Silicon Insider: A Surveillance Society Offers No Escape

Have you read the story this week about "The Canoe Man"?

If you haven't, here's a quick summary: in March, 2002, Brit John Darwin, now 57, a former prison officer, decided to take his kayak out on the North Sea near his home near Hartlepool. Darwin was an experienced kayaker, had paddled out to this area numerous times, and the sea that day was flat.

Nevertheless, Darwin disappeared. After an extensive search, he was presumed dead. That September, his wife Anne was quoted in a police statement expressing her sadness over the fact that her husband would never have a proper grave over which she might mourn.

A sad story. The kind you read every day, feel sorry for those left behind, silently thank God it wasn't you, and go on to the sports section.

Ah, but this week that long-forgotten story added a surprising new chapter.

Five days ago, a tan and healthy John Darwin suddenly turned up at a London police station, said he didn't remember anything of the last six years, and wondered if anyone was looking for him. As you can imagine, this created a bit of a stir and yesterday the case of "The Canoe Man" -- as Darwin has come to be called -- took yet another turn. Police arrested Darwin at his son's home on suspicion of fraud. The police also released what appeared to be a damning photograph of a smiling John and Anne Darwin taken in Panama just a year ago, not long after Anne sold her home in England and moved there.

Being an old journalist, I'm obliged here to describe Mr. Darwin's crime as "alleged," but it's pretty damn hard to look at that photograph and not think: Busted. Actually, it's pretty hard to look at that photo and not burst into laughter.

But leaving aside the truth or falsity of John Darwin's supposed Amnesia in Paradise, I'm struck that there is a deeper issue here: it is that in the 21st Century there increasingly is no place to escape to.

We increasingly live in a world of security cameras and CCTVs, Google and MSN maps, and on-line credit and address searches. Leave a fingerprint on a beer bottle in Tonga and Interpol in Prague will know about it; dial your al-Qaida contact on your cell phone and you're going to have a missile up your butt in a matter of minutes.

All of this -- well, most of it -- was done for all of the right reasons: homeland security, crime prevention, search and rescue, etc. Whenever some mad bomber is picked up by surveillance camera or a child molester nabbed with amber alert, it's just one more argument for installing these devices everywhere, and expanding the 'rings of steel' around our major cities.

It goes without saying that this raises some serious concerns about privacy and the personal liberty. But as The Canoe Man case should remind us, the increasing Big Brother nature of modern life is also rendering obsolete another long-cherished tradition of humankind: The Right to Run Away.

Nowhere will that effect be more deeply felt than here in the United States. We, after all, are a country built on running away. We like to present this as the story of generation after generation of immigrants coming to America in search of opportunity. And no doubt that's true; but we also know in our hearts that most of those opportunistic folks were also running away from government programs, endless poverty, annoying neighbors, government taxes and drafts, angry parents, and pregnant girlfriends.

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