Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Should better surveillance mean lower penalties?

In an interesting blog by security expert Bruce Schneier, he argues that technology's increasing ability to detect legal violations has its downside. Calling it "Bigger Brother", he cites the example of Baltimore using aerial maps and computer software to detect code violations such as rooftop decks built without permits. Schneier argues that because technology makes detection easier than before, stiff penalties for environmental violations are not necessary as deterrents for violations that used to be hard to detect.

Is he right? Should we reduce penalties for environmental violations here in the Bay Area?

If penalties were based exclusively on their deterrent value, then he would be right. But penalties for environmental violations also reflect harm done to society. They may also be insufficiently deterring because setting them at a level that truly stops misbehavior would be seen as unjust. No one advocates capital punishment for constructing buildings without a permit. Finally, just because new technology exists somewhere doesn't mean that people are using it. I would love for Santa Clara County to do some overflights of large scale developments, but I don't expect that to happen anytime soon.

Penalties for environmental violations are set for reasons that have little to do with their optimal deterrent value, so being able to detect the violations more easily does not automatically mean penalties should be lowered. I don't read Schneier as saying they automatically should be either, but big environmental violators will think differently.

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