In 2006, Denzel Washington starred in thriller titled “Déjà Vu.” I really love this movie. It had a clever premise: scientists had stumbled across a way to perform surveillance in the past. They could literally see and hear what was going on in a particular place a certain number of hours earlier. It was fun to imagine how one might go about solving a crime by using a window into the past.
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but in a sense, we already had the technology to do something similar. In the digital age, so many records are kept by businesses that if only we could somehow preserve them all, then we would have a way of stepping back in time to see what happened. We could simply look up the records. The problem is that by the time you know who your suspect is, most of that past data is long gone.
An elegant but troubling solution is to gather information on everyone and store it in a lock-box somewhere so that it is available if and only if we later can show probably cause for needing the information.
This is exactly what our National Security Agency has been doing for years with phone records. The public reaction has been typical of the way we tend to react to things that involve new technology. We freak out a little bit in ways that are likely to seem funny to future generations.
I think we should be delighted at the clever idea of allowing law enforcement access to the past in this way. I think we should also be concerned about the potential for abuse of this lock-box of information. Our energies should get past the shock, and we should embrace this inevitable advance in law enforcement (storing surveillance videos is just one of many possible extensions of this idea that are sure to come). At the same time we should roll up our sleeves to develop an equally elegant solution to ensure that this data remains inaccessible without a warrant.