Welcome to the Panopticon

panopticonbetter.jpgThe site PlateWire.com permits anyone to post “warning wires” about bad drivers they come across. According to its founders:

Using a drivers license plate, commuters can communicate their thoughts and feelings in regards to driving on today’s roadways. Report and flag bad drivers, award good drivers, and even flirt with cute drivers. . . . We believe that rage and courtesy go hand in hand. If you as a driver are treated rudely by someone, you are more likely to take that frustration out on someone else. . . .

Lior Strahilevitz has written an interesting article on the rise of such P2P surveillance. My initial sense is that such sites may indeed prove efficient in the long-run, providing valuable sources of information about hard-to-punish behavior that may be used as evidence when a bad driver’s luck finally runs out and they end up in an accident.

But I’m pretty worried about the potential for abuse and vigilantism here. If someone has some sort of due process to prove an accusation unfounded, great. But if employers can track license plates to individuals, would a person who is not hired on the basis of PlateWire accusations ever get a chance to tell his or her side of the story?

Concerns like this have driven Finland to keep employers from Googling applicants for jobs. As William McGeveran blogs, such an approach is not even on the agenda of privacy-protecting agencies in the US. But as more sites like PlateWire and DontDateHimGirl.com pop up, just about anyone may end up trailing dozens of virtual scarlet letters into their search results.

That’s one reason I proposed certain duties for search engines to clarify challenged information in certain results. As I tried to work out the intricacies of such a scheme, I began to sense that duties like those imposed on credit reporting agencies might not be feasible. But I still sense that something ought to be done, lest we see a rise of “virtual vigilantism” that Dan has done such a good job chronicling and critiquing. Perhaps the Finnish approach isn’t that strange after all. Let data aggregators and search engines put together their dossiers…but let the “accused” have some recourse before the data gets used. And if that due process is exceedingly unlikely to be accorded (as in the hiring context), perhaps keep the data out of decisionmakers’ hands altogether.

Art Credit: Jeremy Bentham (?), Panopticon. It’s his idea, but I don’t know if he drew this–Google Images doesn’t say. One more reason to read Lastowka’s excellent work on digital attribution.

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