The Walrus Blog

Big Brother is Watching Them. OK?

Crime is a big problem in the developing world. Take it from me: just last week I got mugged at gunpoint in Mexico City’s almost comically crime-ridden district of Tepito, infamous for its huge flea market full of incredibly cheap goods of incredibly dubious provenance. (I was there to research a novel. Honest.) According to Tepito’s Wikipedia entry, “popular stories tell of people buying these products and being robbed some streets later by the sellers themselves.” Now that’s a business model!

I’d like to show you some pictures of the market, but the muggers stole my camera, so here’s a Mexican security vehicle instead:

The official stats claim that 55 people are mugged and four kidnapped every day in Mexico City — which, incidentally, is still one of my favourite cities in the world — but those numbers are wildly low. Many muggings and kidnappings go unreported, mostly because public opinion of the Mexican police ranges from “incompetent” through “complicit and corrupt” all the way to “vicious criminals in their own right, except with badges.” (Insert your own Treasure of the Sierra Madre joke here.)

Corruption begets, abets, and perpetuates crime: it is, if you ask me, the single biggest problem that the developing world faces. Right now Mexico is effectively engaged in an undeclared civil war, the government versus the narco-traffickers, with a body count of more than 5,000 every year. Mutilated corpses and severed heads turn up every day in Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, and Sinaloa. Meanwhile, an anti-corruption investigation has linked the drug cartels to Mexico’s former federal police chief, senior military officers, the special organized-crime task force, and even the nation’s drug czar. The narcos allegedly pay up to US$450,000 per month, per person, in exchange for advance knowledge of police operations. Nice work if you can get it.

The suspects are now under house arrest, but what does it matter? They’ll just be replaced. Everyone knows corruption is endemic in Mexico. Transparency International estimates that one in four Mexico City residents has had to pay bribes just to get their garbage collected. History teaches us that pervasive corruption is an unstoppable Lernaean hydra; cut off one head, and two more grow in its place. Right?

Wrong. Forget history. History is history. Don’t look to it for guidance. Instead look to Neal Stephenson, who once wrote about corruption, It was human nature and you couldn’t fix it, so they went for a quick cheap technical fix: smart boxes.

In Mexico City the smart boxes started with cameras and GPS systems on tow trucks, to prevent their drivers from collecting personal cash payments in lieu of the city’s fine. Then they moved on to real-time monitoring of immigration officers, looking for suspicious behaviour patterns. It’s only a matter of time – and fewer years than you might think — before they get to what Charles Stross calls google for real life: police wearing video cameras without off switches or erase buttons, recording and uploading everything they see and do. Stross, being British, sees evidence collection as the pretext, but if you ask me, the surveillance society’s real killer app is the battle against corruption.

That’s still a decade or two away, probably — but even today, high-tech surveillance is the best and maybe only weapon against systemic corruption. Which is good, right? Even if you’re paranoid about privacy, police officers and public officials have much less reasonable expectation of privacy than the rest of us.

So why does the idea make me so uneasy?

I guess because while it’s a good idea in the short term, I can’t shake the notion that police cameras are only the thin edge of the panopticon wedge, and that the loss of privacy will lead slowly but inevitably to the loss of liberty. Or as Neil Young once put it, in a song about corruption: There’s still crime in the city, but it’s good to be free.

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