Daily Archives: July 18, 2007

Congestion spying

Here’s a strong (inadvertent) argument against congestion charges. From the BBC:

Police are to be given live access to London’s congestion charge cameras – allowing them to track all vehicles entering and leaving the zone.

Anti-terror officers will be exempted from parts of the Data Protection Act to allow them to see the date, time and location of vehicles in real time.

They previously had to apply for access on a case-by-case basis.

The Met will produce an annual report for the Information Commissioner, the government’s data protection watchdog who oversees how material from CCTV cameras is used.

The scheme will also be reviewed in three months’ time after an interim report by Met Commissioner Sir Ian Blair, so the home secretary can be “personally satisfied … that the privacy of individuals is protected”, added Mr McNulty.

That would be the same cabinet minister who’s authorized the change in the first place. The invasions of privacy are going to have to be outrageous and publicly known for her to change back.

The stated justification for the additional powers the police will get is the “enduring vehicle-borne terrorist threat to London,” according to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. Presumably she’s referring the car bombs that didn’t go off, allegedly planted by the doctors whom the police caught without the new power they’re getting. This “threat” will never go away, of course, long after Osama bin Laden has rotted to dust in his grave and nothing’s blown up in a decade.

There’s always mission creep where government intrusions on privacy are concerned. You let them set up cameras for one very specific reason, and the next thing you know, they’re tailing you in your car, without supervision. What is so wretchedly hard about seeking judicial permission for this kind of thing that fewer and fewer law-enforcement agencies in the world have to bother doing it anymore?

Britain is already off the deep end on surveillance, but this makes things worse, and spoils prospects for future implementations of what is, in principle, a useful and even necessary system.

A Hummer poser

The ritual denunciations of the vandalism of a Hummer in Washington D.C. are already well underway, but because it’s a ritual, I must briefly add my own.

I will confess to a moment’s satisfaction at the mutilation of a gross SUV. But then my brain kicked in and I got over it.

This is bad. Nobody has the right to destroy another person’s stuff, even if it’s “FOR THE ENVIRON” (they probably stopped at “N” because they ran out of room, but reading the story, I wonder whether actually it was just affronted locals acting in the interests of the neighbourhood’s image, not of the environment per se). It’s a bad image-maker for the green movement, and at best it’s just likely to lead to more painting and the flattened tires being replaced, and then where are we?

What really caught my attention in the Washington Post‘s story was this paragraph:

[Owner Gareth] Groves, who grew up in the District and works in marketing for a local radio station, said he wanted the car in part because he is starting a company, Washington Sports Marketing, that is “image-based.”

The scare-quotes are apt here, I think, because I can’t figure out what he means except in the most general terms. What image, precisely, does he intend to project? Conspicuously consuming, I guess, although I’m not sure I’d hire a marketing company whose first asset was a Hummer — before, in fact, a functioning website. Sometimes I see Hummers painted up as advertising vehicles driving around town, and those mystify me a bit, too.

Some mornings on my way to work I pass a streetful of red Volkswagen Beetles all painted up with a name like “Nerd Squad,” parked outside a local greasy spoon. I guess the mobile tech-support guys (and a couple of girls) sometimes get together for a breakfast meeting. This message, I get. Besides acting as billboards for the name of the company, the fact they’re all Beetles implies the people driving them are modern, hip without being ostentatious, and zippy. There’s an element of cool without its being overpowering, and it plays directly against the stereotype of tech-support workers as anti-social know-it-all geeks.

I assume the message of a Hummer is “We’re so successful we can afford this car,” but what does that tell me as a potential customer of your sporting-goods store or listener of your radio station? What is, as the marketers ask, the story they’re telling?

Personally, I suspect it’s just “Our marketing director, who’s kind of an ass, wanted to drive a Hummer on somebody else’s dime.”