When I was ten years old, my family moved to the country. The lot of us – we were seven then, on our way to becoming ten – squeezed into a crumbling three-bedroom, one-bath farmhouse with curling linoleum floors and plywood walls that buckled at the seams. My brothers and sisters and I took the upstairs rooms. One for the boys, one for the girls. There were many uncomfortable things about that house, but on that first day, one thing stood out: the bedrooms had no doors.
In the years that followed, I begged my father for a door, but he always gave the same answer: Doors are for people with things to hide. You don’t understand it now, but someday you will. Trust me.
Fast-forward more than two decades to San Francisco, hundreds of miles away from the farm. I had just ended an unhealthy relationship, and wanted nothing more than to put my life back together in peace.The man I left had different plans.
For the last six years, he has mysteriously shown up at the places I go. He sends messages to people quoting or referencing things I’ve said via text, email, or Facebook. Though I don’t know exactly how he manages to do it, his reasoning for why he does it seems to be: Because I can.
Two different men, at two different times in my life, decided that I didn’t get to have a door.
As the story has begun to unfold about the NSA’s activities with PRISM – allegedly a broad, sweeping surveillance program that gathers phone records, internet activity, and other data on American citizens – I’ve experienced an avalanche of feelings: Shock. Outrage. Grief.
I obsessively track down every story I can find on the subject, combing the reports and editorials for clues. To my government, I want to say: You, too?
I’ve wondered if I’m overreacting. I’ve tried to talk myself out of it. But the fact remains: My country has decided on behalf of its citizens that we aren’t entitled to doors. Never mind the official claim that they’re busy in another room – it seems fairly clear that we’re exposed, subject to inspection at any time.
Your phone, your self
I had a client a few years ago who was in the business of identity verification. One afternoon over iced tea, he schooled me on the richness of phone records. “I can tell who is having trouble in a particular relationship by seeing how frequently the two people call each other and how often one avoids the other’s calls,” he said. He sketched out several other scenarios, connecting call patterns to life situations. It suddenly seemed so obvious.
Phone records can show when people are worried about a health issue, or when they have a professional challenge, or when they’re going through any number of transitions. Who are you? What or who do you care about? What’s happening in your life? Your phone records contain part of the story. Your Google and Facebook and Skype records fill in the details.
For all the hasty assurances we’ve seen in the media that no one person is being watched per se, the fact remains that the government is made up of people. People and groups who may, at different times and for different reasons, be interested in the habits and proclivities of certain individuals or demographic segments. This data has tremendous value. If we think it will stay locked up, out of sight and out of touch, we’re kidding ourselves.
The importance of hiding
My father told me that doors are for people with things to hide, but I believe we all have things to hide. Not in the criminal sense, but in the human sense. We’re often working things out: How we feel about situations or people. Health matters. Family issues. Professional challenges. How will our capacity to grow and mature and work through things shift when we know we’re being watched?
I know this: living without a door changes a person. As a ten-year-old, I learned to be extremely circumspect. Today, I live with the knowledge that my conversations and exchanges are being monitored by someone else against my will. I’ve learned how to go inside myself, the only place that is – for me, right now – truly private.
But going inside won’t help our journalists, or our medical doctors, or our therapists, or the millions of others who will likely be affected by this program in the months and years to come. We’ll have to find new ways to cope with living and learning without doors.
A higher standard
Throughout my life, whenever I’ve experienced situations that feel unfair or wrong, I’ve clung to the belief that there’s a higher standard. A more civilized, just, right way of dealing with others. But when my Twitter stream is filled with comments like: “Why is anyone suprised?” and “Haven’t we known we were being watched all along?” it’s tempting to give in to cynicism. If we always suspect the worst, they can’t hurt us. Isn’t that how it works?
I, too, want to smirk and shake my head, but this story feels personal. I realize we don’t know all the details yet. The topic is highly nuanced, but there’s a familiar whiff in the air, a scent that turns my stomach. Our elected officials have brazenly taken away our doors, and I want answers. Answers that are not some combination of: You don’t understand it now, but someday you will. Trust us. And: Because we can.
I still hope there’s a higher standard. So much depends on hope.
Read more – > https://medium.com/surveillance-state/5888e4343b45
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