There is a growing number of examples of the reasonably benign — depending on your point of view — use of surveillance technology in the public sector.

For example, in Britain this academic year, there will be more to the writing of student essays and other assignments than just keyboarding

and mouse clicks. According to the BBC, British school authorities are deploying new software that will detect whether Jonathan’s or Jillian’s ever so clever little treatise on the history of English hedgerows shows any signs of plagiarism.

Meanwhile, over here, Tennessee is following Florida’s lead in using global positioning systems (GPS) in the state penal system. The state government has launched a US$2.5-million pilot project to track the whereabouts of Tennessee’s paroled bad guys — in this case, violent sex offenders.

Similarly, researchers at the Intel lab in Seattle are coming up with acceptable ways to use radio frequency identification (RFID) on Alzheimer’s sufferers and other patients with a tendency to wander off. Just tag ’em, and track ’em. And in Helsinki, RFID travel cards are replacing paper tickets on the public transportation system, giving urban planners an unprecedented, computerized grasp of traffic flow and volumes.

Studies indicate there can be some real bottom line benefits of all this surveillance technology to the taxpayer.

A recent independent AMR research report made available by the Canadian firm Sundex Information Systems shows that RFID tags, for example, promise among other benefits:

* a 20 per cent labour cost savings;

* a 25 per cent reduction in inventory levels; and

* an 80 per cent reduction in theft and fraud (such as drugs and school supplies).

Such is the bright side of the latest I’m-watching-you technologies in the hands of our public servants.

But there’s a dark side too. It’s detailed in a recent study by Queen’s University law professor Arthur Cockfield. Called The State of Privacy Laws and Privacy Encroaching Technologies after September 11: A Two-Year Report Card on the Canadian Government, the study says the feds deserve no more than a C+ for their surveillance efforts. We’re not doing a very good job on either side of the surveillance fence. Our police and other legalized snoopers are not using the latest technology to their best advantage, and we are not up to scratch with systems that safeguard personal privacy.

Cockfield concludes with the call for an “”independent oversight committee”” to watch carefully what our cops are up to in the post-Sept. 11 environment. He also says the government should put a priority on installing technology that would better protect any unauthorized entry or even sniffing around large government databases.

I suggest we go further and copy what Finland does. It manages to combine the use of leading-edge tracking technology with some of the world’s most specific and stringent privacy laws.

The Finnish government, for example, has assigned every citizen a national identification number consisting of their date of birth and four other digits. It uses these ID numbers on passports, driving licences and a growing number of other personal data files held by public authorities. At the same time, the government is constantly generating ever more detailed legislation limiting who can access what databases.

So, let’s not worry like British school children must do now about copying what others have created. Here, I think we should apply what I call the Tindall principle. As Frank Tindall, my old football coach at Queen’s University, and an ethical man if ever there was one, used to say when asked if he ever used another team’s football plays, “”If it works, steal it.””

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