The Right Coast

May 06, 2004
Torture in the digital age
By Tom Smith

An angle on the Iraq prison scandal that the Washington Post rightly emphasizes is the role of the digital camera. The photos obtained by the Post were emailed to them and taken originally with digital cameras. No more sneaking rolls of film past guards or secreting microfilm in hollow teeth. As long as you have access to the web, you can transmit information anywhere.

Many of the soldiers in Iraq have digital cameras, including some, as has become so apparent, with access to the Abu Ghraib prison. As we law and economics types say, this has resulted in a radical lowering of monitoring costs. This may not be clear to the various enemies of liberty out there, but this scandal and the way it arose, is all about how open societies with free press, technology and democratic government can respond to and correct abuses. The torture going on in Iran, "the Kingdom," Egypt, Jordan, Cuba, North Korea and the rest of the prison states, we are not seeing digital pictures of, and will still be going on next year. And that torture is lot worse than what we see in the Post.

I have toyed with the idea of a sort of neo-Benthamite panopticon in American prisons. Why shouldn't there be webcams in the hallways of state penitentaries? If voyeurs saw three guards with billy clubs going into a cell in the middle of the night in the Wyoming state pen, bloggers would know about it by morning. I am all for locking up criminals. Three strikes is good by me. But I also think the abuses that routinely take place in prisons in this country are grotesque, and should be stopped.

There are lots of other public facilities that I think should be in the virtual public space of the internet. Why not have a webcam broadcasting the construction of public buildings? If workers are trying to frame while stoned (as they obviously were when they built my house) why shouldn't we find out, and maybe even get them not to use nail guns while intoxicated? Why shouldn't we know that some highway workers spend 90 percent of their time propping up shovels and not digging with them? I'm not kidding about this. I think the internet has enormous potential for lowering the monitoring costs of public activity that should take place in the full glare of publicity.