Approximately six years ago, I wrote a column on technology and how it frees us. I wrote that column using a Palm Treo and e-mailed it to the editor from the side of Mammoth Mountain as I was skiing.
In the intervening years, technology has invaded our lives with ever greater frequency and intrusion. When I walk my dog on the boardwalk by the old Muscle Beach, I am observed by cameras that are in theory monitored by the local constabulary. As we trudge along the Santa Monica Pier looking for dropped pieces of churros and French fries (he looks, I’m not so into scavenging) we continue to be video monitored.
We are told the use of the cameras is to reduce crime and make us safer. Since I am not a pickpocket or flasher, I’m not extremely worried about the ever present surveillance. On the one hand I suppose that I do feel safer knowing that there is the constant threat of being observed. A criminal is less likely to try and take advantage of the situation and steal from me. (We’ll leave the thievery to the restaurants, and vendors. When a plain coffee is almost $4 from the Coffee Bean, there’s something very wrong going on.)
But on the other hand, I’m not sure that I approve, or appreciate, the constant surveillance that has become de rigueur in these public places. Sure, having lots of cameras can send a message to would-be evildoers to stay away, but what about my rights as a free citizen who is doing nothing wrong? The argument is that I have no privacy rights when I’m in public, and if I choose to go to the pier then I am choosing to submit to the surveillance. But is it a choice?
If I want to go to the beach, I have to park in parking lots, or on the pier, which are controlled by City Hall. If I want to see the sun set from the best viewpoint, I need to submit to the watchful eyes of the polizei. To see the sun set on the horizon, one must either own ocean front property, or go to a public access point. But those public access points are becoming increasingly monitored, so I am therefore not making a real choice.
For a choice to be real, the options, however many there are, must be viable. Public areas are quickly turning into a Hobson’s choice on privacy. A Hobson’s choice is another way of saying, “Take it or leave it.” The phrase is said to have originated from a livery stable owner who rented horses. To rotate the use of his horses, he offered customers the choice of either taking the horse in the stall nearest the door, or taking none at all. You didn’t get to pick the horse you wanted.
Privacy today is becoming very much like that. Go to the pier or not, but you don’t get to save your privacy. Private enterprise is doing much the same thing. The parking lots at the remodeled Santa Monica Place all have a system in place that not only shows you which spots are available with either a red or green light. But should you, like me, fail to recall where you parked, that is no longer a problem. You can go to a computer screen, type in your license plate number and a picture of your car and its location is shown on the screen.
That technology is quite useful for those of us with faulty memories. But what about the data that is being collected? As a divorce lawyer who represents husbands and fathers, I could easily foresee a use for that type of data on soon-to-be ex-wives and girlfriends. It’s only a subpoena away and unless the data is destroyed upon the car vacating the parking space, maybe there is a duty on the part of the operator to keep it for a “reasonable amount of time.”
And those videotapes of me on the pier. If I was in a bitter custody battle with an ex over my dog, perhaps he’d want those to demonstrate that I’m negligent in my care, or not paying attention to the dog’s food allergies (crazy idea for a dog I know, but you get my point). In custody battles, every little bit helps. Maybe I want to get those tapes to prove how good my client is as a father? What’s City Hall’s obligation to keeping those tapes?
Technology is great and powerful. It makes our lives easier. But it comes at a price. Every time I check out of parking structures with my debit card, there’s a record created of when I was there and for how long.
Which makes me wonder what else can that be used for?
David Pisarra is a family law attorney focusing on father’s rights and men’s Issues in the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (310) 664-9969.