Increasing Surveillance: Keeping Track of "Trust"

Starting with a news story about how the Sutter, California school district is forcing every child in the elementary school to wear radio tags, Jim Amrhein explains the dangers of Increasing Surveillance.

Tomorrow’s “Father of the Year”

Today’s topic is a little chilling to think about. That’s why most people don’t. But as you’ll see in a minute, it’s something that could confront us all soon, especially our kids. Before I get into it, though, I want to prime you with a little background so you’ll fully understand exactly what’s at stake. Here goes…

Increasing Surveillance: Big Brother Leaps From the Page

In a strange and surreal devolution of our founding principles that surely has Orwell sitting up in his grave saying, “I told you so”,” we as a society seem to have accepted — with nary an eyelid batted — an ever-increasing frequency (no pun intended) of electronic monitoring of our whereabouts. I touched on this point a month and a half ago when I proposed that the government’s subtle reclassification of the heretofore free and unregulated GPS system might represent a move toward an eventual condition of constant surveillance of everyone.

To recap a bit, few of us think twice about getting in a car equipped with OnStar or another GPS-based navigation system or with a LoJack radio-wave location beacon. After all, we reason, these things serve purposes — and because of this, we’re willing to submit to not only the loss of a certain degree of our right to privacy, but also to the possibility (more a likelihood in this political climate) that these convenience- and security-related technologies could be used against us somehow…

Either that, or we’re ignorant or apathetic to the true ramifications of such technology.

Need an example? Here’s one: We seem to have no trouble at all with things like electric locating collars or arm bands for paroled or house-arrested felons – Martha Stewart wears one (no doubt a designer model with a pastel flower print) right now. These measures are all well and good in the interest of public safety and the prevention of crime, right? Possibly. But where do you draw that line? Do we need tracking devices on ALL nonincarcerated criminals, or just felons? What about perpetrators of misdemeanor crimes of violence? In an even grayer area, what about juvenile offenders?

And who says monitoring of criminals should be stopped once their sentences have been served? Shouldn’t we keep tabs on these people even after they’ve paid their debt to society — after all, don’t statistics show that most crime is committed by repeat offenders?

But why stop with criminals? Why not track people we THINK are going to commit crimes? What about folks who are mentally ill — they’re all on the edge, right? How about those who are in therapy — aren’t they kinda iffy too? And shouldn’t ALL postal workers be kept track of, given their history of going berserk? Better to be safe than sorry, you know…

Better yet, why not just radio tag everyone? We’ve got the technology, right?

You see, this is how things can snowball out of control when we don’t keep the fundamental principles of liberty in mind — or when we don’t know them in the first place (like an ever-increasing number of college graduates and federal judges). And in at least one place in America, this snowball is rolling over children.

Increasing Surveillance: The Golden State’s New Name: The Surveillance State

In the small rural town of Sutter, Calif., a new program is requiring children in the town’s only grade school to wear radio-trackable ID badges while on school grounds. These badges are keyed to hand-held computers kept by teachers and display every child’s whereabouts at all times — even in restrooms and in locker rooms!

According to a Feb. 9 report, Sutter’s Brittan Elementary School principal Earnie Graham (a man who obviously failed his own civics classes in school) has mandated the use of these monitoring devices WITHOUT the prior consent of parents and has threatened stern disciplinary action to any kids not wearing the badges.

Some Sutter parents are up in arms about the measure. According to the article, at least one has filed a formal protest with the school board and notified the ACLU. This same parent has thrown down the gauntlet to Graham (who’s also, conveniently, the superintendent of the district school board), ordering his kids to stop wearing the devices and face whatever penalties await.

What’s almost as disconcerting to me about the whole radio tracking of kids policy is the fact that many of the town’s parents aren’t resisting the measure at all. Some are actually welcoming it under the nebulous umbrellas of “safety” and “security” for their kids. Remember, these are the same auspices that allowed the passage of the invasive PATRIOT Act and also have us forfeiting our Second, Fourth, and 14th amendment rights at every turn.

If the bulk of parents nationwide support this kind of surveillance of their kids, what’s happening in Sutter could take hold nationwide. If that were to happen, we’d be in deep trouble in very short order. Here’s why…

Increasing Surveillance: Doing the Right Thing — but for the Wrong Reasons

Before you conclude that I’m against the safety, security, and welfare of school kids, let me remind you of something: Sutter, Calif., is not an embattled war zone of a public school in East L.A. — where gang warfare, guns, and rape are everyday occurrences among “pupils” — it’s a sleepy little semirural farming community outside of Sacramento in the idyllic northern part of the state.

So why the need to radio track kids?

According to the article, the seemingly omnipotent Graham maintains that it’s primarily to aid in attendance taking and reduce incidents of vandalism in locker rooms and restrooms. You may be thinking: What’s WRONG with tagging kids? Don’t we want to keep track of our children? Wouldn’t this kind of program be really useful — especially in violent inner-city public schools?

Ultimately, no, and here’s why: Surveillance assassinates character.

Even if you can overlook the obvious constitutional issues, the privacy concerns inherent to constant monitoring, and the fact that tracking devices of any type demean kids by treating them like retail inventory or livestock, you’re still left with this: Children need to learn that doing the right thing is its own reward — fear of discovery or punishment shouldn’t be the primary motivating factor.

Think about it: If the only reason a child doesn’t spray paint the locker room, bully a schoolmate, cheat on a test, or sneak cigarettes in the girl’s room is because Big Brother is watching them, how can real character or integrity ever have a chance to develop? Children should avoid doing these kinds of things because they’re simply WRONG. And it’s up to parents and teachers to instill in kids these “right-and-wrong” lessons — not some radio collar or whatever.

Integrity isn’t defined by doing the right thing while someone’s looking — it’s in doing the right thing when NOBODY is looking. And constant surveillance robs children of the healthy, character-building, and downright addictive boost to their self-esteem that doing right for its own sake confers. This is what parents who are in favor of radio-tracking “dog collars” for kids would be depriving their children of…

Sure, some of them might be a little safer in certain very rare circumstances, but a lot of these same kids may also grow up as paranoid, amoral, underdeveloped automatons who view the world not in terms of right and wrong, but only in terms of what can be gotten away with without discovery. Seriously, how do you think kids who’ve grown up as a blip on their teachers’ (or parents’) “radar screens” would act once these tracking devices came off — once they were adults? Do you think they’d automatically do the right thing in business, in their family lives, or in sport because of some deep-seated, programmed fear of someone knowing about it if they didn’t?

Or might they lie, cheat, steal, and ignore society’s rules with impunity — knowing they can no longer be found out and lacking the foundation of integrity and self-esteem that a lifetime of trust and self-regulation builds in people of good character?

The bottom line is this: By increasing surveillance of any type, we risk breeding an entire generation of unconscionable nihilists. The decay of character and integrity in our society is what underpins crime, corruption, and malfeasance of all types. If we want tomorrow’s citizens to be more trustworthy (read: less likely to commit crimes or become corrupt), we can’t raise them under a constant watch. They must be spurred by parents, teachers, and the community at large to develop their own inner compasses of right and wrong, their own system of checks and balances — things like guilt, shame, pride, honor, and good sportsmanship…

That way, they’ll do the right thing when it counts: When nobody’s looking.

Always watchdogging the watchers,

Jim Amrhein
Contributing Editor Whiskey & Gunpowder
April 26, 2005