Digital Village: A Lesson from London

The subway and bus bombings in London on July 7th added new fuel to the continued debate over security and liberty in a high-tech world. But it remains an open question whether the two must be opposites.

“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety,” Ben Franklin once said. That sentiment is what drives many in the civil liberties community to fight against government use of national ID cards and surveillance cameras. Franklin makes a good point but his words “essential” and “temporary” muddy the waters. For instance, consider surveillance in the United Kingdom.

Keeping the Peace

Civil liberties advocates are quick to point out that London is one of the most heavily videotaped places on earth. One cannot walk around the city without being filmed almost every step of the way. Yet such heavy surveillance did not prevent the 7/7 bombings and the deaths of over 50 people.

The bombings seem to be evidence that the security function of cameras is flawed and therefore not worth whatever amount of liberty one might lose as a result of the system. Of course, it’s impossible to say how many bombings might have been prevented by the cameras, which also appear to be accelerating the investigation, launched by a call from a worried mother.

In the evening of July 7th, Maniza Hussain called police to say that her 19-year-old son Hasib had traveled to London and was missing. She gave detectives a photograph they compared with the video footage from London’s subway network. It turned out that Hasib was one of four men who walked into the Kings Cross station with army-style backpacks. Investigators then linked two of the other men in the footage to bombings at Aldgate station and Edgware Road, where their identification was found.

Liberty, Privacy

These leads are valuable and go a long way towards helping fight what privacy author and security expert Dennis Bailey calls the “power of one.” That is, we are now living in a world where one person or a small group of people armed with the right materials can wreak havoc, even on a superpower. Even with that reality, some civil liberties advocates argue, a larger threat exists from the creation of a big brother that could abuse its surveillance powers.

In Open Society Paradox, Bailey argues that the choice between security and liberty is false and suggests that it is possible to have both if information flows freely and individuals can be authenticated. To that end, the book argues for surveillance, national ID cards, and data mining. A key argument is that government is not the only player to have access to information.

Instead, Bailey envisions a society where everyone will have access to data about others, placing everyone in a sort of digital village where social pressure and norms rule the day. One can make a good case that London is already an example.

Brave New World

While the police videos were rolling, so were those of passengers with video capabilities on cell phones. As the Los Angeles Times reported, “U.S. and British television networks began airing the first footage of the aftermath — dim images of shaken commuters streaming through a smoky underground tunnel. The video provided an immediate and intimate look at the scene but was hardly polished or professional. That’s because it was shot by passengers with mobile phones — the first widespread use of that technology in covering a major breaking news story.”

The use of cameras is dispersed throughout society, making it less likely that big brother could get away with doing something without anyone noticing. Indeed, in a recent speech at the Pacific Research Institute, Bailey said that with new technology “it’s almost impossible to keep a secret in Washington, DC.” With the recent scandal there, Karl Rove is likely to agree.

It is impossible to stop the advancement of technology, and dangerous to hamstring government attempts to fight terror. The threat of big brother is always real, but perhaps the best way to prevent it is to encourage an active and techno-savvy population.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute and co-author of Upgrading America’s Ballot Box: The Rise of E-voting.

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