We, Spy

The ruinous effects of outlawing technologies.


The federal government's recent crackdown on "spy stores" that sell such wares as tie tacks, smoke detectors, and teddy bears containing video cameras, spray cans that temporarily make envelopes transparent, and other surveillance paraphernalia, could be cheered as a blow for the right to privacy. After all, many of those items' primary use seems to be to peep in on people without their consent or knowledge.

But this crackdown, which most recently led to indictment for executives of the Spy Factory Inc. chain, doesn't mean government is concerned about making sure no one can ever invade our privacy–any more than gun control is about making sure no one can threaten or attack us with guns, or proposed "Clipper Chip" technology is about preserving the integrity of private communications. All three are about government abrogating to itself monopolies on spying, on guns, and on the ability to decode computer messages.

A recent Nexis search pointed this out vividly; while a search on "spy shop" for the past couple of months produced mostly a variety of (very brief) stories about government raids, one story from the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel was a very long magazine piece about a crime-busting unit down in Broward County. I was hoping this would be a lengthy account of the actual procedure leading to some spy store bust.

Instead, it was a paean to the wonder of the cops' ability to bust up gambling and drug rings (note the nature of the crimes)…using equipment bought at a spy store! These items are a great boon to law-enforcement efforts against victimless crimes, where sneakiness is necessary. But ordinary citizens could never need them, could they?

The United States has many laws targeting objects merely because of their alleged utility in committing crimes (guns, spy technology, computer encryption programs, drug paraphernalia) or the potential danger they can pose to the user (drugs and guns again). Automobiles, of course, fall into both categories, and to a far greater degree than most of the targeted items. So why does no one seriously advocate banning cars?

The very idea sounds silly, of course. We all know cars have a plethora of perfectly innocent and practically indispensable everyday uses that make banning them ridiculous. There's a wide social consensus that cars are OK. But that consensus took a while to develop, and is historically contingent.

What if, recognizing the many uses cars had for criminals (transportation of contraband, quick getaways) and the severe damage to the existing social fabric cars represented, the government had chosen to ban or strictly regulate them in their early days–while keeping many cars for the government's own use, of course?

We would be living in a very different world today, as is easy to imagine. The development of engine technology and materials science are just two areas that would undoubtedly have been stymied without the impetus of the needs of car manufacturers. I doubt many would prefer living in a world without cars and the benefits, both direct and indirect, they have brought us.

But lawmakers, and much of the public, find that their imagination fails them when they accept laws against guns, drugs and drug paraphernalia, and spy stores. They can't imagine, or recognize, perfectly legitimate interests in using such items–or at least in making sure the government isn't the only one who can use them. (And it has a vivid history of misusing all of them.) And, of course, neither those who support such laws against objects qua objects nor those who oppose the laws can recognize what we won't get if we impose legal penalties on the sale of items. Banning such sales is particularly dangerous when it's an entire technology–miniaturized recording devices–whose distribution is targeted.

Raiding spy stores and hobbling cipher technology merely because of these new inventions' unfamiliarity (or the desire to protect government turf) can only have pernicious effects, halting advances in such technologies. That bodes ill for the people who could potentially profit from making or selling such items, as well as all the customers who want them and now can't get them.

A recent New York Times story on spy store products (which doesn't mention the government's crackdown until the next-to-last column) relates many here-and-now examples of people using such technologies in ways that may strike some of us as rude or even slightly scuzzy–but that may seem perfectly understandable to others.

Some people, for instance, looked in on their nannies to see how they really take care of the children. In another instance, one man tried to assuage his suspicions that roommates were breaking into his room. (The suspicions unfortunately were correct.)

Those are only quotidian examples that already exist; the potential benefits of eavesdropping technology, cipher technology, or any other kind of technology, cannot be known beforehand.

You can never do just one thing, a lesson that lawmakers never seem to learn from experience. And the law of unintended consequences for nipping technological innovations in the bud is sure to stymie unforeseeable benefits. It's one thing to have laws targeting acts that hurt people. It's quite another to target products and innovations merely because they might.