Monday, December 30, 2013

Big Brother is Watching You!

RHYS BOWEN: On Christmas Day I watched Edward Snowden on TV, saying that a baby born today will have no concept of privacy—that his every move and thought will be tracked. 1984 come to reality. Big Brother really is watching us. What a frightening thought, isn’t it. And it really seems to be true. Amazon knows exactly what I have been searching and immediately shows it to me on my next start screen. The ads that show up around my emails are for sites I’ve recently visited.

And the thing that bugs me most of all—I visit a site and a little box springs up with a live person saying “Do you want to chat?”

No, I don’t want to chat. Actually I don’t want you to know that I’m checking out your site. In fact the more I think about it, the scarier it is. The sites I check are pretty harmless—Chicos and… but what an opportunity for blackmail if someone checks the wrong sites!  A politician visiting a porn site, for example.(—good plot for a future book??)

I suppose that by deciding to blog online I have freely and willingly given up much of my privacy. As a published writer I am a public figure. I have lots of followers on Facebook and Twitter and I share tidbits from my life with them. But what would I do if this magnified and grew into what Charlaine Harris experienced with strange fans with filed teeth showing up on her doorstep?
I wonder if privacy is not a normal human condition—the first humans huddled together in a cave. In China today there is little concept of privacy and the Communist governments around the world want every move of their citizens to be reported. But America was founded on the concept of freedom of the individual and now that is seriously threatened. So I’m interested in what the other Reds think—are we really in danger of giving up the concept of privacy? Is this necessarily a bad thing?
HALLIE EPHRON: I remember when the House Unamerican Activities committee was in full throttle, ferreting out the Communist menace, and my screenwriter father would say those clicks we heard on the phone was them eavesdropping. I thought he was paranoid. I also remember when, in the early 60s, the FBI arrived to investigate our neighbor's oldest daughter who'd gone south as a Freedom Rider. They questioned me. I was all of 13.

Now it creeps me out when I email someone with a note about something mindless like the neat nail polish my daughter gave me for Christmas (metallic lavender)... and right away nail polish ads start popping up on the side. That feels invasive. I mean, they **are** reading my mail.

On the other hand, what do we expect for free? Which is what my gmail account is. As is Google search. As is my web browser. It's their way of extracting payment... information that can be turned into targeted ad revenue.

The NSA mining of all telephone calls? Way beyond reasonable. When will they start opening our mail?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: This is such a tough question, and it's something that Rick and I talk about all the time (although he's much more up on it than I am.) As a culture, we are fascinated by spying--just look at a list of movies in recent years, or TV shows--and yet WE don't want to be spied on. Can you have it both ways?  Data mining has been going on in law enforcement for years, as in tracking regular phone calls to certain suspect numbers, which then allows law enforcement to get warrants to LISTEN to phone calls if it is judged there is probably cause.  And I'm okay with that. I think. But then, I've been doing a lot of research this last year on white phosphorous grenades--is the FBI going to show up at my door?

Now, with everything we do electronically, data mining is inevitable.  Just stay off the Internet, you say?  Your local grocery store tracks your purchases. The only way to stay out of any database would be to make only cash transactions in person, and I'm not even sure about that.

I do think there should be limits on how much access there is to our emails, texts, and phone usage. But on the other hand, I think people are incredibly naive about what they do make public--"I'm going to Belize and my house will be empty for a week! The key is under the mat!" No social media gives anyone a right to privacy!!! My personal motto is, "If you don't want the world to know, don't put it out there!" Come on, folks.

Maybe we should all go back to writing letters... We still trust the US Mail, right?

 HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I remember, several years ago, people started contacting me in my role as "Help Me Hank" for TV. The emails would say--"Can you believe it??? You can go on line and find out people's NAMES and ADDRESSES and phone numbers. You can find out how much their homes cost, and who they bought them from. They're invading our PRIVACY!"

 Yeah, I would say. That name and address thing, kind of like...the phone book? And the mortgage stuff..kind of like the public info easily available at the registry of deeds?

 But it's scarier, I think, because it's so fast. And what if you're in NYC and don't have the LA phone book? No problem. It's all so accessible. Not to mention the stuff we willingly give on social media: "Went to Las Vegas for the weekend!" "Love my new Uggs!"  Those bits of info are incredibly valuable. And we've given UP our privacy.

 (And there's a bit of it that's--good. I like to see the shoe ads on my page..not so much the "anti-aging" ones, but it could be looked at as a...service.)

 That said: The governent listening to conversations on the phone? Of course that's invasive, and terrifying, and those who say "if you don't have something to hide,you shouldn't care" are missing something--like the constititional protecton against illegal search.

 On the other hand: When the bad guys attack, we all say--why didn't our national security people know about that? 

 But didn't the court just say theres no proof there's ever been an attack stopped as a result of those listeners?

 What would you do, if you were in charge?
Lucy Burdette: this is a hard topic on all sides. Ever since the tragedy that occurred on 9/11, I feel grateful that our security people (whomever they may be) are working to keep a handle on the "bad guys." Remember how terrifying it was to board a plane after 9/11? On the other hand, what sets our country apart from other countries is our ability to maintain private lives. It's a very difficult balancing act.

In the end, I am not a fan of Edward Snowden. I do think his acts have forced us into some critically difficult conversations. But I can't help but think that maybe there was another way to go about it. Oh and one more thing. I had to stop watching the show Homeland, even though I think it was brilliantly done. Because the crazy things that Carrie did, including bugging the Marine's home while his family was out of the house, made me way too anxious. There's a reason I write lighter mysteries:).

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: As a former lawyer, I'm a big fan of the constitution. It's not just the penumbral right to privacy being encroached upon. I think the protections the founding fathers wrote into the Bill of Rights - the right to speak and to assemble, the right to be safe from searches except on warrants obtained through reasonable suspicion, the right to a speedy and public trial, the right to hold property free from seizure except by due process of law - are all under attack. The problem is, they're under attack from us.

Maybe we, as United States Citizens, have lived so long in the safety of the world's most enduring democracy, we've come to take it for granted. We think we can give away bits and pieces of our freedoms - just a sliver, just under these circumstances, only to protect us from bad people. Forgetting the lessons of so much of history: once you surrender a little piece of freedom, it becomes easier and easier to surrender more. And oh, so very hard to get it back again.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I've put off writing on this because I really haven't made up my mind. While I'm not an admirer of Edward Snowdon's, he may have inadvertently all done us a favor by starting this conversation.

And I say that as someone who's researched anthrax online for THE PRIME MINISTER'S SECRET AGENT. Yes, Winston Churchill and his scientists were developing anthrax, along with mustard gas, during World War II — something not known to the British people then. How many things are going on in our name today? (And how many watch lists am I on for having done this research?)

In terms of censorship, though, both the U.S. and UK governments were upfront about it during World War II — people's letters were assumed to be read and sometimes passages considered sensitive were blacked out by censors. In many ways I think if this censorship had come publicly in the heels on 9/11, people wouldn't have minded. In some ways, I still don't mind. But, still, I keep coming back to that quote of Benjamin Franklin's — those who sacrifice their freedom for safety deserve neither.

RHYS: So much food for thought here and something interesting...when I tried to link our various names to our websites Blogger allowed me to do Hank, Hallie and Lucy but not Deb or me. We're obviously on the wanted list because we write about a foreign country!

So do let us know what you think... is it worth giving up our privacy for national security?


  1. This is really a tough question and there are no easy answers. I don’t advocate giving up rights guaranteed to us by the Constitution upon which this nation was founded. I don’t want to think “they” are watching every move I make, tracking every little thing I do, but I am not naïve enough to think that things like that aren’t being done in some form, in some way. And that is frightening, even though the events of September 11 showed us that there were security issues that needed to be addressed.

    I want to feel safe. I want to believe that my children and grandchildren are safe. But I don’t want that safety to come at the loss of my much-valued privacy. I shudder at what many people cavalierly post online, at how carelessly they spread every tiny piece of their lives over social media sites, as if they’ve never heard of discretion. The immediacy of all this technology makes many people thoughtless, and the convenience of it seems to come at an extremely heavy cost . . . .

  2. Here here, Julia. I share your view entirely. When it comes to compromising on our freedoms, we are headed down a steep and slippery slope.

    The intelligence state and its cousin, the personification of corporations, is Big Brother, all right. It remains to be seen if Snowden accomplished anything.

    Perhaps his disclosures will ignite a true counter-movement where citizens wrench their privacy back, but I think this will require more than paying cash and using snail mail.

  3. JD "Dusty" Rhoades has a column today of his annual predictions. One of them is this:

    "MAY: NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden drops another bombshell when he reveals a program run by the secretive agency that collects intimate data on millions of Americans, including such highly personal details as how much alcohol they’ve had to drink over a 24-hour period, pictures of what they had for dinner, the names and ages of household pets, and even their moods.
    The bombshell fizzles when it’s revealed that the “program” is just NSA employees surfing Facebook when they were supposed to be working."

    So true.

  4. Wow - what a fascinating topic. And such thoughtful insight from you all. This subject has long been on my mind. I lived in Vietnam from 1995-1999 - the waning days of true Communism in that country, and my mail was opened, I was followed by police, etc. But it seemed like such a joke. I had nothing to hide, so who cared, and even the Vietnamese officials were half-hearted about their surveillance. I could usually get a laugh out of them. And we all knew that it was just form, a government saving face as it moved into the new capitalistic era it had denounced for so long.

    But ...

    This was before the Internet came along. We expats who lived in Vietnam truly thought we were witnessing the end of a certain kind of governmental abuse. We had no idea that the Internet would come along and make abuse of privacy an everyday part of daily democratic life.

    Then I started doing more research. Vance Packard wrote "The Naked Society" in 1964, and it's a full-on indictment of the government keeping tabs on the public. The interesting thing he talks about is the morality of such activity, and that, I think, is where it gets sad today. That argument is rarely in play when we discuss what's going on with the NSA, etc. Morality, ethics and basic human rights. Rights that many young people do not even know they have, having been raised in a privacy-free society.

    Obviously, I could go on and on, and I haven't even had my coffee yet. I'm looking forward to reading what the other Redettes (that's what I've started calling us Red followers) have to say on this subject.

  5. The trade-offs and calculated risks taken with digital privacy is astounding.

    I don't care how beneficial joining and checking in on FourSquare might be, I won't do it. Yet, I join all the affinity programs (Stop&Shop, hotels, frequent flyers, etc.) for the bargains and the points.

    Rod appreciates me posting trip info after-the-fact instead of "I'm having a blast at (Insert Location Here)," implying the house is empty. Good thing I'm lousy at live-tweeting anyway. Then again, he tells me to leave the GPS on so the handy-dandy "Find My Phone" app he got me will work.

    I reckon it's still not too late for me to get a pen name, even though it's laughably easy for the sufficiently motivated to track someone down.

    Lucy - I stopped watching Homeland because Claire Danes is So Good at portraying bipolar with-no-brakes that it reminded me too much of someone I used to know and still worry about.

  6. Irony: Article I read this morning said the NSA may have collected so much data that they are buried under it, unable to determine what is useful from what is garbage.

    Me, I'm a privacy advocate. Government wants my phone records? Get a warrant. And since I recently did research on meth labs and firearms, I supposed I'm on some watchlist now, too.

    However, working in tech, I can tell you - thost chat popups? Automated to come up after a certain amount of time. No one is watching, it's all scripting. Same for the ads. There are no people behind it - just computers scanning keywords. Of course, I don't know if that makes it better or worse.

  7. There was a great New Yorker cartoon where a middle-aged couple is answering their apartment door. In the hall are two obvious FBI guys--and one is saying to the couple:

    "PLEASE PLEASE say something
    interesting! We are monitoring your calls and you are SO BORING!"

  8. Anybody monitoring my phone calls is in for a disappointment. 99% consist of my hanging up on robo-callers. And my Facebook? Pictures of my famiy and dogs, books reviews, complaints.

    But I do have an opinion about this. The terrorists won. After 9/11 people demanded more "security," and got more surveillance as a result. The demand for more security doesn't seem to extend to security from smoking, auto and home-grown gun deaths, each of which results in more deaths per year than happened in the 9/11 attacks. The slippery slop has turned into greased lightning.

  9. Terry, did you intend that brilliant typo? "The slippery slop has turned into greased lightning."

  10. I think the internet has increased knowledge that data is being collected; however, TRW, et al., have been collecting for years. Is there a competition between big business and the government, i.e., two Stepfords?

    I too have to wonder if any of the gleaned information has increased security - pretty sure the security measures will never go away and our privacy will never return.

  11. You ladies have certainly given me a lot to think about, with your different thoughts about this important issue. I admit that I stay rather undecided about it all. Like you, Rhys, I find the "chat" pop-ups annoying and would like to be left alone. Hallie, thinking about McCarthy is scary. Deb, I agree that data mining is here to stay. You also had an excellent point about telling the world your house would be empty. So not a good idea. I have been a bit lax about that last year. Hank, you pointed out the fear that keeps me undecided, that preventing a terrorist attack could depend on privacy invasions. And, then, Julia reminds me of the protection that our founding fathers sought to ensure. Lucy, I, too, wonder if Snowden's methods were the best. Susan, you quote really made me sit up and take notice, those who sacrifice their freedom for safety deserve neither.

    I'm listening to a book on tape with my husband right now by Vince Flynn in which some CIA operatives are trying to prevent a terrorist attack on D.C. and are employing some methods rather outside of the Geneva Convention. It raises the question of what is acceptable to protect the citizens of the United States. I find myself urging the powers in charge to let the men do their job and get the information to prevent the attack. I realize that this story touches upon other areas than invading the privacy of our own citizens, but it still plays to the same fear that anything is acceptable to protect peoples' lives.

    I am a huge anti-censorship advocate, so it's difficult for me to reconcile my desire for protection of intellectual freedom with allowance of loss of privacy. As I stated earlier, I am torn as to how much of our loss of privacy is necessary. Fear is such a confusing factor.

  12. For all our national criticism of cold war era Russia's propaganda and spying, we seem to have ripped pages from their communist instruction books and are following them to the letter.

    It's appalling to realize that, in the words of Pogo, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

  13. Such insightful comments from everyone. Joan, you made your point so well — brava!

  14. My take on this is so different, I hesitate to comment. But as a former journalist, I think some of you need to hear the other side: Snowden is a traitor who has already cost American lives. And three-quarters of America is naive beyond belief. Obama's hair turned white after the election because he heard exactly how many well financed and determined groups are committed to destroying America, how many untracked nuclear weapons exist and are for sale. That's why he continues the drones, the war, and the questioning of combatants in Gitmo -- things he attacked before the election. If these terrorists get the plan right and manage to keep it secret, there will be no time to duck. New York, Washington, or Los Angeles will be half-gone in an instant. The NSA can listen to me and my friends talk all they want. They can put a camera in my bathroom if it will save a million lives.

  15. Jack, my husband retired from the Army two years ago, having served during the last ten years at the Pentagon, at Central Command in Tampa, and six months in Afghanistan. So, his take on doing what needs to be done to enable troops to do their job and protect their lives has been influential in my own thinking. In other words, I understand your position, and when push comes to shove, I am willing to give up my privacy freedoms, too. I just get concerned when I remember people like McCarthy who use information to censor and retaliate. And, I do think you are spot on about how naive many Americans are. The problem with playing by the rules on our part runs into trouble when the other side has no rules by which they abide, making the world anything but a black and white affair. Gee, here I am in vacillation land again.

  16. I am less worried about what the government can find out than what we may voluntarily surrender. Not only do we alert folks that our house may be empty as mentioned above, but many of the "fun" things that are posted by high school and college kids may be coming back to haunt them when they seek a job or run for political office. If employers can look at our credit ratings and other private information when we apply for work, what will they do with some of the information that is posted on Facebook and Twitter? We've already seen people fired for indiscreet tweets. I'm not a fan of Snowden; I think he did it for himself, not for the American people. And he didn't care about the fallout. When it is a Snowden or a McCarthy, when the individual cares more about himself than the issue, then we are in for a world of hurt. Can Snowden honestly reconcile his exile in countries that eschew democracy with the content on his stated objectives?

  17. I think that a stranger with filed teeth showing up on a character's doorstop would be an EXCELLENT opening for a cozy mystery...

  18. Excellent point about giving out information voluntarily. I purposely don't use my maiden name on Facebook, since my three daughters are likely to be asked that for security purposes. My high school friends and relatives know it, and that's plenty.

  19. Rhys, very thought-provoking post today... scary. I'm sure I sound paranoid, but I think that whatever powers there are in our lives—government, law-enforcement, corporate—they would rather pretend they can do nothing about it so they can use it whenever they like.

    The argument we are given, that we freely use the Internet, is specious. There are laws against invasion of privacy when we use the telephone. No one says we use the phone freely and are thereby giving permission to all strangers to listen in and learn where we are going or who our friends are...

    Hallie, I remember the clicks. My father was MIA in Russia after his ship was torpedoed in the North Atlantic. The local people took a number of the crew into their homes to live until they were rescued or until it was safe for them to leave. Before the US entered the war one of my great-grandfathers returned to visit family in Russian-occupied Poland. He brought other family members to visit and to help him try to convince three of his daughters to come back to the States with him and live in Salem, Massachusetts. When I looked at the census for 1930, he was listed as Russian, and a Russian speaker, with the first name Ladisbaw. By the 1940 census he was listed as Polish, and a Polish speaker, with the first name Joe. We had a lot of clicks on our phone.

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