Thursday, June 13, 2013

Peeing Puppies and Privacy

Leave it to our new puppy Roxy to finally get me worked up about the growing intrusions into my private life by the government as well as internet and electronic communication providers.

I don't know if it's political fatigue, laziness or a surge in my Buddhist mindfulness but recently I had  been ignoring even major political and civic issues—such as reports of government surveillance of phone calls—primarily because I feel impotent to influence any outcome.

But the following ad on the right-hand side of my Gmail inbox jolted me out of my stupor:


Your Puppy Will Never Pee or Poop Inside. System Works in 6 Days!


Two days before a post in this blog, published "free" by Google, had mentioned that I had a new puppy I was trying to housebreak. I believe the incriminating words were "pee" and "puppy." Google's computers and algorithms went to work, meshing and mashing words in my posts with my email account and helpfully suggested I check with TheDogTrainingSecret.com/Puppy. Please feel free to visit the site if your dog is taking indecent liberties with your floor too.

Are you talking about me?
Similarly, after Stew finished making reservations for a trip to Paris and Istanbul, our inbox and other sites I visit suddenly were decorated with pitches for hotels and other attractions at both destinations. I ignored them—I can't recall ever buying anything as a result of that type of internet plugola—but I'm sure there were ads for baguettes and shish-kebabs in the mix too, and even a recipe or two for kebabs stuffed in a baguette or a baklava-and-crepes combo plate.

I'm not nearly naive enough to think that Google, Yahoo, Facebook and similar outfits operate pro bono. Their business is to help retailers and service providers hook up with customers who are "qualified," that is, presumably interested in their products. Thus the overt plug for dog training. But I suspect there is much more information-trading in cyberspace about my lifestyle, shopping and other consumer habits, sometimes along with my email address, so interested parties can connect the dots of my personal life in ways that I haven't even imagined.

Indeed if you think of all the internet vendors and service providers I use, from Amazon.com, iTunes, Gmail, Blogspot.com and others as overlapping circles, the free space left in the middle—my private life—shrinks by the day. Perhaps that's the high price of all those free internet services.

The recent debate over mass government surveillance of telephone conversations has riled some folks on the left and right. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit and Rand Paul's hair looks even stranger than usual as he too plans to sue the government.

But according to public opinion surveys the vast middle lump of the American public, about sixty-two percent, is not too bothered by what seems to be gross government encroachment into privacy and personal rights, largely as a result of a Pavlovian response to the word "terrorism." Presumably included in the consenting portion of the population are liberals who would normally be leery of  any government snooping and at the other end, right wingers forever fretting about "jack-booted thugs" breaking into their home to snatch away their guns.

Yet under the Bush administration the government was allowed to peruse personal emails and now under Obama our phone conversations can be monitored too, and with wide approval by a public too scared about terrorism to disagree.

Most alarming is the promiscuous use of the word "secret" which turns the debate into a circle. Secret memos by the executive, secret hearings in Congress, secret decisions by special courts created to deal with secret decisions by secretive security agencies, and in the end the public doesn't know diddly because the whole thing is, you know, secret.

And unless there's a thunderbolt from the judiciary upending this trend, intrusions into our private life are largely irreversible. I don't expect the federal government five years from now to declare it's inspected enough emails and phone calls and therefore it's shutting down some of its data-mining computers and giving our privacy rights back.

Indeed, I voted for Barack Obama partly because I expected him to close the American gulag in Guantánamo and claw back some of the constitutional rights that had gotten away from us during the terrorism fear-mongering following Sept. 11. Guantánamo is still open and Obama is instead broadening government intrusions into our private lives.

When asked on Friday about the secret surveillance controversy, Obama sounded annoyed or perplexed by it. "And if people can't trust not only the executive branch but also don't trust Congress and don't trust federal judges to make sure that we're abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we're going to have some problems here."

Yes I trust Obama on this issue far more than Dick Cheney but that's not saying much. Count me among the motley thirty-four percent of Americans who in the latest poll said they were not comforted by government assurances that in the end it will do the right thing to protect our rights.

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