Tue, Jan 13, 2009 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: The slippery slope of citizen spies

It’s official now — smoking in public spaces is illegal. The new law, which came into effect on Sunday, will clear up the air and hopefully encourage some to abandon a harmful habit that costs billions of dollars in healthcare and work absenteeism every year.

Laudable though the new law may be, there were signs on Sunday that the authorities may be overreaching after the Taipei City Government encouraged the public to report any violations by providing name, time, date and location — and pictures — while promising 5 percent of the fines as a reward.

In other words, the government was telling us that it is OK to spy on each other and to snitch on friends, family members and coworkers.

“I think most of the monetary rewards will go to those who report someone they know, such as a coworker or friend,” Chang Kang-hsin (張康興), a Taipei City Health Department inspector said at the time.

Now there is nothing wrong with a civilian reporting a serious crime — murder, rape or other serious offenses — or with the state providing financial compensation for their cooperation. But a policy encouraging people to report individuals who violate a smoking ban is another question altogether, especially when it comes with a financial incentive at a time when thousands of people are being laid off or forced to take unpaid leave. Furthermore, while some may be motivated by money, it wouldn’t take too long before less scrupulous individuals use this for other motives, such as vengeance, jealousy or any other grievance.

Petty motives aside, when a government invites citizens to spy on each other, it is on a very slippery slope. Not that the current government is breaking new ground in this department; after all, not so long ago the Environmental Protection Administration was offering similar incentives to encourage people to report those who failed to recycle or littered public spaces. In 2002, the US Department of Justice launched an initiative known as Terrorism Information and Prevention System (with the appropriate acronym TIPS), which enlisted people from all walks of life to work as “extra eyes” for the government.

What should make all of us step back, however, is that once citizen spies become a fact of life, there is no telling where it will end — especially when a government has authoritarian tendencies. Today it’s cigarettes and failure to recycle a plastic bottle; tomorrow, it could be anything — business practices, sexual behavior, political views. Spying is made perfectly legal, we would think, because it was sanctioned by the government, the infamous top-down directive that throughout history has resulted in untold abuse.

In darker periods of history, the KGB, the Gestapo and the Stasi all encouraged people to snitch on each other, ostensibly to “protect” the state. Given where these agencies — and the governments they worked for — are today, it should be clear that the practice, though seemingly effective at first, is in the long term deleterious as it turns citizens against each other, undermines trust and unweaves the bonds that make society function. Those reviled agencies, we should note, pushed citizen spying to a terrible extreme, but they did so gradually, just as the proverbial frog will allow itself to be boiled to death if the temperature is raised one degree at a time.

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