June 8, 2008

The Age of No Consent


It’s been a hell of a couple of months for electronic intrusions of various kinds. Each new week, it seems, provides me with some fresh reason to hate the Internet and this Glorious Future in which we’re living.

            I recently received an email from a stranger. Friendly enough note concerning some story or another, so I wrote back. Just one of those “thanks for the note” notes. This then evolved into a brief good-natured exchange. It was no big deal. Then an hour or so later I learned that my end of the exchange had been posted on one of those asinine “media gossip” sites. The stranger who contacted me never gave any indication that this was his plan.

            In the end, there was nothing all that incriminating in the scammed “interview”—I wasn’t going off on “those fucking stupid Australians” or anything—but still. It’s more than a mere courtesy to tell someone you intend to publish what they say. You need to inform them in some way. That was one of the first rules I learned as a journalist. But apparently those rules no longer apply in cyberspace.

            Nevertheless, in the end I shrugged it off with minor harrumphs and grumbling. No major harm had been done. Then the following day I heard from my friend Richard in Pennsylvania. Richard has a way of keeping an eye on those things I tend to ignore, and of tipping me off whenever there’s some apparent weirdness afoot.

            So he dropped a line asking if I’d taken a look at my (ahem) Wikipedia entry lately. Needless to say, I hadn’t. Only learned that it was there a couple of years back, took a quick glimpse, then promptly and consciously put it out of my head. I just didn’t care to know. When Richard brought it up again, my initial thought was that some sillyass had dropped something goofy or nasty in there. I’ve seen it done to others, often to great comic effect.

            That wasn’t the case here, which I found mildly disappointing. What Richard was writing about was much more disturbing. It seems someone had been putting a lot of time and effort into bulking up the page, updating it on an almost daily basis, often with irrelevant and erroneous information lifted from old interviews and the like.

            Against my better judgment, I went ahead and read it. The entry was surprisingly long, with chapters and extensive references and strange, even obsessive personal details. It was like a condensed memoir, except that it wasn’t funny.

            I was pretty sure I recognized the style. If I was correct, the same stranger had done the same thing to my friend Bill, just as erroneously but on a much larger scale.

            As unnerved as I was by the fact that some stranger had put this much work into an anonymous online encyclopedia entry, what disturbed me more than anything while I read it was my own reaction. For all the minute (and incorrect) details of my comings and goings included in the entry, I kept noticing the things that were missing, thinking to myself “gee, I wonder why he didn’t mention that?” For all the less-than-glowing reviews cited, where’s the mention of the nice award I received from the Wisconsin Library Association, or the short story I wrote for the underground comics anthology, or my late-90’s film career, my shoe size, or the home phone number of the paranoid moron who fired me?

            (Of course I could easily put those things in there myself, but I just don’t care to feed into the idea.)

            I know it’s so much nothing. Ever since Congress mandated that each and every American citizen had to have his or her own Wikipedia page, there’s not much getting away from it. It’s harmless—perhaps even a form of flattery. Lord knows it’s better than that fake MySpace page from a few months ago, but it’s still kind of creepy. Hell, I don’t even follow the events of my own life this closely.

            It’s just a very minor and innocuous example from a much larger and more dangerous landscape. We are all subject to this. As a result of the various technologies with which we’re surrounded, our lives have become free for the plundering by anonymous strangers who can grab whatever they want and plop it online.

            Now, I’m a firm believer in anonymity, but that’s just the point—the possibility of anonymity is fast disappearing for everyone except those people who are stealing it from others.

            I’m not just talking about old fashioned identity theft and ruined credit ratings. Someone can film your drunken ramblings in a bar without your knowledge or permission, and post it on YouTube that night. By the time you find out about it and lodge a complaint, it may already have been spread worldwide, downloaded by five million people. People have lost jobs on account of such tomfoolery. None of us are safe.

            Here’s another recent example from the news. A woman’s laptop was stolen. But she was tech-savvy enough that she was able to get on another computer, remotely access the stolen laptop and take control of it. She was then able to snap a picture of the culprits with the laptop’s built-in camera. The thieves were arrested soon afterwards.

            Okay, on the one hand, yes, good for this woman for being clever enough to use a few simple tools to bring a couple of petty thieves to justice. Local police hailed her as a hero.

            Most of us heard that story. But did anyone else find it really disturbing? The fact that someone else can take pictures of me through my computer (well, not my computer, which is made of popsicle sticks and wax paper, but you know what I mean) in my own apartment? I have enough peeping eyes to worry about when I step outside the front door—I don’t want to have to worry about a damned appliance in my home taking pictures of me without my knowledge. Hey—better make sure there’s no contraband visible on the shelf behind you—you never know who’ll be looking.

            And don’t try to tell me that only the authorized, registered owner of the computer can access it remotely to pull a trick like that, because you and I both know it ain’t true.

            Okay, in comparison, a stranger creating an error-riddled Wikipedia entry out of ten year-old interviews is not that much to worry about—but all these things and so many others simply point to some simple and frightening conclusions: our lives are no longer our own, privacy is a myth, and we don’t need to worry about the government nearly as much as we need to worry about other citizens.

            So there—see what you get for trying to do a paranoid a favor?


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