Big brother is getting bigger every day

A red light camera at an intersection on

A red light camera at an intersection on July 25, 2012. (Credit: AP)

William F. B. O'Reilly

Portrait of Newsday/amNY columnist Bill O'Reilly (March 28, William F. B. O'Reilly

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I went to bed earlier this week a semi-rational person. I awoke the next day a raving paranoid. It happens once in a while.

It wasn't a single thing that put me over the edge; it was the accumulation of stories about expanding police technologies, the ones to which we, as citizens, routinely succumb. Call it a Keyser Söze moment -- if you've seen the 1995 film "The Usual Suspects" you'll know the reference -- where all the pieces suddenly fit together and one is left with his jaw ajar. That's what I had.

The paranoia narrative begins with the advent of red-light cameras some 25 years ago. Back then, I worked for a beneficent Manhattan state senator named Roy M. Goodman, who together with then-Queens Assemb. Ivan Lafayette, helped pass the first red-light camera legislation in New York. It was a pilot program authorizing 25 cameras at busy city intersections, and the bill had a sunset provision, meaning that the law would automatically expire if not renewed. It was renewed again and again and there are 150 cameras allowed in New York City today as a result, spitting out $50 fine after $50 fine. Mayor Bill de Blasio naturally wants more.

I had to write the news release announcing the original red-light camera bill back around 1990, so I did some cursory research on the history of the cameras. They were first employed in Finland and the Soviet Union. I typed the word Finland into the news release, but omitted the Soviets. No need to put that thought in people's heads, I reasoned. But a story about Soviet police state tactics was exactly what crossed my mind as I did so.

Whenever Soviet citizens became restless -- when those toilet paper lines became one comrade too long -- the first thing the then-Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs would do, according to the story, was arbitrarily create traffic jams. It was its way of frustrating and reasserting control over the citizenry, of reminding them who was boss. It probably issued a lot of red-light tickets in the process.

Today, red-light cameras are used in more than 600 jurisdictions in 21 U.S. states, and counting. One hardly notices them; they are just 10,000 of the estimated 30 million police and private security cameras perched where only pigeons used to tread.

Those cameras are mostly a good thing. Private cameras helped identify the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.I praised that in a column. Red-light cameras may save lives, yet several studies show they just help government make money. Either way, the web of surveillance grows thicker in the name of public safety.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer held another Sunday news conference last week. This one was to call on car companies to refrain from selling customer data to third parties. Thanks to GPS technology, another helpful thing most of us warmly welcome, car makers now have an awful lot of information about us -- where we go; who we visit; where we shop, and by how much we break speeding laws. All valuable stuff.

It would be especially valuable to the government, one would think. After all, if I drive a car from my house to Albany, Ford can tell you exactly how long it took me to get there versus how long it was supposed to take me to get there. If road safety is such an important issue, shouldn't government be able to use Ford's data to fine me for speeding, which I invariably do? I bet many Americans today could be convinced that that's a good idea. Government can use phone and Internet data from private companies to make sure I'm not breaking laws. Why not for traffic laws? Heck, the Supreme Court ruled that thermal imaging of private homes is permissible to look for marijuana lamps. Why not use them to search for contraband incandescent light bulbs smuggled into the country? If there are tools that can prove we're breaking laws, why not use them?

This sounds far-fetched today. But who would have thought 10 years or 20 years ago that California cities and towns would be banning wood-burning fireplaces or that it would be illegal to smoke a cigarette in a New York City park? Who would have thought that data on our third- and fourth- graders would be gathered and uploaded for government use. But it's all for the good. Right? Our kids have to keep up with the Chinese.

Chinese handcuffs is more what I was envisioning this morning. The individual pieces of our emerging world seem benign, but when woven together, they could potentially ensnare us all. Call me crazy, but I worry about the world we're leaving our children.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a columnist and a Republican political consultant.