January 21, 2007

Maybe I AM Just a Number

There was a time, not that long ago really, when I was kind of obsessive about surveillance. Surveillance cameras, government and corporate databases, smart cards, smart tags, electronic driver’s licenses, no-fly lists, video phones, GPS, Operation TIPS, Homeland Security, MetroCards, iris scanners—the technological explosion and the erosion of privacy which really took off in this country after the towers came down.

     It wasn’t exactly paranoia on my part, if only because I knew it was happening to everybody, not just me. In fact, if you think about it, it seems the real paranoids were the ones behind the cameras and the databases—the ones who seemed convinced that each and every one of us might well be a terrorist intent on some kind of mischief. Even before the towers came down, I saw a study which claimed that, just by going about a normal routine, the average New Yorker will be filmed by over 200 security cameras every day. It was even worse in London and Chicago. Simply by going online, you’re opening up a pathway through which people can see what you’re doing, should they choose to. It’s useless to try and list all the ways in which we’re being watched these days—there are far too many, with new ones being introduced every week. There are occasional headlines in the papers about this or that new device “worrying privacy advocates,” but nothing ever happens. The privacy advocates (probably Communists!) eventually quiet down and disappear, and the devices are installed as planned.

     (Dropping an Orwell reference is generally considered to be a cheap knee-jerk response nowadays, but if you go back and read 1984 again, you’ll see that many of the parallels are quite startling.)

     Over the past four or five years, I became acutely aware of the devices that were watching all of us. I’m a private person, and I prefer to live under the radar. I’m not doing anything wrong, anything I’m ashamed of—or even anything in the least exciting. I just prefer to be left alone, is all.

     I took a few minor steps to assert myself toward that end: I paid in cash whenever possible. I adamantly refused to sign up for a discount card at the grocery store. I wouldn’t register with anything online—not with the NY Times, or the Post, or the B-movie sites I might like to glance at on occasion—because I refused to hand out any personal data, from my name on down. (My stubbornness, I might add, severely limited the number of websites I could access.)

     I re-read “Is It O.K. to be a Luddite?,” a brilliant essay Thomas Pynchon wrote back in 1984, and found it to be much more relevant today than it was then. Frighteningly so, even.

     I got so wrapped up in what was happening to us that I sat down and started writing a little novel about a man who tries to erase himself from any and all surveillance—from cameras to databases. He gets rid of his credit cards, his bank account and his driver’s license. He disconnects his computer and his phone—even rearranges his daily routine to avoid security cameras. In short, he does everything he can think of in order to leave no electronic tracks anywhere.

     Even as I was writing, however, in spite of having hundreds of pages of research material regarding modern surveillance techniques at my disposal, I found it was too much. Something new was always popping up. I even tried to imagine a few outrageous fictional devices, only to have them appear in the real world a few weeks later. It became apparent before long that there was no way to keep up with the flood. If I ever finished the book, I realized, it would be ridiculously outdated by the time it was released, so I abandoned it. It was easier, I figured, to just watch old episodes of The Prisoner.

     I still kept my eye open for new developments in the technology of surveillance. The President signs a postal reform bill and claims that it gives the government the go-ahead to open private mail without court approval -- which it doesn't -- and it barely makes the news. The Vice President admits openly that the military is broadening its domestic spying program, and nobody much seems to care.

     As the months passed, a sense of resignation began creeping into my guts. What was the point? Even if you can find some stores without cameras hanging from the ceiling, they’re setting up cameras on the street. And hey—I wasn’t doing anything, right? If the NSA wants to spy on me, tap my phone, keep track of what websites I visit, you know what they’ll get? Bored.

     Of course, leading boring lives and not being guilty of anything hasn’t prevented other people from being arrested as “terrorists.” But what the hell, right? Principles? Pah—what’s the use of clinging to principles in today’s world? Nobody else seems to bother with them much. Archaic notion. As Groucho Marx said, after reading a statement before HUAC during the Blacklist, “Well gentlemen, those are my principles. And if you don’t like them, I have others.”

     Besides, for all the ACLU suits, all the stories about innocent people charged with ridiculous crimes, all the shifts in power, nothing was going to change it, nothing was going to roll it back. It’ll only get worse. Unless you want to move to the middle of the woods—and I know a good handful of people who have—the only thing I could see altering the present situation was some sort of massive, worldwide electromagnetic pulse. Now that would bring the whole damn modern world to a dark, dead stop. Computers, radios, phones, televisions—even engines. No more videogames, or text messages or MySpace or Oprah. No more DNA databases or supermarket discount cards. But given everything else that would vanish with them, it might be a bit much to ask in exchange for a sense of privacy.

     I finally succumbed and agreed to get an Internet connection and email at home. There was no real choice left. Not if you live in New York, and not if you’re in this business. Personally, I still wish I could use my old Smith-Corona, but the eyes preclude that. And, well, let’s be honest—I hate telephones, so I guess email has turned out to be kind of a blessing. And the Internet has likewise turned out to be an invaluable research tool, given that looking things up in books isn’t really an option left to me. And dealing with ATMs, I found, was much easier than dealing with real human tellers. Tellers were always mean to me.

     I slowly came to recognize that I was no longer filled with the righteous horror that used to drive me. I was giving up. I was shrugging instead of shaking my fist. There was no way to win, no way to duck. We’d lost, simply put, those of us who hold our privacy sacred.

     Unfortunately, the people out there who state proudly that they’re perfectly willing to give up some freedoms in order to be “secure” far outnumber those of us who aren’t willing to make that trade.

     It’s been kind of sad, really. Recent circumstances have demanded that I finally forgo a lot of old points of honor, a lot of things I once held sacred. So one afternoon, with a sigh and heavy heart, I actually typed my name and address into a website.

     I may not love Big Brother by any stretch, but there’s no denying he’s beaten me.


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