29 July 2015: Privacy in a more perfect union

Privacy in a more perfect union

In his guest column last week, District Attorney Bruce Brown describes a hypothetical, but plausible, scenario in which a woman calls 911 for help. It turns out her fear of a burglar is unfounded, but from there events go awry. As the law of unintended consequences begins its inevitable course, the scene develops into a most embarrassing situation for the hapless woman due to the responding officer filming it with the camera he’s wearing.

In depicting such a scenario, Brown raises interesting questions about police wearing body cams. In so doing, he reminds us you cannot do one thing. As is often the case, that which initially seems like great idea can lead to undesirable, unintended outcomes.

The potential for embarrassment, humiliation, and even danger from body cam footage is real as well for public officials. Open records requests are not limited to legitimate sources such as the media doing their task of holding government accountable, after all. Open records can be exploited by muckraking candidates willing to sell their political souls to deep-pocketed financers as well as by sinister political action committees.

In addition to the potential for them being “overly intrusive,” in the words of DA Brown in our conversation on KYGT, and humiliating for private citizens and public officials alike, the feasibility and costs associated with harvesting and editing body cam videos can pose an enormous burden for small communities such as Clear Creek. In the end, someone has to pay the bill.

Brown pointed out body cams have provided critical evidence of wrong-doing both on part of law enforcement officers and people that accuse police and other officials of unfounded misconduct or abuse. Oftentimes they vindicate officers’ reports.

“The fact of body cams shouldn’t undermine trust in law enforcement,” Brown said. “Police are doing the right thing.”

Brown urged the legislature to balance the appropriate needs for big cities such as Denver with smaller communities given our policing and resources being different. Brown also recommended training to be provided and broad standards set. “But don’t tell us how to use them,” he added.

The American Civil Liberties Union has developed a 10-step guideline, which can be read on its website www.aclu.org, for using body cams ranging from control over recordings to public disclosure. However, even as a card-carrying ACLU member, I find them unsatisfactory though well-intentioned in trying to navigate tricky terrain.

Body cams are a more recent manifestation of privacy erosion. A simple modern truism is privacy no longer exists in the public realm. The seemingly pervasive utilization of traffic cameras and smart phones with upload capabilities to Internet sites such as Youtube has helped drive a death nail into the heart of anonymity.

That’s discomfiting enough, but compounding it is how privacy is ironically on life support in the private realm. If one uses credit cards or store cards, or conducts Internet searches or makes online purchases, he/she is being tracked. While it’s comforting to know Chase, Citi and other credit card companies have our backs when it comes to protecting us from fraud, the idea of knowing they know the minutest details of our private lives smacks me as un-American.

I can’t blame them, however. Some sleazy people are operating out there.

But it’s more than that. We’ve become so hell-bent on perfecting society we find ourselves scrutinizing everyone’s movements. Our fear extends to threats, real and imagined, not only from beyond our borders but also to each other.

Trust is broken.

I suggest we rethink what we’re doing. Everyone is guilty of regrettable behavior on occasion. We all have bad days. And shocking enough, people, from toddlers to presidents, lie.

It’s true the world’s crap is not all sequestered in landfills. Crappy people abound, and at times some get away with malfeasance at great cost and harm including human life.

Our Founders, however, didn’t ask their posterity—us—to create a perfect union, but merely to keep working on forming a more perfect one. Living up to that challenge is challenging enough.

If we have hope of maintaining a modicum of a free society, we’d be better served by refocusing our efforts on creating that more perfect union and leaving Eden for the world to come.

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