Imagine if, in an attempt to reduce shoplifting, Coles and Woolworths formed a security alliance. The alliance would inform shoppers that providing ID was a requirement of entry and this information would be shared with the other member of the alliance if the shopper were to be suspected of shoplifting.
You would think the world had gone a bit strange. After all, don’t you have a legitimate presumption that you can go about your lawful business privately without companies demanding your personal details?
And yet otherwise sensible and rational people don’t get similarly concerned at reports that club owners in Sydney’s Kings Cross are planning precisely this kind of monitoring and reporting. In a fortnight where the mob has been chanting about a right to privacy, why is nobody fighting for our right to party anonymously?
Of course, nobody’s forcing patrons at gunpoint to hand over their private information. If people don’t want to be scanned into a private database (which is unlikely to be secure and which has the potential to be abused), people have the option of not going to clubs in Kings Cross.
But that’s the sort of reasoning that’s up there with "If you don’t want Google keeping a database on you, don’t use Google Search, Android, or have a house visible from the street. Oh, and don’t use the internet, just in case."
It assumes that we will forever be able to opt out of transactions which compromise our privacy. Will we always have the option to opt out? If all the clubs collect our private data, will taxi companies follow suit? What about public transport and shopping centres? If the clubs of Kings Cross show that it can be done, other industries trying to curb "undesirable" behaviour of whatever sort will take note. Unless the tendency for companies to seek personal information is curbed early, we could end up in the situation where we can’t enter the marketplace anonymously and privately.
Our concern should not be placated by the ability to opt out. It is unnerving that we allow private businesses to stockpile our private information, especially on the flimsy premise, "it’s for your security".
None of this is to argue that the club owners are acting out of anything but the noblest intentions. There might well be an alcohol-related violence problem in Kings Cross. It could very well be the case that the problem would be solved if everybody consented to handing over their private information. But are we really living in a world where this intrusion on private enjoyment is necessary?
It seems obvious that there are other ways to combat alcohol-related violence. Alcohol-related violence is, by definition, related to alcohol. Furthermore, the aforementioned "alcohol" is served by the clubs now demanding to scan your ID. Unless Jesus is rocking up to the Cross and recklessly turning water into fighting juice, clubs can control the number of extremely intoxicated patrons. My younger brother was a bartender at a popular Melbourne establishment and says that, instead of giving rowdy patrons more booze, you could try the novel tactic of not giving them more booze. He’s such a maverick.
But he also let me know of a compromise position used by some Melbourne clubs: they scan your ID when you enter and then shred the records at the end of the evening. The only time the ID records are used is if there’s an incident, in which case the relevant data is given straight to the police. The key difference here is that your information isn’t circulating between several different companies — and it’s not being stored.
But maybe I’m just being an old fogey. Maybe this is just more evidence that we’ve arrived safe and sound in the post-privacy world. Maybe I should just embrace all of the opportunities made available by allowing companies to know details about who I am, where I’ve partied, and when I’ve sung New Order’s "Bizarre Love Triangle" drunkenly, poorly, and at great volume.
Even if we’re happy for companies to compile databases about us, we are still a long way from being comfortable with "a roaming private security team that patrols the streets on Friday and Saturday nights". These are private enterprises organising, effectively, their own policing.
When we encounter police forces, there is a framework of protections in place to support both us and the police. They’re far from perfect but if I suffer inappropriate treatment from a police officer, I have avenues to seek redress at little to no cost. I can make formal complaints without needing a lawyer or other expensive advisor.
The same is not true when a private security firm abuses its assumed authority. If I want to complain about a security firm and have it taken seriously, my options are largely limited to legal avenues.
We can easily think of examples where private, roaming security forces would be a clearly worrying idea. For example, would we be complacent if the Church of Scientology had deployed its mercenary peacekeepers against protestors? What if logging companies had been able to use their own goons to protect their interests, instead of relying on the courts? Our strong intuition that there’s something dubious about private security forces roaming the streets is based on the principle that force can only be legitimately used by a restricted number of people, and that those people should be largely independent of particular vested interests. Patrol squads of security personnel on the books of local businesses breaches that principle.
If alcohol-related violence is the problem it is perceived to be, I have enormous sympathy for the business owners of Kings Cross, but assuming a quasi-police role in promoting security and eroding the privacy of patrons is not a reasonable response to the problem.
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