The Samovar

“It’s a community urinalysis”
August 28, 2007, 11:45 pm
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Politics, Surveillance Society

This raises some interesting questions about government power and privacy (via Bruce Schneier):

Researchers have figured out how to give an entire community a drug test using just a teaspoon of wastewater from a city’s sewer plant.

The test wouldn’t be used to finger any single person as a drug user. But it would help federal law enforcement and other agencies track the spread of dangerous drugs, like methamphetamines, across the country.



Let me just play Devil’s Avocado for a moment.

Let’s say we agree that many drug ‘problems’ can easily be solved by legalising them. In that case, we would quite legitimately hold the view that this sort of testing is a sinister encroachment of law enforcement into peoples’ private lives.

Alternately, let’s start from the premise that drugs, legal or not, are an issue for public health. We would want to be able to target healthcare measures at the right areas, no?

So is there anything sinister about monitoring, say, noise levels or traffic pollution?

The difference is in the intention, surely? So how is that to be policed?

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

The questions it really raises are more like:

* What else can they do?
* What if they do the same thing for individual houses or apartment blocks, etc.?

In other words: the danger of function creep (see my earlier entry on this).

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

But…is it not more snsible to assume that technology can be made to serve whatever nefarious ends governments choose? Surely the key issue is how to put in place the political safeguards to stop them acting nefariously.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

In this case very much so I think, because there’s very little that one could do to stop governments arrogating the right to carry out such tests. In the case of things like surveillance technology, one can hope to stop the infrastructure from being built in the first place.

It’s like that bill the government tried to pass allowing them to make legislation without going through parliament (the leg and reg bill). In principle, if it was limited to the things they said they were going to limit it to, it would be fine. Similarly, if there was an effective oversight mechanism it would be fine. But, since you can’t trust these mechanisms as they tend to work in practice, it’s much better not to have the legislation at all. It’s a better safeguard than oversight.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

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