I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Tip-Toeing to Utopia

In a discussion last night, I was informed that the government employees who review the phone metadata and the internet data collected via PRISM are honest, dedicated people who operate under strict safeguards to ensure the data isn't abused.

I believe this. I'm certain they do their jobs with the highest ethical standards and the best motives in the world. They aren't reading your emails to your cousin in Pakistan because they want to use that information to harm you or enrich themselves. They want to protect you from proven threats. There are people in this world who plot to harm others; we should be glad there are people working to stop them.

In 1984, the men who comprise Big Brother are sinister rulers who manipulate the public and watch their every move for unabashedly sinister reasons. They're masterminds who view the rest of humanity as pawns in a grand game of chess.

I don't have much fear of America slipping down this path, where men of ill-will exploit us for personal gain. My concern is a much more plausible slippery slope. I'm worried we'll surrender our freedom bit by bit to men with noble goals and pure motives.

Let us grant that the laws passed in the wake of 9-11 have prevented many terrorists attacks. The exact number isn't important. If one terrorist attack a year is stopped, isn't this worth trading a little privacy? Only the most rabid libertarian would argue that longer lines and random frisks at airports are too high a price to pay in order to save the life of an entire plane full of passengers. As for the phone and internet data, the 99.999999% of us who aren't engaged in any activity even vaguely related to terrorism have nothing to worry about. We have the lack of another 9-11 as proof of effectiveness. Where's the harm?

In fact, monitoring phone metadata has apparently proven so effective at sniffing out terrorists that it would be almost criminal not to expand it's usage to other threats to public safety. Drug traffickers, for instance, almost certainly make use of cellphones and emails. The systems we've put in place to unravel terrorist networks could be applied to the war on drugs. Far more people are killed or injured each year as a result of illegal drugs than by terrorism. We already put up with drug tests to gain employment. Catch one small time pot dealer, trace all the calls he's made, then all the calls of all the people he called, and before long you've got a hundred members of a drug cartel cooling their heels in prison. Unless, of course, some of those members of the drug cartel are hiding out in countries where we can't easily get to them, like Cuba. Fortunately, we already have policies in place that allow us to use drones to eliminate threats we can't reach vial conventional methods.

Of course, many of the deaths in the drug wars have nothing to do with drugs, and a lot to do with the fact that gangs have become de facto militias waging war with rival factions using illegally obtained guns. But, again, at some point an illicit gun dealer has used a cell phone or sent an email. It would be for the public good to extend the tactics learned in the war on terrorism to a war on gun trafficking. People who legally purchase guns have nothing to worry about. No one's trying to take guns away from good people. Lawful gun owners would actually be more free once we get rid of the unlawful scoundrels.

However, in all the statistics released each year about gun deaths, there's a complicating factor that doesn't get discussed as much as it should. The number one cause of gun fatalities isn't crime, but suicide. Suicide would seem to be a victimless crime, but, honestly, it doesn't take more than two minutes of thought to realize that it isn't. There's the obvious emotional toll it takes on the loved ones of the deceased, but not so obvious social and economic costs as well. Alas, there's really know way of predicting who's going to try to kill themselves. Unless, well, maybe there is. It's quite possible that, if you review the phone records, facebook posts, and library checkouts of suicide victims you would be able to discover the warning signals. Once you knew the right keywords, you could use the systems already perfected during the war on terror to discover likely candidates for suicide and stage interventions to protect them from themselves. We'd save thousands of lives each year. Isn't trading a little privacy in your email communications to friends and relatives a tiny price to pay to prevent even one death?

We can all agree that preventing death (or even injury) is the highest, most noble purpose of any government. Safety is the paramount concern. For instance, reckless driving is a scourge on America that causes more death, hospital visits, and time lost from work than terrorism, gun wars, or drugs. We've repeatedly proven, as a people, that we need the state to step in and protect us from ourselves. We need laws to tell us to wear seat belts, to let us know we shouldn't drink and drive, or text our friends from behind the wheel. We have to have vehicle inspections, because, yes, there are people perfectly willing to drive without fully operational brakes or headlights or tires with actual tread. We need cameras at stoplights because people run those things, and cops patrolling the roads because we regard speed limits as ridiculous suggestions. We've proven for over a century that, when trusted with automobiles, we'll find ways of hurting ourselves or others. Take heart, however, that this is a new era of technology, when, with a little political courage, we need never fear reckless drivers again. Your smart phone always knows your location via GPS. It wouldn't require any significant new technology for your phone to constantly broadcast your speed to your cellular provider and for this data to be stored. Then, if the police pull you over for going too fast, they could get a warrant to check your records and see that, yep, you routinely drive 90 miles an hour during your morning commute. Someone that reckless is essentially a murderer lurking among us, waiting to kill not out of malice, but out of selfishness. His need to get home five minutes faster was more important to him than the minivan filled with kids he might one day plow into. Time to get him off the streets for good.

It will be paradise. A world where it's safe to drive on the roads, a world where no one ever fear random, violent death, a world where you don't have to worry that your kids are getting exposed to unsafe substances when you're not watching them.

Well, except the most dangerous unsafe substance currently attacking our children: Food. You don't have to be Mayor Bloomberg to notice that, as a nation, we have a lot of lard buckets among our kids. This has a tremendous societal cost. We all pay for increased medical care, obviously, and I'm guessing it wouldn't take a tremendous amount of research to prove that overweight children often have self esteem issues that wind up leading them to live less ambitious lives as adults. The potential economic impact over decades may easily cost us trillions. And think of the lives lost; death from obesity related diseases is a much greater scourge on society than even automobile accidents.

But what if... what if there's some phone metadata that might reveal patterns that would allow the government to sniff out harmful behavior in advance? I mean, this is just speculation of course, but, if the government had tax records showing that you were a single dad with three children under twelve, and also had phone records showing that you ordered pizza delivered to your house three times a week, might this not be a signal worth looking into? Many of us shop at supermarkets where we scan a little card each time we make a purchase in exchange for discounts. Grocery stores collect this data on our buying habits to better target coupons, but couldn't great public good be gained by turning this data over to the government? Too high of a Twinkie to brocolli ratio in a house with children, and it's time for the authorities to pay a visit to the home. Not for any sinister reason of course. It's all for the good of the kids.

This is Utopia. We want a world where the government keeps us safe and happy from cradle to grave. I don't see a lot of politicians getting voted into office on the platform of, "You're on your own, you fat reckless idiots."

The only price we pay, a very small price I think, is that, arguably, we'll no longer be human. We'll be sheep, part of a large, fluffy, soft herd.



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