stating the obvious, here, but perhaps this path needs a bit more scrutiny.

Given an insidious hidden abuse of authority, increases in technology that enables monitoring will, inevitably, shine a light on it. There are two main effects of monitoring on abuses of authority:

  1. deterrence (an abuser will think twice, knowing they are being monitored)
  2. documentation/justice (even if an abuser is not deterred, they can subequently be brought to justice, assuming the evidence is reliable)

The latter is useful for the pursuit of justice in documented (recorded) cases of abuse, obviously, and is fairly easy to measure (though of course you still don’t know if an increase in documented authority abuse is evidence of increasing abuse or simply increasing documentation).

Deterred abuse, however, is trickier to measure, because you can never know what acts of abuse an authority didn’t commit. It seems unlikely, as a result, that we’ll ever know what police body/dash/etc-cams do actually manage to deter, since it’s impossible to measure, and hopelessly intertwined with many other variables (increases/decreases in actual acts of abuse, etc).

This is not sufficient to say that increased police *-cams are a bad idea, necessarily, though. But they don’t come without a cost, either: specifically, we’re talking about the deployment (let’s be honest, the expansion) of a massive surveillance state in order to counter the police state. Is this a cure worse than the disease?

Overt police-controlled surveillance also has drawbacks, simply because it’s in the control of those we are seeking to deter. If these authorities are willing to collude and murder, why do we trust them to not collude to tamper/manipulate/delete the evidence? When is letting the fox guard the henhouse ever a good idea?

A more robust solution is citizen-controlled (covert or overt) surveillance of authorities. Many recent acts of abuse came to light not because of police-controlled dashcams, but citizen-controlled technology (phonecams). Why, whenever one of these atrocities is committed, isn’t anyone lobbying for an increase in citizen-controlled surveillance as well? Of course, the answer is somewhat pragmatic: not everyone has a phone out and recording ready to go every time an egregious abuse of authority happens, nor is the prospect of a society that is monitoring itself mutually and perpetually particularly appealing. But technology marches forward, and it seems that this is an inevitable arms-race of escalation already in progress. I am not sure if this is good or bad, but it’s certainly territory that science fiction has already started covering in a rather bleak light (see Black Mirror, The Entire History of You)

The fundamental question remains: do we want a police state that surveils itself or a police state surveiled/checked by its citizenry? Frankly i’d prefer not to have a police state at all, but that seems like a bridge too far.