EDITORIAL: Is Copake spying on residents?

DID YOU LEAVE A VOICEMAIL message last week? If so, it might have been among several that suddenly appeared here four days later. “You have new messages!” said the cheery voice. But no, actually, they’re old messages. This happens a lot, and here’s the solution: Smash the phone, buy a different phone from a different company and learn to live with a whole new set of irritating faults.

But what if the delayed messages weren’t a technological failure? Suppose some government agency is checking my messages for threats to national security? One of the calls came from a person in Hudson, the other from somebody in Germantown. You can never be sure. I don’t happen to know anybody in northwest Pakistan or Yemen, but some unsavory person from one of those troubled places could have tried to call me. How would I know until the voicemail arrives in my inbox, maybe next week?

The list of agencies and companies and individuals collecting data about us grows all the time. Some personal information we surrender willingly through social media; some of it is siphoned off without our knowledge; some is stolen. But it seems like there must be some places where we can keep a few secrets to ourselves, like our homes, for instance. Yeah, right.

Last week Columbia Paper Associate Editor Diane Valden reported on a the property revaluation in Copake, where the assessor is working with a service previously used by a least one other town in the county. The service provides detailed, high resolution aerial photography combined with other data to help update property values. It has allowed the assessor to pinpoint what may be millions of dollars worth of changes and upgrades not listed on the town’s assessment rolls.

Copake has had a rough time financially over the last few years, shedding its police force and borrowing to make ends meet. Against that backdrop, the prospect of an increase in the overall value of the town from the digitally assisted revaluation comes as welcome news. Assessments that more accurately reflect the true value of improved properties mean residents who enjoyed the benefits of undervalued homes will now pay their fair share. Put another way, the high-tech revaluation data promises to spread the tax burden more equitably in this hard-pressed community.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that attributing more accurate and just values to homes and businesses in the town relies on a new form of automated spying at the grassroots level. It’s not illegal, but the level of detail and the indiscriminate way in which the approach can be applied raise questions about how else the data collected might be used.

Let’s be clear. The town has not only the right but the obligation to treat all property owners the same when it establishes local property values. The law gives municipalities like Copake the authority to inspect properties for purposes of taxation. The town assessor is doing his job in the best way he knows, taking advantage of the latest tools–ones that allow him and his associates to conduct their data collection much more efficiently than in the past.

But as the new aerial/digital revaluation service peers at–and inevitably, into–homes, what are the limits on the extent of information collected? Who has access to that data? What restrictions govern range of purposes for which the data can be used? And assuming these questions can be answered by some sort of existing standards, who enforces the rules?

You don’t have to have an ounce of sympathy for scofflaws and outright tax cheats to see that these questions could apply to you if you live in Copake or any other town that uses the same or a similar service. Individuals can’t easily escape the reach of new technology, especially when it comes to tasks like determining the property values in a community. But local governments do have a responsibility to demand that the process is transparent to the public and to protect the privacy of the citizens it serves. Like property, privacy has a value too.

As Copake pursues this new technological fix for what ails the town, keep in mind that all complex systems have unexpected flaws. The Town Board should remain skeptical about claims of new tax revenue, vigilant to prevent illegal invasions of privacy and insistent on openness about the process. It’s not progress if the method used to weed out cheaters replaces old injustices with new ones.

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