Who knows? On surveillance, privacy and technology


As a small-fry writer I have a professional interest in being well-known. Celebrity is an American gross national product routinely converted into cash, and cash comes in handy when the bills come due. Celebrity more easily spawns cash if there are dirty little secrets involved. I personally enjoy entertaining dirty little secrets, but my small-fry status as writer has crippled me when it comes to the cash.

I’m hoping that government will make me famous in a way one of those Hollywood columnists never could. I’m certain that every government agency, state and federal, knows enough to provide the social security I long for. They have a right to my Social Security number, but their police scanners read my license plate as I drive down a freeway, their highway department knows I have astigmatism, and our Department of Homeland Security knows how many times I use a phone so smart its IQ is higher than mine. I don’t know what else government agencies know about me, but I wish I knew who to call whenever one of those Socratic moods comes on requiring me to know myself.

Though I haven’t been able to translate what’s known about me into the fame that also brings in the cash, I’m certain my government knows me in a special way. I’ll let you in on one of my dirty little secrets: The FBI has been watching me for years. This is something I know, even if I’m like millions of other average Americans who don’t really know.

When I was a young college professor I was front and center at some demonstrations against the Vietnam war. Nothing illegal or violent happened at these events, and nothing nearly good enough to put a timely end to the war. But during the demonstrations a couple complete strangers were taking pictures of everyone, especially me (it seemed), as I marched along in the front row. No one knew who these strangers were, where they came from, or why they were taking pictures of everyone. They were not press photographers. If they were, they were also liars.

I think I know they were FBI agents. Though I’m right-handed I happened to be carrying my protest sign with my left hand, at a time when J. Edgar Hoover was zeroed in on all organizations and individuals with anything leftward about them. So I’m sure the FBI has a file on me that includes the pictures those strangers took. I’m also sure that the file the FBI had on me ended up in the IRS data bank, because a lot of mistakes are made.

Tea Party folk, with their complaints about government inefficiency, should be irate it took the IRS so long to pay special attention to them. I think it’s because the IRS has been too busy with people like me. Year after year the IRS kept auditing my small-fry income tax returns, without finding anything wrong. It is true that a Ph.D. in English does not qualify anyone to understand IRS forms, but I somehow muddled through and paid what was due. Did I dare complain––tell them, for example, to go after GM or GE or AT&T instead? I didn’t because I felt sorry for them. I could see on their faces that they had too much to do.

Sadly, my redundant encounters with the IRS did nothing to further my literary career. Though I was known (if unread, and not wholly understood) by two powerful government agencies with enormous public presence, I could not translate what they knew about me into the celebrity sure to generate the kind of big-time cash that would inspire the IRS to ignore me.

I can think of only one way the government can provide me the celebrity my literary career deserves. I’d have to go public with something that’s nobody’s business. Somebody in government probably knows where I take a leak, but it hates leaks of matters it deems sensitive. The cash I’d get from my celebrity as a leaker would be substantial if I were in exile or on the lamb, but I doubt that I’d enjoy it much in a prison cell. So if I had something worth leaking I’d probably contain the urge.

I’m also reluctant to ask for state sponsorship of my celebrity, in part because the fairness issues are complex and unique to our times. In a democracy is it fair for a government to know a lot about me without my knowing what the government knows? Do we dare call it treason when the government robs our private data bank? Do we have a right to ask the government to return what it has secretly taken from us, and how do we do this if we don’t know it has been stealing from us? What is a fair free market fee for information taken from us? The FBI charges a fee to citizens who want to know if the FBI has a file on them, and another fee if they want to see everything on the file the FBI hasn’t blacked out. Can we be blackmailed for asking to see what’s been blacked out?

These questions are so knotty I can’t help but feel sympathy for government information gatherers. They can’t compete with the private sector. If Socrates said that self-knowledge was the work of a lifetime, the marketplace now has made that workload manageable and profitable. The marketplace knows more about me than the government does. It knows stuff about me I can’t fathom myself. Amazon.com knows what books I read and which ones are good for me. The woman in the GPS system of my car knows better than I do where I’m going, and she is not shy about expressing her views. Sears keeps me from losing my mind by reminding me I have an unspent $14.00 coupon, and Sears, always open on Sundays and Saturdays, also seems to have taken an interest in our entire society’s spiritual well-being. Coupon points, I’m reminded, “apply automatically toward our redemption, in store or online at Sears.”

A few years ago I Googled myself for the first time, suddenly gratified to find myself widely known in cyberspace. There, in that airlessness, all my books were listed, as were facts about myself I didn’t know about myself. There, for example, I discovered that I’m in footnotes cited by writers who remain entire strangers to me. There was an Emilio DeGrazia who also had a fig tree in his back yard. It could have been me, but he had just died in Connecticut. Google’s attention to detail is remarkable, but that one got me thinking more deeply about how easy it is now to be dead but not gone, and whether timeless writers will have to share their immortality with just everyone.

Neil Postman, in his timely 1986 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, foreshadowed the privacy issues we face today. Postman argued that staring for hours at the TV, currently deemed by many to be a low tech offspring of primitive minds, was making us stupider and more vulnerable to government control. Our entertainments, said Postman, would require us to “amuse ourselves to death.” Mind control, he claimed, comes in two forms. One way is described in George Orwell’s 1984. There Big Brother’s telescreens and agents watch and know everything about us. In Orwell’s totalitarian world the control apparatus is pervasive, hard-wired, and brutal. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World offers an entirely different, call it a “soft” approach, to mind control. In Huxley’s society pleasure is the control mechanism of choice, notably mind-numbing “Soma” pills that the population loves to eat.

TV, argued Postman, was creating not Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare but Huxley’s pleasure-driven mindlessness. A former chairperson of the Federal Communications Commission, he did not live long enough to write a book about where we are now––trying to figure out how to muddle along in a time when Orwell’s and Huxley’s nightmare views seem to apply simultaneously. Government and the marketplace both have technologies with Orwellian capacities, and both have their ways of feeding us “Soma” pleasures that seem to diminish our capacity to be alert critical thinkers eager to engage ourselves in the self-government required of successful democracies.

If government plays the Big Brother part, the enterprising spirit of our free enterprise system skimps on the freedom part. The private sector, while lobbying publicly for fewer controls on its privacy, wants total freedom to know more and more about me. We are being profiled now as we speak to each other here. And there is no shortage of entrepreneurs eager to supply the demands government makes on businesses eager to help government take our privacy from us. Verizon, a Fortune 500 enterprise, is happy to accept the millions the U.S. government pays for telephone taps of Verizon calls. When asked if AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile were in on the scheme to develop “megadata” for the National Security Agency, each offered “no comment” as a reply. They want to keep what they’re doing a secret, and in Orwell’s world no means yes. Government snooping would be starved without the harvest of profits corporations and private contractors enjoy at public expense. Which private sector self-interest groups hate government most? I’d say it’s those having promiscuous love affairs with government agencies.

As I learn more about what’s going on behind my back, I’m getting used to looking forward to a future in which loss of privacy is a default setting. The new technologies boggle, while probably reading, my mind. Lasers see in the dark and peer through walls. Hand-held gizmos put me on somebody’s radar screens. Google-Earth allows me to see my cousin Pasquale standing in front of his house in a village in Italy. Body and brain scans reveal naked truths about what’s going on deeply within, while technicians unscramble my genetic codes. My dirty little secrets are no longer sacred. Meanwhile, drones blow up somebody’s houses and enemies.

I think we rather love these technological breakthroughs. They’re good for private sector business, and their exponential development and spread is good for the economy. For now. We want to retool college educations so we can train more people to use the newest technologies, so we keep gearing up to enable ourselves to improve our snooping. Long-distance thinking suggests that as we use our new technologies we become complicit in the outcomes they produce, but long-distance thoughts don’t have lasting power in a culture that values the momentary good. And because so many of the new technologies entertain us while doing us some good, it’s difficult not to become addicted to them. They go down as easy as Soma pills.

But scary genies have escaped and there’s no stuffing them back into the vials where they belong. Techno-wizards are working hard to manufacture robots and brains, and maybe one day the brain machines will also have minds. Then, of course, the real hard work will begin: Developing a conscience for the things.

As our sense of self-control becomes more wired it’s not likely we’ll get a big kick out of checks and balances. And who will insist on the wisdom of bothering with knowledge when there’s so much entertaining information at our fingertips?

We have good reason now to believe in Santa. Both government and the private sector already know if we’ve been good or bad, so we’d better be good for goodness’ sake. Those who cheat on their taxes, those who launder millions, those who hide assets in foreign banks, those addicted to sexual exploitation and insider trading, those CEOs, college presidents, football coaches, and others who can’t be shamed by absurdly high salaries––all these have good reason to fear snoopy technologies. In a time when it’s fashionable to blame anything that goes wrong on “government,” the private sector has a weak case to make against government snoops who spy on all of us because two or three demented zealots might be trying to blow up New York City.

Because I now believe in Santa again, I made a New Year’s resolution last Christmas Eve: I will speak out. I want everyone to know what I think.

I hope everyone speaks out. There is safety in numbers.

And speaking out might also make me a famous writer some day––who knows?