Sunday, September 01, 2013

Hanging On To The Keys

While I can understand the benefits when it comes to safety and more efficient traffic flows, the concept of driverless cars has always been unsettling to me. Now, with the news that Nissan plans to sell such vehicles by 2020, the concept is that much closer to becoming reality. Holman Jenkins ponders the implications of this looming reality and what it means for society When Your Car Is Spying on You:

Meanwhile, the real threat to our autonomy gathers speed. "Autonomous" vehicles are part of the threat—because they won't be autonomous at all.

This column has warned for years about plate-recognition cameras, increasingly armed with face-recognition capabilities, that will make it impossible to go anywhere or do anything in public without being monitored. Ann Arbor, Mich., is a federal test bed currently for a network of receivers to which experimentally-equipped vehicles report 10 times a second their position, speed and other data to central computers.

Nearly every car trip Britons take already is recorded and saved by networked plate recognition camera. Yes, there is umbrage. The government's information commissioner recently chided the rural village of Royston for its "ring of steel," a network of cameras enclosing the town.

But the future is coming anyway. Nothing is stopping private operators from creating databases of plate numbers, faces and identities—crossed referenced by matching photos you and others post online on your Facebook profiles and elsewhere.

These will be indexed by place of residence. Stores will know who you are the minute their cameras catch your plate arriving in their parking lots.

The real battle will be between us and us. The population is aging. An older, more timid society is likely to be in favor of penning up fellow citizens in a mesh of monitoring to regulate routine behavior.

The authoritarianism of the weak, always a problem in society, will find an ally in the bureaucracy's craving for resources. Traffic cameras in Britain as well in Los Angeles and other jurisdictions overwhelmingly ring up drivers for offenses that wouldn't trouble a cop.

That rings true for me as I recently was dinged by a traffic camera in the Netherlands for doing 109KM in a 100KM zone. Dutch coworkers informed me that the traffic cameras are regarded by most citizens as nothing more than a way for the government to generate revenue.

New Jersey is just the latest state scandalized by discovery that yellow lights are set below the state minimum in order to yield more red-light camera tickets. London uses its cameras to levy special fees on those who drive SUVs in the city's financial distract.

In some future discrimination or hate-crime lawsuit, will vehicle records be called up to show you locked your doors in a minority neighborhood but not in a white neighborhood? Will the state decide to raise your ObamaCare copays because a face-recognition camera also recognized a cigarette dangling from your lip?

When our every action in space and cyberspace can be monitored and policed, we no longer police ourselves to any meaningful extent. We become not citizens but children. The state is our parent. The real threat is that many of our fellow citizens will like it this way.

Jenkins opines that this creeping authoritarianism-endorsed or at least tolerated by our fellow citizens-is more of a threat to our liberties than anything the NSA is doing and I tend to agree. While I can understand the appeal of the driverless car, I prefer to stay behind the wheel.