Sunday, February 26, 2012

Police Surveillance Drones: Time to Draw a Line?

Like or not, domestic use of those surveillance drones that were developed by the military is coming. Many potential users are interested in them, in many cases for uses that are plainly legitimate, but according to this article the "hungriest" these by far are "the nation's 19,000 law enforcement agencies."

Is this anything to worry about? Of course not, says big business and their friends in big government:
"Today anybody— the paparazzi, anybody — can hire a helicopter or a (small plane) to circle around something that they're interested in and shoot away with high-powered cameras all they want," said Elwell, the aerospace industry spokesman. "I don't understand all the comments about the Big Brother thing."
The idea is that the only relevant difference between a helicopter and a drone is expense, not privacy. This statement is plainly false, as you can see from the following quote from the same article:
Drones come in all sizes, from the high-flying Global Hawk with its 116-foot wingspan to a hummingbird-like drone that weighs less than an AA battery and can perch on a window ledge to record sound and video. Lockheed Martin has developed a fake maple leaf seed, or "whirly bird," equipped with imaging sensors, that weighs less than an ounce.
Recording sound and video from the vantage of a residential window ledge is treated as criminal when done by a civilian. We are looking at something that potentially carries information-gathering capacity of the police way beyond what is supported by helicopters and planes.

There are clearly forms of surveillance that are okay. Though some object to them, I don't mind fixed recording cameras at busy intersections and turnpike tollbooths. I am glad that they have helped in the apprehension of vicious criminals and have documented police brutality as well.

Is there a principled line to draw here?

As we ordinarily understand it, the right to privacy is very flexible: it is easy to give up. At the moment I am putting on my necktie tomorrow morning, I will have a right, good against everyone in the world, that the not see my tie. As soon as I open the front door and step out onto a public sidewalk, I have given up that right.

A legal phrase you often see here is "reasonable expectation of privacy." I don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a busy intersection, which is why both private citizens and government officials may observe and even photograph me there.

If the system gives the cops the right to freely use these drones, as it has allowed them to freely use military-style armor and weapons and freely administer devastating electric shocks in the field, then the area of your life with a reasonable expectation of privacy will shrink and, with it, your right to privacy may be greatly constricted.

Unless people make an effort to stop it, this is most likely what will happen.

In current law, the cops may search your home without a warrant if evidence of a crime is "in plain view," and "plain view" includes seeing it (for instance, a marijuana plant in your back yard) from an airplane or helicopter. Shall we extend that to include seeing it via one of those hummingbird drones buzzing around in your yard? If we do, there will be a lot more things they can do do you without convincing a judge that they have probable cause, and without getting your permission.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Contraception Mandate

So the president has put forth a "compromise" version of the H & H S decree that health insuranceproviders, including Catholic schools, hospitals, and charities to pay for all female contraceptives, (including sterilization surgery and what some people regard as abortion-inducing drugs).

According to the New York Times, the compromise is an attempt to "make the new rule more like that offered by the State of Hawaii, where employees of religiously affiliated institutions obtained contraceptives through a side benefit offered by insurance companies." However, they explain somewhat helpfully: "The result differs from Hawaii in that it shifts the cost to insurers, instead of employees. It also differs from Hawaii in that it requires companies — and not the religious institutions — to inform employees about how to arrange coverage."

I'm having trouble understanding what this change amounts to. It sounds like religiously affiliated employers
will no longer have to pay directly for employee's contraceptives: instead, they will only have to do so indirectly, through the insurance they will be forced to pay for. Under both arrangements, individuals (as opposed to institutions) are compelled to pay for other people's contraceptives via the insurance premiums they are forced to pay.

I'm also having a huge problem seeing how this is an improvement. It sounds like what the administration is thinking is that the original objection was that Catholic institutions are holy and can't get any birth control cooties on them. If the connection is sufficiently indirect, that's not too icky and so everyone can be fine with it.

The real issue is similar to the one involved in this paragraph from Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom (one of the three achievements he asked to be named on his epitaph):
That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness; and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind.
Forcing someone to actively participate in an activity that they sincerely believe is wrong is morally problematic. So is forcing them to pay for advocacy of the idea that this activity is in fact not wrong (the case that Jefferson is addressing here). I would also put forcing someone to pay for carrying out this same activity belongs in the same category.