Not Long Ago, We Shot Automated Surveillance (Literally). When Did We Start Accepting It?

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When automated speed traps were introduced to Sweden in the 1990s, they were shot. Literally. Citizens were so outraged at the idea of being automatically fined, the speed cameras were destroyed with shotguns (!), or just about in any way conceivable: the average lifespan of a brand new police speed camera was 14 days. They were removed for a decade, then reintroduced en masse without any resistance at all. What happened?

There was an important identity change in as the 1990s decade came around. In the 1980s, the West’s entire identity had been “We are not them.” And them, they were the countries east of the Iron Curtain, the countries that had automated surveillance of all their citizens, all the time. It was a false image and a false identity, of course, but a strong identity nonetheless.

If you had told people about the Echelon surveillance network in the 1980s, nobody would have believed you. That was the stuff of Soviet repression, not of the free West. Perhaps due to this indoctrination – that the West’s indentity was liberty and individual rights – was the reaction so harsh to automated surveillance, harsh enough for people in a country with draconian gun laws to destroy police property with shotguns. The strength of this civil disobedience is not to be understated.

So what happened when the automated speed cameras were rolled out a second time?

The principal geopolitical difference was that there was no longer any repressive power to polarize against. To make a long story short, people no longer cared about making a difference in the way they had in the 1980s, at the brink of nuclear annihilation and when people felt they had to take a stand. Instead, all the “positive cost savings and increase in traffic safety” could dominate the discourse, and so, automated speed traps were rolled out en masse.

The observation here is that a population’s identity is key to whether it cares about civil liberties or not. And paradoxically, it appears to help to have a neighbor that does not care about such liberties – or there won’t be something to compare to.

How do we go back to a sentiment where people would care so much for liberties that they were ready to destroy automated police equipment that was used for mass surveillance, risking long prison sentences in the process? Is it even possible? I don’t have a clear answer to this question.

However, I do know that in the meantime, privacy remains your own responsibility.