Big Brother's Bitch

ABOUT 20 YEARS AGO, a guy I knew at Battelle Northwest Labs attended a government briefing on spy-satellite capabilities. The presenter showed a slide of Earth from space. The next slide showed North America, the next the western United States, the next the Pacific coast, the next Oregon, the next the rugged coastline, the next a view of a small coastal town, the next a picture of a building in the town, the next a parking lot, the next a woman getting into her car with a bag of groceries. My friend said the final shot was of a box in the top of her grocery bag. Cheerios, I think he said. The rest of the briefing was classified.

If that's what they could do then, it's safe to assume that now our eyes in the sky not only can get to the bottom of that grocery bag, but could probably offer us a portrait of the DNA encased inside that lady's pantyhose. It's also safe to assume that none of us have much real privacy left, especially if someone powerful is really interested in us.

While the complete loss of privacy is at first a horrifying thought, most of the noise we make about privacy protection is just for show, like banging pots to scare away spooks. In this era of the bottomless marketing database, most of us have long ago gladly surrendered every essential secret about our day-to-day lives in order to get, say, cheap airfares. A frequent-flier application does the job. And many of us have shared with our seatmates on those flights stuff we'd never tell anyone else, so it's not as if we're much good at keeping secrets anyway, especially from total strangers. I still refuse to use one of those obnoxious QFC cards, but it's purely symbolic: Big Brother bought me cheap around the time I first registered at Blockbuster.

And what Big Brother didn't get in exchange for sale prices, I gave away for free. Shortly after 9/11, I joined the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as a disaster-assistance employee—which is like the Army Reserve for disaster workers. You're on call, ready to be deployed when the president declares a federal disaster anywhere in the United States. Despite the black copter mythology, FEMA's real contribution to homeland security (it's now part of the new department) is to bring the full power of the federal government to bear in assisting disaster victims with—paperwork. Yes, it's shitty work, but someone has to do it.

In becoming a federal employee with a modest security clearance, you have to fill out a mound of paper, yourself, and sign releases that essentially turn everything over for government inspection: health files, fingerprints, travel records, tax returns. They also investigate your background by checking with people you've known since high school.

I found turning over my life to the feds rather liberating, and not a little humbling, since I discovered in the process of filling out the forms that I'm dull: the space for listing all the places you've lived in the past seven years is half a page long; I've had one address for 20 years. Nor do I have a romantically roguish criminal record. They don't even ask what you inhaled 30 years ago because they, well, need people.

NOW THAT I NO LONGER have privacy, I can look at privacy issues with more clarity—as if a veil of paranoia has been lifted. One thing I've realized is that Americans are much more worried about intrusion than privacy. Don't Tread on Me. No Trespassing. Private Property: Keep Off. This is what we care about. We'll give the details of our so-called private lives to giant corporations, and we'll confess our innermost pathologies on television, but we'll fight to the death to protect ourselves from spam and dinnertime telemarketers. In fact, many Americans choose to live with fewer rights than the Constitution allows. They choose to live in covenanted subdivisions where you have virtually no privacy at all but can find blissful isolation. That's more or less what our Homeland Security department will now engineer: On the inside, Fortress America is going to resemble a gated suburb more than an armed camp. And your block-watch captain will be Admiral John Poindexter, the man with the ultimate database whose office sits atop the pyramid with an eye pictured on the back of the one-dollar bill.

I DO THINK fighting to preserve some modicum of privacy is worthwhile, but it might also be constructive at this point to recognize that privacy ain't what it used to be. We ought to try embracing being a truly open society. A fully disclosed life is not one that can easily be held hostage to blackmail. We can shed shame and guilt and live like Dutch hookers, sitting in windows, with lights on and the curtains open.

To some degree we're already doing that. The Internet. Upskirt photography. Reality TV. Jerry Springer. The Osbournes. Other people's privacy is a scab we just have to pick at. I can't decide whether we're trying to outdo Big Brother or bore him to death.

Either is probably an effective survival strategy.

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