Opinion

Every new gadget has potential for good and ill

When I read stories about the latest software, the newest smartphone and all that's happening in cyberspace (wherever that is), it fills me with a sense of wonder. But it also scares the hell out of me.

Every day, it seems, tech companies churn out another amazing device, and the next day some idiot uses it to take a peek up someone else's metaphorical (or actual) skirt.

The changes that have put all these iGadgets and eGizmos into our greedy little hands has come swiftly. When a younger version of me walked out of the police academy with a shiny new badge nearly 25 years ago, I never imagined the tools that would be coming down the pike. My trusty six-shooter was the first to go, swapped out for a lightweight pistol with triple the ammo. Years later I traded in my nightstick for a plastic pistol that shot electrified darts.

But the most sweeping change came when I turned in my trusty metal clipboard and received in exchange a new laptop computer. My initial thought: pretty cool. Then software programs began piling up faster than I could figure out how to use them, and pretty soon I felt like my brain was getting mashed in an e-trash compactor. When someone mounted a video camera in the car, everything got worse.

Since hand-held devices arrived years ago, sophisticated video production has become possible for anyone with a smartphone. In response to some YouTube offerings best described as "Cops gone wild," (a genre in which the death of Eric Garner in New York stands out), many police agencies are considering body cameras for individual officers.

But as many administrators are learning, video recording carries its own risk. One local police agency received a request for a decade's worth of video from the entire patrol fleet for a decade. That is a staggering amount of data. You have to wonder if the police chief, if given the choice, would rather flog the person who submitted the request or the legislator who drafted our current, and suddenly obsolete, public disclosure laws.

As pros and cons go, high-tech inventions are a case study in duality. With the advent of sophisticated electronic databases, police agencies developed search engines to keep tabs on some very dangerous people. But when their existence became known, defense attorneys immediately subpoenaed the contents, thus undermining the benefit and often revealing confidential sources.

But the criminal justice system is hardly alone in bearing the brunt of technology's downside. A new wave of domestic drones are in a holding pattern, just waiting for federal regulators to figure out how this miniature armada – so easily purchased, operated and weaponized – can safely fit into the nation's airspace. As evidenced by the tiny helicopter that recently buzzed onto the White House grounds, it is a virtually impossible task.

For every smartphone benefit – from texting, emailing, posting or (should somebody find the need) making a phone call – some users are tempted by voyeurism and sexting, face physical or electronic theft, or risk killing themselves by fiddling with their phones while driving.

And then there's the Internet. Thanks to Al Gore, we now have terms like email message, Facebook post and Google search. But the web has also added cyber-stalking and hacking and malware to our lexicon.

This invaluable platform for sharing information is also readily available to bad actors like North Korea, whose hackers allegedly plundered Sony's database; to terrorist groups Islamic State and Boko Haram, who post videos of their atrocities; and to young pimps, often gang members, who sell the innocence of young girls on sites like backpage.com.

Yet even now, some well-paid creative type is inventing the next techno marvel. No doubt we will welcome it happily, grasping all of its electronic goodness in our hands while the potential risks hang over our head like a digital Sword of Damocles.

Whether that persuades you that life was better back in 1988 is a moot point. You can't put that genie back in the iLamp.

Brian O'Neill, a Gig Harbor resident and former South Sound police officer, is a former reader columnist. Email him at btoflyer@comcast.net.

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