The Annual Paranoia Column

Fred Can't Help It. He's Crazy.

Date

I remember looking once, with a woman I know, at one of those subway maps with the arrow saying, "You Are Here."

"You see?" she said somberly. "They always know where you are."

Every year they get a little closer to always knowing were we are -- though I'm not always sure who "they" is. Or are. Every year surveillance creeps forward, becomes easier, and begins to be used. Every year we get more used to it. Every year we probably read a dozen articles about the decline of privacy, and grow numb.

The crucial question is: Should we care? Does it matter that we are, or can be, tracked and watched ever more closely? Is privacy really important? Or is the subject just another worry-bead to be fondled by the congenitally paranoid?

Right now, when you turn on your cell phone, the telephone company knows roughly where you are. There's nothing sinister about this. It has to know, as otherwise it couldn't route calls to you. With triangulation, you can be placed within a few thousand square feet.

Paul Somerson, writing in the June issue of Smart Business, says, "But the noose is tightening. Part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act mandated Enhanced 911 that would force carriers to be able to locate all callers by October 2001. And newer FCC rules require greater precision -- 164 feet for GPS-based phones, 328 feet for network based triangulation."

Now, why does the government want to know where you are with such precision? Ostensibly, and perhaps actually (though the FBI, I promise, has other reasons), so as to be able to find you if you call 911and aren't sure where you are. This really does happen, regularly. Ambulance crewmen want to be able to get to you as quickly as possible. They have not the slightest totalitarian intentions. As long as you are not dismembered, or turning blue, they aren't interested in you at all.

But of course drug dealers use cell phones, and the police would like to keep table on them. And of course Sprint or Cellular One might, for innocent purposes of marketing, want to know the travel patterns of its customers.

Ah, but: Governmental agencies, says Somerson, believe the law allows them to track you, without either a warrant or even probable cause, if they decide that an emergency exists. What the government can do, it usually will do.

Now, does any of this matter?

No.

Well, maybe not. At any rate, tracking will come, and nothing bad will happen. Or nothing obvious. Not immediately, anyway.

Will the cell-phone company keep track of your movements? Probably not -- except for traffic analysis maybe, and then only in statistical form. Probably. Unless of course the cops had a warrant. If they need a warrant.

But. . . but . . . but . . . .

If a company did keep records (and I don't know that they don't) could they be subpoenaed? If, for an afternoon, your phone and the phone of someone from a politically unpopular organization always moved from one cell to another at exactly the same time . . . .

In last year's paranoia column I wrote about Viisage, a company that makes computer-and-television systems that can pick faces out of a crowd. Unsettling, that. But it's happening. We also have cameras that automatically photograph the license plates of people who run stoplights. Neither has brought the Republic to the edge of tyranny.

So maybe I shouldn't be uneasy to read about cameras being used by department stores to watch the faces of shoppers for reactions to merchandise. Department stores aren't the government. Surveillance cameras, monitored by humans, already watch to see whether we are shoplifting. Maybe it doesn't matter if automatic cameras watch us for other purposes. After all, stores are public places. So are the streets. If the police can stand on the corner and watch me walk by, why shouldn't a camera? What's the difference?

Lots, but I can't prove it.

When I go to Amazon.com, the software remembers me and tries to sell me books that, because of my past purchases, it thinks I might want. I like it. If I'm going to be subjected to advertising, I'd prefer it to be about things that interest me. But . . . do I want Amazon storing that I've bought books about gay bars in the Caribbean, or how to have sex with sheep?

The correct answer may turn out to be that it isn't important. Maybe Amazon won't tell anyone. Maybe nobody cares. It used to be that when you returned to the US from abroad, the Immigrations folk just glanced at your passport. Now they run it through a reader. I can't see how it has harmed me. Safeway doesn't do anything malign when, using my frequent shopper card, it remembers everything I buy. Maybe the hooha about privacy is just noise.

But . . .

What is worrisome is not what is being done with the technology of surveillance, or what necessarily will be done, but what could be done. Many things can be abused, and aren't. Search warrants, for example: Judges do not allow our houses to be casually ransacked.

Yet we live in a time when legal and constitutional principles are under attack. What once was to a large extent a government of law has become more and more openly a government of tribes. The edifice of civil rights has degenerated into a naked spoils system. Hate-crime laws have come close to outlawing undesired thought. The iron rule of political correctness has distinct resemblance to Soviet-style social control. Much of this is imposed less by the official government than by the meta-government of academia, media, and Hollywood. Yet it's there.

If the nation draws back from this path, surveillance will perhaps be seen as merely a minor side-effect of modernity, as a trifling annoyance, like advertising. But if we drift further toward seeking to punish not just criminality, but attitudes and beliefs, the machinery of watchfulness will appeal powerfully to those doing the punishing. We need, I think, to be very careful about this, if we still have the choice.