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Jewish World Review Sept. 26, 2002 / 20 Tishrei, 5762

Matt Towery

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Electronic train wrecks that stain people's lives | From security by surveillance camera to driver's licenses issued over the Internet, it seems government just can't wait to replace human beings with the first available substitute, no questions asked. The potential consequences should give us pause for somber reflection.

The same technologies we embrace to protect us and make dealings with government less cumbersome are showing signs of creating electronic train wrecks that stain people's lives. Take the latest example. An Indiana woman, Madelyne Gorman Toogood, was caught on a department store's parking-lot video surveillance camera making what appeared to be punching motions toward her young daughter. At minimum, the child must have been in severe distress, which in itself is cause for concern.

But doesn't Mother Toogood -- along with the rest of us -- still live in a democratic republic, where concepts of due process and privacy are cornerstones of the liberties we so cherish? The U.S Supreme Court seems to think so; it has issued countless decisions through the years that interpret our Constitution as protecting those selfsame rights.

It seems a twisted irony that, in Roe vs. Wade, the Court summoned the concept of an individual's "right to privacy" to give legal sanction to abortion on demand, yet more obvious examples of that same right are slowly eroding away, and too many view these instances of intrusion into private lives as nothing more than passing media curiosities. (And no, this is not a right-to-life column, nor a defense of possible child abuse.)

The Toogood video, upon close examination, provides an instructive example of why we as a nation should rethink the concept of letting cameras and computers substitute for law enforcement and public servants in rendering judgments that can make or break human lives.

Not to trivialize the issue, but the video taken of Madelyne Toogood is similar to the instant-replay video footage that NFL referees use to review disputed plays in football games. The only technical difference is that Toogood's actions were recorded from just one stationary angle, and from it, one can't tell conclusively whether the clearly angry young mother actually punched her child or, as Toogood claims, she struck her in the back of the head and pulled her hair.

What's the difference? Maybe a lot. Full-strength punching of a 4-year-old child certainly could have resulted in serious injury, possibly even death. But slaps and hair-pulling -- while still deplorable, as even Madelyne Toogood has more or less admitted -- still constitute less of a serious physical or even emotional threat to the child.

And therein lies the entire problem with our emerging video police state. While cameras can play remote cop by recording speeding cars, fugitives in public places, and other salutary uses, their rendered images are often grainy and indistinct, and sometimes difficult to retrieve or verify.

Nevertheless, they can catapult citizens like Madelyne Toogood into national notoriety, with casual and often judgmental viewers peering through a distorted camera's eye into the obscured back seat of her car, where we still don't know exactly what happened.

Since Sept. 11, the need for more help in fighting crime and terrorism has increased our reliance on technology. But that new need has only spawned a parallel need for our society to consciously draw the line between the right to live our lives in privacy and our right to be protected from harm. Will we draw that line, or will technology blur it forever, no questions asked?

As is often the case, many of the same technological breakthroughs that can be used for good can also be used for ill, even if our own institutions do so unknowingly. Cameras may help identify terrorists -- as they did after the fact with some of the Sept. 11 culprits -- but other technologies, such as online renewal of driver's licenses, may empower them. In some states, drivers can go as long as eight years without updating their photo IDs or even taking an eye exam. Isn't it odd that a society so eager to employ the latest technology to improve security would also permit a technological convenience to give terrorists an excuse for not resembling their driver's license photod or to allow those with fading eyesight to endanger themselves and others?

As we enter the 21st century, technology is supposed to simplify our lives, but new and dangerous complications seem just as likely.

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© 2001, Creators Syndicate