THE LOCAL POLITICAL buzz over the weekend was the 5-1 vote by Tybee City Council last week to approve the purchase of a pair of license plate readers, high-tech cameras which do exactly that: read license plates.
(The fact that most of said buzz took place on Facebook, the single most invasive entity in American society other than the NSA itself, is an irony so painfully obvious it's almost not worth mentioning.)
At about $30,000, the readers are set to be placed on either end of the Lazaretto Creek Bridge on U.S. Highway 80, which is of course the only road on and off the three-mile island.
The latter fact is what takes this otherwise commonplace law enforcement proposal into a whole different realm.
License plate readers are nothing new. Savannah, Chatham County, and plenty of other places have used the devices for awhile. They're used, we're told, to check tag numbers against federal and state databases to find people with outstanding arrest warrants, no insurance, etc.
As we've seen with the recent NSA scandal, the technology involved is sophisticated enough that it could be used for a lot of other things as well. As always, it all comes down to the question:
Do you trust your government to use its power wisely and fairly?
It's not an academic question. Tybee politicians acknowledged the conundrum in the brief debate over the tag readers, before the nearly unanimous vote. There must be a written policy for use of the info gathered, they sagely opined, which I suppose is the very least their constituents could ask for.
One councilman recommended destroying the readers' records after 72 hours, a well-meaning goal which is ridiculous for at least two reasons: 1) There's little law enforcement value in such a short window of time and you're better off saving the $30,000 for something else; and 2) digital information is forever and can never really be destroyed, no matter what any cop or politician or social media CEO tells you.
Look, Tybee's gonna do what Tybee's gonna do. And the next election a whole different council is liable to scrap every single thing this council has done. That's just how Tybee rolls.
But the Tybee license plate reader debate is important because of the nature of the island itself: Only one road on and off. Can't escape the cameras.
That puts the issue into stark relief and makes it something we can all relate to, whether we frequent Tybee or not.
A lot of critics are hung up on how police-crazy Tybee is — more than 20 police personnel per mile — but it's their island and they can do what they want. If it's cops and cop-stuff they want, they can have as much as they're willing to pay for.
I'm more concerned with how the debate plays into the issues of technology and privacy.
As American citizens given inalienable rights by our Creator — according to the nation's founding document, which for the sake of argument I assume we all subscribe to wholeheartedly — we're accustomed to a familiar, time-tested dance with government at all levels.
We understand we're accountable for what we do in a free society. But we also retain the right to privacy and the right to be free of constant surveillance.
In other words, we accept that in this free society some people are going to get away with things and the benefit of the doubt always goes to the defendant.
Again, this isn't an academic discussion. It goes to the very heart of what it means to be an American, and has meant since 1776. Better to let ten guilty men go free than wrongly convict one innocent man, everyone's innocent until proven guilty, etc.
Strip away all the propaganda, jingoism, and "exceptionalism," and there's no more central part of the American identity than that, going back literally to day one.
In this country, unlike most others, the burden of proof always lies with the prosecution, i.e., the government.
Last year I got a huge-ass parking ticket while in, um, a certain very large metro area in Georgia. I thought the ticket was bogus and refused to pay it. My own personal declaration of independence.
Within a couple of weeks, the very aggressive parking services division of said very large metro area had somehow gotten hold of my cellphone number and began calling incessantly, demanding payment.
I still haven't paid that damn ticket.
Oh, I know I'll have to one day. It'll no doubt come back to haunt me, probably when I go to renew my license in 2014. I'll come to regret my little act of rebellion.
But until then, as long as I don't illegally park in that very large metro area with many, many roads into and out of it, I'm a free man. I can roam the streets of Savannah and everywhere else on God's green earth without worrying about that ticket.
If it were on Tybee? Not so much. Once I'm over the Lazaretto Creek Bridge, I'm theirs. Given the advanced technology — and Tybee's teeming PD — it's not much of a stretch to say that if they didn't want me to leave the island once on it, I couldn't.
And if I couldn't pay up, what happens? Arrest? Impoundment? What are my rights in such a case?
With privacy issues large and small — from the NSA's spying on all digital communications everywhere down to those redlight cameras on Abercorn — governments sell the positive aspects of technology to paper over its insidious dark side.
With enough cameras in enough places, the whole country can be turned into an island with only one road on and one road off. Technology can make fugitives of us all.
Not to get melodramatic, but that would be just plain un-American. Literally. cs