The Casual Blog

Tag: privacy

Skiing in Virginia, and considering, has the NSA ended privacy as we know it?

My nephews Josh and Adam, humoring me with a short pause on Sunday

My nephews Josh and Adam, humoring me with a short pause on Sunday

Last weekend I went skiing at Massanutten Resort, near Harrisonburg,l Virginia. I thought it would be good to see my brother and nephews, and have a little ski tune up before our Colorado trip in February. The drive up on Friday night was five and a half hours through fog and rain, and the ski conditions were far from optimal, but it was still well worth it.

On Saturday the weather report was for rain, and it did rain a bit, but the snow was pretty good. It was fun skiing with my nephews, both in their twenties and fast. They decided at lunch time to go to the movies, but my brother had ski patrol duty, and I decided to keep skiing with him on the advanced slope (number 6).

He had to leave for a period, and it got very foggy, with perhaps 50 feet of visibility. It rained a little. On the first run on my own, I noted that I didn’t see a single skier on the mountain. The same was true on the second, third – and fifth. It was the better part of an hour before a few other hardy souls ventured out.

Despite the fog, I enjoyed the skiing. I focused on sensing more of the ski edges, and making smooth, graceful turns. And I enjoyed the solitude of the trips up the mountain in the chair lift.

It occurred to later, though, that my smartphone was still sending out signals of my movements. My perception of privacy has been changing with the Snowden revelations, and I suspect I’m not alone. (LOL) Is it real so bad? I think it is, and have a concrete example.

A few weeks back, I wrote an email letter to the President. The gist of it was to commend him for commuting the sentences of some non-violent drug offenders, and to recommend that he expand that effort to help more of the thousands serving lengthy prison terms for minor drug crimes. As I prepared to send the email, I paused, thinking that this communication could easily mean a new NSA or other agency file would be opened on me, with unpredictable consequences.

Paranoid? Maybe. I sent the email anyway. But I expect that many citizens, now knowing how easily they can be monitored and how committed the spy bureaucracy is to expansive monitoring, might decide that expressing a political view just isn’t worth the risk of becoming a target.

There was a good piece in the New Yorker of a few weeks back by Ryan Lizza on the history of the NSA’s domestic metadata collection program, including efforts to establish a legal basis for it. It wasn’t surprising that a spy agency would tend to conceal its work, but it was surprising that agency representatives repeatedly lied to Congress and the FISA (special secret programs) court.

It raises the question, is this agency unconstrained by law? I expect most people involved in massive electronic surveillance are patriotic and well-intentioned, and not personally seeking world domination. But what if an agency with effectively unlimited resources and powers came within the control of a megalomaniac sociopath?Impossible? Remember J. Edgar Hoover?

If we’re lucky, we won’t become a police state in the Big Brother sense. But just knowing we’re subject to constant surveillance will probably change us. The interesting question is how much.

If the government forbade curtains on windows, we’d quit doing certain things within sight lines of the street. Maybe, without much discussion, we’ll get more guarded or stop discussing controversial topics using our electronic devices. Once that habit develops, it could extend to our face-to-face exchanges, or even our interior monologues. It wouldn’t happen all at once, but little by little. We might not even notice the change.

The justification for the government’s massive technology surveillance programs, of course, is prevention of terrorism. It’s hard to argue with that, since anything that grows the database of human activity could also increase information about terrorism. But is it possible that we’ve gone a little overboard with this fear-of-terrorism thing? Does it remind you a little of people preparing to end the world as we know with a nuclear conflagration it to prevent a takeover by communism?

There was a very interesting piece in Slate last week on the national hysteria over alleged sexual abuse and Satanic rituals in preschools back in the 80s. There were several of these cases in which little children testified that their preschool teachers molested them and also engaged in ritual murders and other bizarre and horrifying conduct.

Based almost exclusively on the testimony of the children, juries sent a number of these teachers to jail for lengthy terms. It slowly emerged that the abuse stories were fabrications produced by so-called therapists who essentially planted false memories in the children’s heads. Most of the teacher-victims eventually were freed.

In retrospect, the children’s stories seem way too bizarre to be believed – yet most of us believed. It’s a reminder of how our powers of reason and critical thinking are limited, and how they can be overwhelmed and defeated by sensational media and groupthink.

P.S. Needless to say, I paused again before publishing this post. But I think the danger of silence and retreat from dialog is even greater than the danger of surveillance run amok.

Freedom and private matters

I finished Franzen’s Freedom on the flight back from Dallas earlier this week. Although the last half of the book was not as surgically precise and constantly surprising as the first, it was still very fine, and I was glad I read it. It passed my test for a novel that is in every sense worthwhile: it explored questions and won insights that just can’t be got at through any medium other than a novel. The subject matter involves some of the big issues of our time, such as global warming, overpopulation, environmental irresponsibility, and species extinction. But just as in other great novels, most of the interesting revelations relate to private matters — interior lives and intimate relationships.

Writing about things that are generally considered private is a risky business. Even with the license of a novelist, it takes a degree of courage close to recklessness to be direct and truthful about intimate aspects of our lives. For all the things Freud got wrong, he was surely right that civilization depends on a degree of repression of our basic urges. By the same token, our social lives would be unsustainable if we lifted all self-censorship. It’s true, as Jack Nicholson once violently asserted: we can’t handle the truth! At any rate, we can’t uncritically expose all of our feelings and our emotional lives without causing outrage and social havoc. But this is part of the gift of the great novelist: to guide us into and through these hidden things in a way that enriches rather than injures.

I’m constantly struggling, when I write for the Casual Blog, with the question of what is too private for public exposure. Where one draws the line plainly depends on what kind of person one is, which in turn depends on every other social variable — personal history, family, community, customs, laws, etc. And the line may also vary according to the subject involved. And the best answer for today may not be the best in the future. Pushing the line may actually change the kind of person one is or is perceived to be, either for better or worse. My current model involves trying to be conscious of the line and to get close to it without going over it. But it’s always a judgment call made in the fog of complexity. Mistakes are sure to happen. In such cases, I have to hope the parties affected will forgive and eventually forget.

I’ve wondered whether it crosses the line to explore the implications of Jocelyn’s latest adventure — free form travelling in South America. This is not all happy stuff. As a dad, I’m in a fugue state: full of admiration for her spirit and courage, full of pride, but also full of worry. As I told her very bluntly, she is throwing herself in front of some existential risks without understanding them very well. She did not appreciate this criticism, and just as bluntly told me so. She is highly confident of her ability to deal with the unexpected, which is impressive, yet worrisome. Does she have any idea how vulnerable she could be? Is it better if she doesn’t? At any rate, I’m sufficiently on edge and preoccupied with such risks as kidnapping that I will refrain from discussing her itinerary. But I should also say, according to her emails, she’s having a fantastic time.

Privacy and exposure

How important is privacy?  I ask this question at a moment when I feel more than usually publicly exposed and vulnerable.  In recent times, I’ve come to think that for most of us the concern with privacy is exaggerated.  But exposure to the full glare of modern social media raises the question for me in a new way.

For most of us, or at least for me, the privacy question is usually more theoretical than real.  Most of the time, we’re private by default.  At least for non-celebrities, generally no one cares one way or the other about our (to us) valuable personal views and secrets.  Getting serious attention from one person, never mind the mass audience, doesn’t happen by accident.  It takes effort.

My operating assumption in recent years is that, for an individual, too much seclusion is more detrimental than too much society.  We are social animals; we wither and die without others of our kind.  And socializing means discarding some of our shell of privacy.  I’ve made it a rule to try sharing, rather than hoarding, when I have information or experience that could be helpful and of interest to others.

The possible benefits are:  helping someone, forming a human bond, making the world a little better.  The possible risks are:  risk of being wrong, of seeming ridiculous, of offending or upsetting someone.  And I do an informal cost-benefit analysis before I venture into the public arena on something controversial.  But I try not to let fear be determinative, and to give weight to the possible benefits even when they are somewhat speculative.

Some months back I, along with others, appeared in a video on open source software and intellectual property, where I took a position that challenged granting patents  for software.  Last week the video was posted on Patently-O, a prominent patent web site.  It generated dozens, if not hundreds of comments.  The vast majority of them were critical of my position, and some were critical in terms that were, shall we say, less than kind.  I was left with the firm impression that there are a lot of people who felt angry at me.

Being a target of a large amount of focused dislike is a new sensation for me.  It’s different from being disliked by an identifiable individual, when there is sometimes an understandable reason, and at any rate a finite problem.  It’s funny that it should matter, since I do not know these individuals, and I have never before relied on their respect and goodwill.  It may well be I would not care for their good opinion if I actually knew them.   Even so, it’s surprisingly bothersome.  It caused an uncomfortable feeling in my gut.  There’s nothing to be done.  It might be that with more experience one builds up defenses.  I’m hoping.