By: Saima Batool
For the second half of this century technical progress has been bound up with the production and consumption of consumer durables. Middle-class people throughout the industrial world have acquired more and more goods. One-car families have become two or three car families those households with one TV set now have several; people with gramophones have acquired CD players, home computers and VCRs. These are not the only ways in which people have enjoyed technical progress: those who have acquired a large enough hoe and a reasonable
array of consumer goods will tend to spend their increased wealth on foreign travel, more education and better health care, which themselves have benefited to some extent from changing technology. But some aspects of North American and European life have not been improved by advancing technology. Public safety is the most obvious example. Will that now change? Will technology be used to give people safer streets?
For technology to improve public safety, not only will Known technology have to be applied more vigorously, but it may also have to be used to alter the way people behave. The social changes of the industrial revolution, which in many ways made society more brutal by technical and organizational changes which humanized it again. Thus the new cities got proper sewage and freshwater; parks and public libraries were built; police forces were organized; postal systems were created’ good street lighting helped cut crime.
Electronic technology has only just begun to be used to combat the rise in crime that most people are worried about. Pilot schemes to install video cameras to watch city centres have cut street crime dramatically. In Airdrie, Scotland, where such a scheme in in operation reported crime has fallen by 75 percent in the first eight months. The video camera may become as effective a weapon in cutting the crime as street lighting was, for both perform much the same purpose’ they make people’s actions visible to others.
Car theft could be eliminated by electronic immobilizers. Credit card crime is being cut radically by the schemes operating experimentally in the UK to etch the user’s photograph on his or her cards.
There are many other areas of public safety which can and will be improved by careful application of technology. Good road designs cut motor accidents. Fitting video cameras at city centre junctions and roads where speeding is common is an effective way of improving driving standards. Cars could be fitted with speed governors which, if electronically activated, could actually eliminate speeding as an offence. Technologies are being developed to stop cars being driver if their drivers show signs of being drunk.
That sort of advance is hardly contentious: few people are in favour of road accidents. Where the issue becomes more difficult is when civil liberties are threatened. The most contentious issue of all is the use of data bases. It is already theoretically possible to keep detailed files on everyone in the land; indeed, several credit-rating agencies can produce instant details of the borrowing and lending habits of everybody with a bank or building society account, a mortgage or a credit card, simply by typing a house number and post code into a computer
terminal. Such data bases are not comprehensive they have been created as commercial tools for Credit-assessment and direct marketing but they will Undoubtedly be developed further, so that most people in the country will have all their personal details on somebody’s file: educational qualifications, club memberships, honours and achievements, names of family members, speeding offences, records of criminal convictions.
Such detailed information is available at the moment, but it is expensive to gather. In the future, the level of detail which could at present be obtained only with the services of a detective agency could be made available for a modest fee to anyone with a phone line and a computer terminal. Already it is possible to pull up on a screen everything written on a subject or person in the world’s main newspapers, but the service is too expensive at the moment for home use. Eventually, however, any home will have cheap access to these data bases.
A thin line divides universal access to published information from state or other access to personal information which could be used as a means of social control. For example, a speeding fine could automatically be deducted from the culprit’s bank account with a police-officer’s hand-held computer an electronic version of the on-the-spot fines imposed on French autoroutes. If the speeder had insufficient funds the money could be deducted from future wages, or from state benefit. Technically all this is possible. If society wants to use technology to police. Countries will have to take a political choice whether to use technology in such
ways. Some societies may well feel that the potential loss of civil liberties is too great a price to pay for more social control. In that case state bodies, such as the police or the intelligence services, will be unable to use the full range of technology that is available. The private sector may then take over some of the functions previously carried out by the state, as is already happening with policing in North America and to some extent in Europe. The danger is that two-tier societies will be created, consisting of the more privileged members of society who are on the data bases, and the less privileged ones who are not. North America has gone some way down this route, as any foreign visitor without a credit card who has tried to rent a car will appreciate. There are other implications: people not on registers may lose the vote. Britain may have lost up to 3.4 million voters from its electoral register at the end of the 1980s, 8 as people sought to ‘disappear’ in case they had to pay the new form of individual local taxation, dubbed the ‘poll tax’. As it becomes easier to find out information about people, will they behave differently? Maybe drivers will become more cautious about getting speeding tickets, not so much because they will have the money lifted from their bank accounts, but more because they know the offence will appear on a permanent record available to all. Next time they apply for a mortgage, or a job interview, or even go to the doctor, their full life history might be revealed. It is impossible to guess how people will react to such technical possibilities. Some voters may well feel that some theoretical loss of civil liberties
is a price worth paying if law-abiding citizens regain the practical freedom to walk safely in the streets after dark. Others may not. Another technical possibility with potentially more far-reaching implications is the building of national DNA registers. When Francis Crick and James Watson first described the double helix which gave the clue to genetic transmission in Cambridge in 1953, they could not have envisaged that this could be the most powerful weapon against crime since fingerprinting. As with fingerprints, no two people carry the same genetic code:
it therefore becomes possible to identify a person positively if any tissue at all is available which in cases of crimes of violence it frequently is.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has started to build a DNA register, and Britain is considering it. Such a project would make it possible to identify many criminals who currently go unconvict. An increase in the certainty of detection and conviction may well change behavior. The potential benefits are enormous: nothing less than reversing the whole trend towards increased crime that is taking place throughout North America and Europe. Whether societies are willing to pay
the price is a social and political issue, not a technical one.