Every once in a while, it’s a good idea to stop and see how far we’ve come. It’s easy to take for granted the blur of technological progress that has brought us convenience at blinding speed. It is changing the way we live our lives, the ways we shop and learn, and even the ways we relate to one another. It’s marvelous and, when you think about it, mind-boggling.
This brave new world is scary. Free access to the universe comes at a huge cost: We pay for it by surrendering our privacy. As we go where no one has gone before, those who police our country and the planet are going where they have no business, spying on our every move.
We are all too familiar with how the nation’s intelligence apparatus is now used to potentially track our every move and conversation. We can thank Edward Snowden’s release of highly classified National Security Agency records for that startling bit of knowledge. But it’s not just the spies fighting the international bad guys who can suck up our private lives; it’s also the cops here at home.
The Associated Press has a report on super-secret devices called, variously, “Hailstorm” and “Stingray” that the FBI and local law-enforcement agencies use. Basically, they are fake cellphone towers, which enable them to penetrate any wireless device in a given neighborhood. They use this to track suspects, but anyone can be a target. Remember: A good rule of thumb is that while most police are conscientious, some of them can always be counted on to abuse their authority and innocents, just because they can.
But in an amazing twist, the very same high technology is being used by ordinary citizens to expose some of the brutal acts of the few bad-apple cops, and even stop them from getting away with murder — or alleged murder, which is the criminal charge leveled against a South Carolina policeman. He gunned down a man fleeing from a traffic stop, then claimed that he was protecting himself from the man, who he said was trying to take away his weapon.
Law-enforcement officials are predisposed to take the word of the cop, and that’s the end of it. But in South Carolina, a passerby used his smartphone to shoot video of the deadly encounter, which seemed to show clearly that the policeman was lying. Now the officer is in jail, charged with homicide.
Time and time again, the cops will try to stop a private citizen from filming their activities, and who can blame them? They don’t want to be caught violently exceeding their authority. Even though they object, with few exceptions, we have a legal right to record what they’re doing.
What all this has accomplished is to shed a harsh light on the reality that some in law enforcement are deadly dangerous bullies, particularly when it comes to mistreating citizens of color.
A partial answer might be the idea of body cameras that cops would wear, a concept embarrassed authorities are embracing. The thinking is that by recording everything, it would be made clear exactly what happened when there are disputes about police tactics. Obviously, there are some problems with the approach, such as cost and storage of the material and whether this simply would be another way to invade our privacy.
But let’s face it, our privacy has not only been invaded, it’s been totally obliterated. Between the Internet cookies that chronicle every facet of our shopping experience, to the search engines that show every aspect of our lives at the click of a mouse — including the stuff we’d love to be forgotten — to the surveillance cameras everywhere, to the super-high-tech devices we don’t even know about, our every act is available to be permanently stored on a whim.
There’s no going back; we are too addicted to the powers we now have at our fingertips. The price for all this individual freedom is the loss of our individual freedom.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.