Public getting involved with national security

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Civil libertarians are understandably conconcerned about recent revelations that some telephone companies are turning over phone records to federal spy agencies.

While federal agents would become extremely bored listening in to most of our calls, who's to say how personal information might be used against us if it gets into the wrong hands?

It's just the latest example of how our modern "wired" world is changing all aspects of our lives. A few years ago, who could have imagined flocks of teenagers, chatting on cell phones and text-mailing friends across the room or thousands of miles away? Or, the influences and dangers that would accompany widespread Internet use?

Yes, there is plenty to worry about with instant communications, but there is an empowerment of the average citizen that comes with a connection to the World Wide Web or a cellular telephone.

Listen in to the police scanner, and you'll hear reports that originated from civilian motorists who just want to help keep the highways safe. Whether it's an accident to report, cattle on the road or a drunk and/or reckless driver, it can be called into the nearest dispatcher and relayed to the nearest patrol car.

And, new cell phones will have built-in GPS capability, to let 911 operators know where the caller is.

One organized effort has trained more than 3,600 Nebraskans to keep a lookout for problems from behind the wheels of their big, over-the-road trucks.

Started by the American Trucking Association in 1998, the national Highway Watch program has received 122 calls from Nebraska participants in the last 22 months.

After September 11, 2001, the federal government appropriated money to add terrorism training to the program, which has 270,000 trained participants nationwide, Nance Harris of the Nebraska Truckers Association told the Associated Press.

Truckers learn their regular routes, and know when something like a video camera or a car parked near an airport isn't normal, she said.

But more often, it's not terrorism, but a safety issue that brings the system into play, such as a speeding semi with a shredded tire, or locating a missing truck loaded with fertilizer.

Yes, it's worrisome when the government spies on us, and federal power to do so must be kept in check.

But when public safety is involved, it's reassuring to know that the public has the power to act as the eyes and ears of those who are working to keep us safe.

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