By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Let’s dispense quickly with the contradictions besetting the Republican notion of privacy during this amazing rundown to the upcoming presidential election. Privacy à la GOP largely involves business and finance, which means allowing the close-mouthed denizens of the executive suite to connive exorbitant profit-making opportunities free of interference from regulations designed to protect consumers from confusion, manipulation, deception or outright fraud. Meanwhile, most Republican presidential candidates want to regulate every aspect of the sex lives of consenting adults. Surely having government tromping around like an elephant in the bedroom is a gross invasion of privacy.
But my primary interest here involves the ever-increasing, ever more pervasive and intrusive invasions of privacy made possible by modern technology. At this point, we can be monitored day and night no matter where we are. Even our private thoughts are in danger. There is virtually no escape from the watchfulness of the national security state.
The Naked Ape in the Airport
Personal privacy is a thing of the past for those who wish to board an airplane. We must be scanned or wanded or patted down, and if we are too sassy, we’ll be interrogated in a frightening little room, like criminals, which means the flight will leave without us. Although we are assured that no other passengers can see our nakedness, the fact is that we are undressed by the machinery operated by TSA personnel, who can view our underwire bras, the titaniam repairs to broken bones, the depth of our fat layers, the subtle details of our posture, thus totally violating our bodily integrity. Worse, official assurances not withstanding, we have no way to prove that our images are not stored, like fingerprints, for future purposes beyond our control.
Herded along like cattle, we dare not utter a word of protest. We cannot make jokes. We can’t protest too vehemently when a pat down is too intimate or a person with a colostomy bag is humiliated. We must simply put up and shut up, even though we know that this supposedly sophisticated equipment routinely misses dangerous weapons and that the regs about lotions and so on have no basis in science.
Maybe the whole purpose of the exercise is to teach us docility.
The Fear that Shuts Us Up
It’s not only the fear of missing a flight that turns us mute, passive, as abject as captives in a slave market. If we say or do something that leads us to be apprehended as possible terrorists, we could lose every liberty and right supposedly guaranteed to every citizen by our Constitution, which has been more or less amended by various incarnations of the “Patriot” Act as endorsed by compliant courts and judges. If we end up in legal limbo, we might never be tried. We would, to all intents and purposes, cease to exist.
So we toe the line, remembering how proud and happy we were when democracy overcame totalitarianism. Perhaps we need an Occupy Airports movement to reclaim our privacy and our dignity.
Brain-Reading as Non-Fiction
But personally invasive science is offering even more license to those who would control us by taking away our privacy. The latest wrinkle is this: those thoughts that we keep rigorously to ourselves in the hope that we may pass unscathed through the TSA inspections system may not be sacrosanct much longer. I’m not talking of old hat truth sera. I’m not referring to the familiar misuse of the notoriously unreliable lie detector test that terrifies the unpracticed and unsophisticated. I’m talking about the evolving ability of brain monitoring devices to evoke reasonable facsimiles of images that we have seen and thought of. At the moment, this technology seems to be tentative and crude, but the usual trajectory of such technology is refinement toward perfection. Maybe words won’t be recovered from our brain cells anytime soon, but imagine this: no longer being able to retreat into the pleasant privacy of your own thoughts. Talk about self incrimination!
The Surveillance Octopus
Other surveillance technologies have already reached high levels of reliability. Heat detectors can tell if we are home, even if the car isn’t outside and we aren’t standing in front of a window. Sound monitors can pick up conversations from considerable distance, and there isn’t a single electronic communications device that can’t be turned against us. What’s more, anything hacking doesn’t reveal, documents may, and the courts are all too happy to ask IPOs and phone companies to supply them. To make the invasion of privacy even more pernicious, it may be illegal for those who supply the records to tell us that the documents have been seized.
How much more naked can we be? How much privacy is left to lose?
Oh dear! I forgot about the spies in the sky. And, not only are there geosynchronous satellites that can watch us 24/7, there are spies in our cell phones and rental cars that reveal to those who have the right equipment exactly where were are whenever we’re away from home. Finally, spy cameras are becoming a commonplace part of the urban landscape. To foil criminals and terrorists, of course. But how convenient for other purposes, too. Talk about 1984!
You can monitor your baby from afar, too, which may be a good thing. But that's the trouble with technology. It's two-faced, and too many people abuse it too frequently.
Lobsters in the Pot
In the era of voluntary self-revelation on Facebook and given the data-mining to which all users of the Internet are willynilly subjected, it may seem silly to worry about privacy. Furthermore, many Americans would say that a little erosion of freedom is the small price we pay for increased security. But I’m not sure that everyone has reflected on the extent to which privacy has become all but unattainable. Nor, I fear, have they thought of the implications for extreme social control in a not so distant future.
It’s said that creatures who are immersed in a stew pot filled with cold water don’t realize that they are being cooked until it’s too late. The process is too slow. The increase in heat is too gradual. Just so, our freedom is eroding degree by degree as our opportunities for privacy fade toward zero. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the human lobsters who read this piece guffaw and decide I’m over-reacting.
I guess they haven’t felt the heat yet. If they don’t wake up soon, we’ll all be cooked.