January 28-February 28 is National Privacy Month. I don’t know who coined the phrase or anointed the dates (whoever does anyway?) but let’s take full advantage to explore some developments.
We start out with today’s NYT piece about what’s behind the LED lights at Newark International Airport.
I was just there yesterday, so, for the sake of discussion, let’s assume they were deployed everywhere (not just in Terminal B). First, they saw my bedraggled self coming off of an international flight amazed at the three uniformed police, one armed with a dog, meeting passengers at the door of the jet way. Me thinks they targeted someone for smuggling since the usual operating procedure is to walk doggie around baggage claim sniffing for contraband food and drugs. There they might catch someone sheepishly moving something around in his or her belongings before going through customs. Or the occasional bugler who grabs someone’s bag “accidently on purpose.” And, I hope, the intelligent terrorist who so far has gone through multiple layers of security to be in the inner workings of Passport Control and U.S. Immigrations. Are you offended by this kind of surveillance? I am not, as a rule, so long as there are laws and policies to keep the surveillance cabined to crime. And that is the problem. Those laws don’t exist. There is no legal imperative for private or municipal entities to have policies either. So now let’s think about the consequences of that lapse.
Let’s pretend I am having an affair with someone abroad, and that I am lying to spouse about my coming and goings. Hypothetical Hubby is suspicious for any number of reasons but especially of late because he runs into unexplainable things. A Turkish lira and a fancy scarf he does not recognize. Then there is the half-completed, crumpled Passport Control form he found stuffed in the bathroom trash bin. And why do I keep taking business trips allegedly to Dallas or Louisville with little to say about those cities upon my return?
Hubby is no fool, and besides, he has connections. He went to high school with a guy who works for security at Liberty International, the manager of international travel terminals. Over drinks with a few of the buddies, he says jokingly, how about using this facial recognition software I have and a photograph of my wife to see if she is in your database? A few days later the buddy calls back. How’d you know? She has been through Passport Control five times in the last six months!
Did the husband or manager break any laws? I can’t think of any. Does Port Authority have policy on “administrative voyeurism?” I don’t know, but I do know that there is no law that requires such a policy.
These two questions are the crux of the policy problem that plagues personal privacy. It is not corruption alone that surprises. We know people are imperfect. That is why we have laws and policies to govern that kind of behavior. What surprises is that our society lacks laws governing this particular area. What corruption can do in the gap that exists between the advances of technologies that impinge on personal privacy and the absence of cabining law or policy is limited only by our imagination.
With history casting a long shadow on this kind of behavior, it is a chilling guide, hardly limited to marital infidelity. Recent disclosures about the closing of lanes that snarled traffic and imperiled emergency vehicles offer a glimpse of petty corruption rife amongst us; just think what could happened if elevated to levels of inhuman disgrace witnessed throughout the harrowing events of the twentieth-century. No wonder Fred Cate, among the very best thinkers in our country today on questions of privacy and social policy, and who is quoted in the NYT article, considers unregulated use of these new surveillance technologies, “terrifying.”