April 12, 2009

“We Take Privacy Seriously”


So Google has decided to take their invasive Google Earth satellite mapping project one step deeper into your private life.

            Street View, as they’re calling it, promises to offer three dimensional street level images of communities across the globe. To achieve this end, they have sent out a fleet of cars equipped with high-zoom digital cameras to photograph every street, every house, everything in their path—including the people who happen to be on the street at the time and the cars that happen to be parked in the area.

            Google’s latest shenanigans come as no surprise, really, but I was tickled to hear that a couple of weeks ago, the villagers of a small town in northern England, upon spotting the camera car trolling their streets, formed an angry mob and chased that fucker out of town, refusing to let Google photograph their homes and their neighborhood without their consent. They had private lives, and they wanted to keep them that way. I sure can’t see that happening any place around here.

            When asked about the residents’ reaction, a spokesman for Google dismissed their concerns, saying “We take privacy seriously.”

            Yeah, I thought, you take privacy seriously. You also take it far, far away.

            Although I had my doubts, there was a small, quiet hope in the back of my head that the election of a new president might—just might—mean a change, that people would finally demand an end to this culture of perpetual surveillance. I hoped at least it would ease up a bit.

            It was a foolish notion, of course. If anything, things just seem to be getting worse.

            A few days before the Google story, the NYPD announced that they would be implementing phase two of a program they call the “Ring of Steel”. This meant that starting immediately, they would be  installing hundreds (more) surveillance cameras around midtown, just as they’d done in Lower Manhattan a while back. All the video footage would be fed into the databanks of a computer housed in a Midtown fortress. The footage would be stored (we’re told) for thirty days before being erased. Just like Google promises they erase the history of your internet activity after thirty days.

            So see? There’s no privacy issue at all there. Not that the NYPD had to make an argument—New Yorkers seem perfectly happy with the idea of having their every move filmed, given that it’s designed to keep them, um, “safe.”

            I wish people would stop and think about these names a little bit. “Ring of Steel” was taken from a similar British security plan which has flooded London with surveillance cameras. That’s neither here nor there. But consider that name for a moment—what is a “ring of steel,” at heart? That’s right—it’s a cage.


            Here’s the funny thing, though. As proof of why the system was necessary, the NYPD trotted out surveillance camera footage of the guy who tossed a small grenade over the wall at the Mexican embassy.

            Sure enough, there it is—a fuzzy image of a guy on a bike zipping past the embassy and tossing something over the wall.

            What they neglected to mention, however, was that the bomb-throwing terrorist was never identified and never caught. What’s more, the camera didn’t exactly deter him from tossing that grenade, did it? Nobody seemed to notice that part.

            Backing up a second, I’m not sure why I thought (however quietly and briefly) that a new administration might represent any kind of downward shift in the levels of surveillance we face on a daily basis. The government’s role in all of it is minimal at best—at least when compared with corporations like Google, which are out there gathering personal information far more detailed and far more damning than anything any government agency might have. (Of course I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Google is actually a branch of Homeland Security—they certainly seem happy enough to turn over their files whenever asked.)

            And beyond the corporations you have the people themselves who are not only eager—desperate, even— to invade their own privacy and post it online—and who often do so in the stupidest ways imaginable. Taking nude photos of themselves or filming their own crimes and posting them on their Facebook pages? I mean, do these people simply not understand the implications? (No need to answer that.)

            My god, I’m rambling I know, but everything’s pissing me off today. Here’s another one.

            So economic crisis, greedy CEOs, blah blah blah. But what are people across the country doing in response to it all? Grousing and complaining and whining. Those who are really really pissed might make up some signs and march around in front of some corporate headquarters chanting things for a couple of hours. Then they go home and grouse some more. Either that or they shoot their families.

            Meanwhile in France, factory workers confronted with waves of layoffs while the executives collect huge bonuses are storming the corporate headquarters and taking hostages. It’s happened three times so far this year. Now that’s how you deal with a corrupt system!

            So here’s a tip of the hat to those French workers who decided that putting the fear of god into some senior vice-presidents was of more value than slaughtering their own children, and to those British villagers who stood up for their right to be left the hell alone. Those are people who still have some pride left. Over here, well, we seem to have sold ours off to the highest bidder a long time ago. And we’re getting what we deserve as a result.

            Of course I say all these things, but I’m no more innocent than anybody else. After all these years, the futility of trying to swim against the tide of relentless surveillance has taken its toll, wearing me down and leaving me just as complacent as the people I condemn. Now instead of getting mad when I hear news of each new electronic invasion, all I can do is laugh.

            Worse, when news of the second phase of the “Ring of Steel” program broke, I didn’t even laugh. Instead I thought, Well, maybe it’ll help sell a few copies of the new book.

            Then I remembered that in order for the news to have any effect, it had to, you know, disturb people a little.


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