Thursday, March 10, 2005

Texas Senate Boosts Big Brother

The Houston Chronicle reports that special interests are holding up the bill to ban red light cameras in the Texas Senate. That's not surprising. While the Texas House is quite concerned with issues of privacy and opposing the expansion of Big Brother-style police tactics, in the Senate, big-government liberals combine with big-government conservatives to shamelessly promote them.

I've argued previously that there are three "legs" to the surveillance "stool" that, once established, will create a set of tools to track Texas citizens in a near-totalitarian fashion reminiscent of George Orwell's famous novel, 1984. The three legs are: making government surveillance technology secret, the proliferation of cameras and surveillance technology in the public sphere, and, creating a comprehensive database of biometric facial recognition information.

In all three instances, the Texas Senate is pushing for Big Brother solutions, while the Texas House is resisting them.

The first item, making surveillance technology secret, the Senate accomplished in 2003. In response to 9/11, the House passed an agreed bill that made secret certain critical information necessary to keep Texans safe, but which did not overreach or indulge in sweeping records exemptions. In the Senate, though, Sen. Jeff Wentworth attached an amendment making all information about surveillance cameras secret -- where they are, who can access them, what can be done with the information, how long it will be kept, policies against abuse, etc. By the time the bill came back at the end of the session, the House had no choice but to accept the amendment or shoot down the whole state homeland security bill (HB 9).

Ironically, the Senators only allowed one class of individuals to know whether, when and where they were being surveilled -- legislators, and government officials working in private offices. (For real - I couldn't make this stuff up.)

Red light cameras are a primary vehicle for the second leg of the surveillance stool -- the proliferation of surveillance cameras throughout public life. That trend is already well underway, but it's estimated that legislative approval of red-light cameras could result in cameras installed at up to 20,000 Texas intersections. Those cameras don't just look at license plates but can be used for any police function, including general surveillance. Most can zoom in and out, rotate to view folks on the sidewalk, or even look inside neighboring buildings. Some cities like Austin put cameras at intersections even when they aren't giving tickets.

What's wrong with that? To take the worst case scenario: In China after the Tiennanman Square massacre, the government used cameras installed by an American company
for traffic control purposes to undertake a witch hunt rounding up youthful dissidents. Indeed, with Sen. Wentworth's secrecy law in place, there's really no telling what will happen with surveillance data. In Dallas, surveillance video in Deep Ellum is shared with private businesses who can do what they want with the footage.

The House shot down red light cameras in 1999, 2001, 2003, and again this year by an even greater margin.

If the article in the Chronicle today is accurate, the Senate harbors significant support for using surveillance cameras for traffic enforcement, with liberals like Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, teaming up with big-government conservatives in the majority to keep the bill from getting to the floor for a vote. (If they're successful, BTW, I'd expect the red light camera ban to be attached as an amendment to every single transportation bill that comes over to the House from the Senate.)

The third leg -- the creation of a facial recognition database to allow law enforcement to identify and track individuals on video -- would complete the Orwellian trifecta. Combined with secret government cameras, proliferating everywhere, about which the public can know nothing, facial recognition databases would put an end to an individual's anonymity in public. The combination would mark the death knell of personal privacy. The authorities could know who you are and watch what you're doing, wherever you go, without showing probable cause to a judge or even letting anyone, anywhere, ever, know what they're doing.

Again, facial recognition is the Senate's baby -- SB 945 creating the biometrics facial-recognition database passed unanimously in the Senate in 2003, but in the House only 26 out of 150 members supported it. Indeed, no one in the Senate ever bothered the vet the bill at all, or raised the smallest question about the obvious privacy concerns. The House, by contrast, enjoyed a vigorous debate before rejecting the proposal.

A lot of attention is paid, for obvious reasons, to partisan differences as they play out on issues like education and healthcare. On privacy, though, the most important split in Texas isn't between Democrats and Republicans - it's between the House and the Senate.

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