Electronic surveillance and the mariner

The shocked reactions to today’s news that the Drug Enforcement Administration (and presumably every other government agency) is collecting data on the movements of millions of cars around the U.S. through the simple expedient of computer-monitored license-plate tracking are somewhat naive. With satellite and cellphone tracking and speeding/traffic-light cameras, computer integration of license-plate data was almost inevitable.

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George Orwell’s 1984 predicted this state of affairs and it was accurate enough in forecasting Big Brother’s omniscience, even if it is 30 years late. Big Brother is indeed watching us: electronic surveillance combined with law-enforcement data collection enables NSA computers to store, assimilate and correlate a staggering amount of data on servers so massive that they require nuclear-powerplant cooling water systems.

This isn’t a moral judgment on the situation, merely an observation. It may be that this is a good development — perhaps Big Brother is indeed our big brother — only time will tell. Meanwhile, mariners must assume that just like the vessels on which they serve, they’re being tracked at all times. Thus, any word or deed, however minor or innocent, might generate a pop-up on some computer screen somewhere, usually with bad results. 

One archetypical example of the practical effect of modern surveillance technology is in swimming-pool enforcement: cities in California are now trolling Google Earth for unpermitted swimming pools so they can levy huge fines (for example, $100/day since construction) that are usually negotiated down to whatever the homeowner can bear. So license-plate tracking is a natural outgrowth of traffic cameras and no doubt authorities will soon find ways to incorporate it into greater and more-pervasive monitoring systems.

U.S. mariners may take some consolation from the open and unfettered nature of the seas and waterways on which they serve, but because their professional lives are so tightly controlled by the Coast Guard, they may be even more closely monitored than ordinary citizens.

Vessel tracking is well advanced, and a sophisticated researcher can usually find out who’s on what vessel and when. Coupled with data from agencies like state DMVs, the TSA, DEA, FBI, NSA, DHS, et al., this puts the mariner in the same open boat as the rest of the citizenry.

It makes the old police-state demand “papers, please” a nostalgic artifact of the distant past.

About the author

Capt. Max Hardberger

Max Hardberger is a maritime attorney, flight instructor, writer, and maritime repo man. He has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1995. His memoir, Seized: A Sea Captain’s Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World’s Most Troubled Waters, was published by Broadway Books in 2010. He’s appeared on FOX, The Learning Channel, National Public Radio and the BBC, and has been the subject of articles in Fairplay Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Journal, Esquire (UK), and the London Sunday Guardian.

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