When the 1956 film version of George Orwell's “1984” appeared on the late-late show some years ago, its depiction of a futuristic society in which TV cameras allowed the government to watch almost everybody almost all of the time evoked in my young mind a certain amount of apprehension, fear – and maybe even a renewed appreciation for privacy and liberty.
Today, with everything from government-conducted airport molestations to the domestic use of unmanned spy aircraft being justified by the need for “national security,” the Allen County Commissioners' recent well-intentioned decision to place electronic tracking devices on all non-police county vehicles seems almost quaint.
Which says a lot about us, don't you think?
“I'm not a fan of 'Big Brother,' though some may see it that way,” Commissioner Nelson Peters said, rejecting any comparison to the all-seeing dictator in Orwell's cautionary novel. “But we probably have too many cars now, and with better management we may be able to cut back and save money.”
Is that a worthy goal? Of course. The county provides take-home vehicles to 49 officials and employees in addition to 180 “pool” cars and trucks used on an as-needed basis. If the global positioning system (GPS) units to be installed in the next month or so indicate some of those vehicles are rarely driven – and hence probably not really needed – that over time could save taxpayers a bundle despite the units' $399 per-vehicle cost.
According to Peters, each vehicle costs the county about $55 per month in maintenance, $200 for fuel and about $1,000 per year in insurance. And that doesn't include the purchase price (the city has GPS units on some but not all of its vehicles).
According to a policy approved by the Commissioners last week, the GPS units are intended to “monitor the movement of the vehicle upon which it is placed on a 24/7 basis to determine if the vehicle's use is in accordance with departmental rules and this policy” – a policy that generally limits use of the vehicles to official business within Allen County.
Whether that policy has always been followed has up to now been largely a matter of personal accountability and speculation. In 2006, for example, Health Department officials might not have known employees were using their county cars for personnel errands had an administrator not used her own money to switch GPS units among 12 vehicles. Six employees ultimately were fired.
If some officials and employees would rather drive their own vehicles than subject themselves to constant surveillance by accepting a county car, “I'm fine with that,” Peters said -- although the county pays about 55 cents per mile to employees using their own cars on official business.
This day has been coming since 2009, when the Commissioners voted to provide the $10,000 needed to equip 20 vehicles with GPS – the idea being that surreptitiously rotating the units among the entire fleet would keep everybody honest.
But renting a limited number of units was deemed unsuitable, Peters said – leading to the decision to buy the units. Public-safety vehicles are exempt, Peters said, because take-home police cares are considered a crime deterrent even when driven for personal use.
Besides, as Sheriff Ken Fries noted, the soon-to-be-purchased upgrade in emergency radios are equipped with GPS – meaning his department's 100 or so vehicles can be tracked that way. “Buying the units for us would have been a waste of money,” he said.
But what about the costs that can't be measured in dollars? In 2003, the county had about 430 vehicles in its fleet – a number the county was somehow able to reduce without the help of technology that only James Bond would have used just a few years ago. And even Peters acknowledges that the possibility that the units will induce some employees to drive more in order to “prove” the need for their vehicles.
I'm not really being critical of the Commissioners' use of GPS. Taken by itself, the decision could make financial sense and will be minimally invasive. After all, nobody is forced to work for the county, and most county employees aren't required to drive county-owned vehicles.
But that's really the point: This isn't an isolated case. Every day, in ways large and small, benign and suspect, our actions and movements are being watched, tracked and influenced in ways that would have seemed tyrannical not all that long ago. The inexorable evolution of technology ensures the escalation of that trend.
Maybe, in some ways, it will make us more secure and maybe even more virtuous. But I do miss the days when only God knew everything about you, government officials would never think of punishing you for smoking in a bar or pulling you over for failing to buckle up, and people actually said “It's a free country.”
Without sarcasm or irony.