Thursday, November 29, 2012

Freedom, homeland security, and Ingress

In the United States, there are two mutually exclusive views of the world.

One view, the libertarian view, holds that a person can do anything except that which is explicitly prohibited by law.

The opposing view, which I'll call the "homeland security" view, holds that if people do something out of the ordinary, it's best for society if that behavior is checked out. You can't be too careful, you know.

Google, which is generally perceived to fall in the first camp, has created an application that falls afoul of the second camp. Ingress is a game that can be played twenty-four hours a day, can be played anywhere in the world, and results in people going to a variety of places - including post offices and fire stations - and frantically keying things into their smartphones for a few minutes.

Erica Joy has shared an account from Reddit of what could go wrong. The writer, and the city in which the writer resides, are not anonymous.

So I got arrested....

I was out capturing some portals (I live in a medium sized city and only one other person is playing that I noticed, only one portal was taken.). And I walk by the police station and notice that the portal was still free! So I grabbed it. then my phone locked up. I restart it, and load the game back up when a cop noticed me, shouted to me and arrested me. Apparently sitting near a police station for about 5 minutes with a GPS view of the surrounding area with little blue blips on the screen is a red flag. I was in a holding cell for nearly 3 hours explaining to them it's just a game by google. Strangest night ever.

The reddit thread includes other stories of people who have run into trouble with the police while playing Ingress, or while doing lower-tech activities such as geocaching.

One person managed to talk himself out of arrest:

I had been hacking portals parked in front of a "high traffic drug area" and then when I was leaving made an illegal turn. I explained the game and mentioned beta testing and portals, I showed him one and pulled up it's info car and he just said cool and let me go, I'm guessing he thought there's no way this nerd is here for drugs.

But now you have to wonder - what if you're detained by an officer who is an Apple devotee? Are you REALLY in trouble then? "Hey, your Android phone contains stolen property!"

It should be noted that there are people who were in public places. Google warns players against trespassing:

Don’t trespass while playing Ingress (and don’t try to lawyer that guideline, just respect it). Do not access any property or location while playing the game if you’re not sure you have the right to be there.

This conflict between libertarianism and homeland security is not unique to Ingress. As I mentioned above, it's also something that occurs in geocaching. And to provide another example, many years ago I crossed the border from Calexico, California to Mexicali, Baja California, wandered around for a couple of hours, and then went back across the border. This aroused immediate suspicions - who other than a drug dealer would cross the border into Mexicali for a few hours? - and I went through a couple of searches before I was allowed back into the United States.

Needless to say, I won't be visiting this portal any time soon...

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