Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Big Brother’s Fingerprints

Sixty-one years ago, George Orwell’s final novel was published.  1984 has since entered the pantheon of influential American novels, and there is no more compelling character within its pages than Big Brother.  Big Brother’s name has been invoked to scare generations of Americans on the potential of unchecked government intrusion into our private lives, and he is the official boogeyman of libertarians across the nation.   He represents the elimination of choice in our lives.  He represents a loss of personal freedom.  He represents the suppression of individuality.  Big Brother (the TV show notwithstanding) is usually bad, and no one likes Big Brother.   He is always watching, and we cringe at the thought of the invasion of our privacy (unless we are on Facebook, where privacy is frowned upon).

Is Big Brother always bad?  As technology has improved geometrically since the original publication date of Orwell’s masterpiece, the reach of law enforcement and government regulation into what was formerly the realm of individual choice and private preference has expanded incrementally.  The creep of Big Brother’s reach is usually in the name of safety and security, and those are good things, popular things.  For example, traffic cameras slow speeders and reduce the number of accidents at risky intersections.  Some don’t like being watched, but few are in favor of more accidents.  Ashley Halsey III raised the specter of Big Brother indirectly for me in her provocative front page story in Saturday’s Washington Post, and caused me to struggle with my competing instincts to protect free choice, privacy and security.

The article, titled “Too drunk? Your car won’t go along for the ride”, said that we are 5-7 years away from reliable sensors in cars that would measure the driver’s blood alcohol level, and disable the engine automatically if a legally intoxicated individual tried to operate it.  The passive infrared sensors could become standard features on cars of the future, and teach an important lesson in temperance to a new generation - the hard way.

The technology is possible because of increased investment in security research post-9/11.  Advances in bomb-detecting devices are paving the way for this new intrusive safety feature.  Could another consequence of Osama bin Laden's war against the West be fewer alcohol related road fatalities?   This partnership between the auto manufacturers and Federal safety regulators (NHTSA) is in itself a scary idea for the strict anti-government activists out there, who recoil at taxpayer dollars being used to help private industry in any way, even to provide better safety to all citizens.

My first objections to the idea were all based on ignorance of the technology.  How would it know, based on the air in the car, who was drunk?  Could a car be rendered inoperable if filled with one designated driver and three slobbering drunks breathing on his neck?  If the touch pad system were deployed to cars, would those wanting a few glasses of wine with dinner use the “sensor-free” car for those outings, and only young Johnny would be forced to drive the Big Brother Blood Monitoring Mobile?  I will need to know more to render an opinion on whether I think it would even work.

The drunk-free sensors could be an optional feature, an “upgrade”, like leather interiors or side impact air bags.  Volvo would be the first to make them standard issue in keeping with their marketing strategy to sell safety, not cars.  What demographic of car buyer would gravitate to cars with the standard issue sensors?  Soccer moms?  More importantly, which demographic would shy away from cars with this feature?  Could late model cars be more likely to be pulled over at night than the new cars with the passive system installed?  We could see a new wrinkle in the profiling debate.  “Step out of the vehicle.  I pulled you over because you are driving a 1998 Honda Civic, and it was pulling to the right in a suspicious manner.”

Car prices would have to rise if the new system became a mandatory feature, like the air bag increased vehicle costs.  How much of an increase would be too much?  The system is just one cost, too.  The other cost to manufacturers is liability insurance.  If a drunk driver kills someone, is the car company now an accessory, since their sensor system did not prevent the accident?  Personal responsibility takes one more step backwards.

There is another side to this coin, of course.  Alcohol related injuries and deaths extract a tremendous financial toll not only on the victims but on society as a whole.  Last year, over 10,000 fatalities on the roads were alcohol-related, and injuries and property damages add to the costs.  If this technology reduced these costs in financial and human terms, is it worth the inconvenience?  Remember, the installation of seat belts into cars was fought by automobile companies as imposing a sort of safety tax onto the price of every vehicle.  Then lives started being saved, and today, seat belts are not only mandatory, many states mandate their use by all passengers.  In retrospect, the arguments of the 1960s against mandatory seat belt installation in cars seem ridiculous.

My final thought is an important one.  A passive blood alcohol sensor in every car assumes the worst – the driver is impaired until the computer proves otherwise.  Is there anything more un-American than being guilty until proven innocent?

In this situation, we may be forced to choose between freedom and privacy on one end of the continuum, and safety and security on the other end.  The middle ground between the two is viewed as a momentary pause on the slippery slope towards one extreme direction or the other.  I wonder if no balancing point truly exists.  Mandatory sensors, or the wild, wild West – which will we embrace?  I want my kid’s car to turn off if they are legally impaired, no question.  I would prefer that they hand the keys to someone else before a computer ever has to make that choice for them.

This technology, if installed on all cars in the future, should reduce alcohol-related driving fatalities.  How many fewer, and at what cost, remains to be debated.  This technology could save our lives, but only if we submit to its’ will.  Maybe Orwell was correct when he wrote, “Freedom is Slavery.”


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