"Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored." -Aldous Huxley

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wThursday, April 04, 2002

ACLUSERS: While researching my most recent Reason squib on facial recognition technology, I had to interact with Jay Stanley, an expert from the American Civil Liberties Union. The thesis of his and Barry Steinhardt's report on street cameras that match random faces against databases of known criminals/suspects/whatever was that, since the technology at present doesn't work, the tradeoff is not between privacy and security but between privacy with no added security and no privacy and no added security. This was, said Messrs. Stanley and Steinhardt, a bum deal.

The problem that immediately presents itself, however, is the fact of technology. Technology has to go through failures and false starts in order to be made workable; it's just the nature of the beast (think of the light bulb or the personal computer). Therefore, what now might count as a bum deal can be made "better" over time, with cameras eventually randomly picking perps out of crowds. In theory, it's only a matter of refining the technology through trial and error. Knowing this, I tried to push Stanley - who appears to be a nice guy - to endorse a moral principle along the lines of "It is bad to have the government watching us everywhere we go."

Nothing doing. Stanley dismissed the question by saying that "right now discussion of a reliable face-recognition package is science fiction, which is not our line of work." True enough, but, to quote science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Science tends to make things possible that we do not want to think about. How we react to uses of said technology is deeply rooted in our values, which, on this issue as with so many others, the ACLU dearly wants to avoid talking about by employing static bogus utilitarian calculations.

This is the sort of thing that tends to drive conservatives and some libertarians nuts about civil libertarians: They want to smuggle in value judgments under the cover of science or utility, but don't want to admit it. For a longer discussion of this by yours truly, when I was younger and still a bit more of a conservative ideologue than I've become, check out this old Spintech article.

posted by Jeremy at 2:15 PM