Spies Like Us


Many years ago the biker magazine Easyriders would feature classified ads for books titled something like How to Make Yourself Disappear or Dropping Out, presumably aimed at Harley-riding dudes who sought to live outside the scrutiny of the state, not to mention that of ex-girlfriends, former dope connections, and vengeful gang brethren.  I wonder if such books are still available, or if such goals as they facilitated can even be realized today.

Privacy is a big issue now, what with the vastly expanded means of communication (which weren’t around twenty-five years ago) enjoyed by contemporary citizens:  cell phones, the Internet, and all their various incarnations in mobile devices.  Many people worry about what kind of personal data can be accessed by the government, by businesses, and by dangerous strangers.  Everyone from the US National Security Agency to online cyber-bullies have been implicated as violators of privacy; Edward Snowden (exiled NSA whistleblower) and Retaeh Parsons (tragic victim of exploitation on social networks) are each symbols of the new surveillance society.

The paradox here is that we are idealizing the abstract concept of privacy just when we are falling over ourselves voluntarily relinquishing it in practice.  Selfies, blogs, Facebook posts and Twitter followings proliferate, even while we insist on our rights to live anonymously.  We piously applaud the multimedia exposures of Rob Ford and the FHRITP guy at their most compromised, yet we are outraged by the notion that our own failings might be similarly revealed. Various lobbies protest that the state has no business in the bedrooms, ash trays, or gun racks of the nation, but the same parties have no problem with the state barging in to the nation’s religious schools, employment agencies, and health food stores:  like police, oversight never seems to be around when we need it and always seems to be around when we don’t.

Much of the privacy breaches we deplore have, to me, a tree-falling-in-the-forest element – if no human being is directly listening in on and documenting what you say in a private exchange, have you really been overheard?  The “If you’re not doing anything wrong, why worry?” argument is a trite one, but it does contain a kernel of truth.  After all, most of us don’t run away at the sight of a security guard or a squad car when we’re minding our own business outdoors; the theoretical chance that we might get hassled for no reason is outweighed by the past evidence that we probably won’t be.  Likewise, there may indeed be millions of phone calls and e-mails “monitored” every day, but there are certainly not millions of low-level intelligence staffers working in vast offices, sitting at switchboards or computers to daily track the electronic footprints of every member of the public and gossip with each other about your doctor’s appointment, my vacation trip, or someone else’s Amazon purchase; we are not being shadowed on a one-on-one basis.  That kind of snooping, in fact, occurred a long time ago – during World War II, overseas letters between servicemen and their families were routinely opened, read, and had sensitive material blacked out by military censors. Whatever surveillance we are under in the present is an automated process, rather than a personalized paparazzo.

US president Barack Obama has said that 100 percent security and 100 percent privacy are incompatible, and online anarchists have chipped in that “information wants to be free.”  Invasions of privacy cut many ways.  In other words, the benefits of the Information Age have accrued across the board to normally inimical groups:  libertarians as well as big government, consumers as well as merchants, intellectual property holders as well as digital pirates, exhibitionists as well as voyeurs, cops as well as criminals, and yes, institutions as well as individuals.  Nineteen Eighty-Four is very relevant again, it’s said, but I submit that the alarms raised by George Orwell need to be amended.  We are all Big Brother now.

6 thoughts on “Spies Like Us

  1. I had to laugh at the “If you’re not doing anything wrong, why worry?” statement. I’ve often said that the Pope could be driving down the road just under the speed limit, obeying every traffic law, and if he saw the lights of a cop car start flashing in the rear view mirror, he’d immediately feel guilty. That’s because if “authority” is looking at you, even the innocent worry there is a reason for it.

    • Right – I can understand how even perfectly law-abiding citizens don’t want their data accessed, just on principle. On the other hand, in the real world, law-abiding citizens are regarded by government officials all the time (e.g. police) and we accept them being around. I don’t pretend it’s an easy issue, but I wanted to point out how our concepts of private space have become kind of elastic depending on whether it’s physical or digital. Thanks for reading.

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