Home / Liquid Laws and America’s Security Technology Quandary

Liquid Laws and America’s Security Technology Quandary

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Every week, it seems, a new form of technology for enforcing laws and improving security in America is debated – national ID cards, cameras on street corners, computer-assisted profiling, and so on. And every week the same arguments, laden with Orwell references, are thrown back and forth. Are we becoming a police state? Is it worth giving up such-and-such freedoms for such-and-such security increases?

In reality, however, it’s a lot more complicated than that. True security in these times does require sweeping increases in technology, but it will only help if we rethink the way in which we create and enforce our laws. Technology is never the greatest threat to personal freedom.

Classifying myself as a social libertarian (small “l” intended), it may surprise you that I am completely on board with most every increase in technology and consolidation of personal data by law enforcement. Why? Because almost always – even though science-fiction movies would generally differ – better technology ensures greater personal freedom.


The first argument that everyone always has against the expansion of technology within government is that it brings us closer to a “police state.” It makes sense as every half-baked movie and television show on the subject – well, they just tell us so. I suppose that’s good enough for most people. Unfortunately, while it makes for exciting fiction, it is a completely flawed vision of sociological cause and effect.

A police state has nothing to do with underlying level of technology its society affords. Police are human. Lawmakers are human. Put simply, if America – or any of its states, counties, or what have you – wants to become a police state, it will do so regardless of technology or lack of technology. While the actual reasons that police states arise – and they certainly can in any nation – are outside the boundaries of this article, let’s put it simply: The reasons are based in sociology and economics, not technology.

Most people, however, don’t actually believe America will become a police state. Even those who use the term “police state” are merely over-extrapolating a common and well-founded fear that our investigative and law enforcement agencies are rife with human error. (Caveat: This, at least to me, is not an indictment on law enforcement. Humans are imperfect. We’re supposed to be. Our real strength is building tools to do the hard work and intricate analysis for us.)

Where people often get it wrong is the assumption that increasing the use and scope of technology within a government filled with human error will somehow give said human error more disastrous consequences. However, this never seems to happen. Take DNA technologies used in murder cases. We’ve found that overwhelmingly, human error has caused a lot more wrongful convictions than personal vendettas and planted evidence ever have. Technology, blind to sociological flaws, begins to solve the human irregularities. If the government was really “out to get” people, murder convictions would be increasingly less reliable as the use of technology grew.


What the fear of technology really boils down to is people’s desire for laws and law enforcement to be liquid. We assume that laws are often iniquitous, and that investigation is often merely good guesswork, so we want the shield of inefficiency in enforcement to ensure that fairness at least statistically occurs “more often than not.”

Lets take an overly simple example: speeding. We all know speeding laws are generally illogically written. They must be – we all break the law on a nearly daily basis. We know that, the police know that, the courts know that. However all parties involved would rally against any perfected technology to catch infractions of speeding laws – let’s say automated speed guns on every street corner that feed a master computer system, which in turn mails tickets out immediately to each and every speeder.

Scary, indeed. But what exactly is scary in this scenario – the technology or the underlying laws?

Rather than insist on solid, logical laws enforced with solid, far-reaching technology- we’d rather accept unsound laws, knowing we can usually “get away” with infractions through a combination of inefficient implementation and our own anonymity. Technology, of course, removes a lot of the inefficiency of implementation, as well a lot of our anonymity. It doesn’t, however, remove illogical laws. In the classic cutting-off-the-nose-to-spite-the-face condition, people look at such a scenario and wish to impeach the technology, not the laws.


Even the police and courts themselves would most likely not want any near-perfect technology for enforcing laws. This is because law enforcement relies on inefficiencies in the system to do their job. A policeman, at any point, can engage pretty much anyone on our public roads- each and every one of us is probably breaking some benign law at any point. Now, of course they don’t pull everyone over. However, with the liquidity of our system of laws, and absent of solid technology- even that which some would consider ominous- arbitrary human decisions remain our chief first line of defense.

Ok, maybe speeding isn’t such an imperative predicament in America. Potential terrorism is, though. Unfortunately, the same inefficiencies exist in that fight as do all others in our system. However, in the fight against terrorism we need close to 100 percent efficiency. We aren’t going to beat terrorism with a liquid, human-judgment, “who do I feel like pulling over on the roads this morning” type of system.

The classic argument has always been that we, as Americans, must give up some freedoms in order to successfully fight greater threats like terrorism. This argument, though, is categorically untrue. We do happen to live under a system of complicated and often foolishly political laws, which in turn does cause greater security to mean lesser freedom. At the same time, we do happen to have the technology to pretty much lock down- to an extent much greater than any time in history- the laws we decide to enact.

In the end, there is no doubt about one point: Sweeping increases in investigative and law enforcement technology are necessary to lock down the country from the threat of terrorism. And they will happen. Thus, is it now time to decide if such technology is going to enhance freedom or lessen it for law-abiding American citizens.

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Liquid Laws and America’s Security Technology Quandary

Edited: nd

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  • God, the broad brush…

    Mr. Falvey, there are those who do believe quite literally that a police state is well on its way and that the start of it has begun.

    And no, “we all” are not breaking laws on a daily basis. I, for one, do not. Your statement is inaccurate.