Spied upon

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

The prescience of George Orwell in his novel 1984 is eerie in 2019. Seventy years after its 1949 publication in England, we live with cameras that watch us at stoplights and in stores; cyberspace technology that checks our emails; phones that track our whereabouts from within our houses and autos into the world of roads and stores and skies we frequent. It is all too similar to the secret surveillance in Orwell’s dystopian story.

I hadn’t really thought about it much, my whereabouts known to entities I don’t know; nor do most people who aren’t paranoid. But it’s become increasingly apparent: when I send an email to a client about editing and later in the afternoon get an ad down the side of my “Google search” inviting me to editing school. Or to an editing organization. Many times, I get invites to a publishing company advertising for copyeditors.

It’s gotten creepier: Once, I’d been emailing back and forth with a friend about dieting – food, flab, exercise and so forth. The next day, jiggling down the right side of my screen was a fat-bellied woman in underwear shaking her big stomach at me and inviting me to buy a diet supplement. Or maybe it was a girdle. Whichever, it was repulsive. First, because of the invasion of privacy verging on voyeurism; second, because of the tastelessness of the ad; third, because I couldn’t get rid of her and her wobbly belly.

Microsoft, the operating system I use on my computer, now suggests answers for me while I’m replying to an email. This is merely annoying – I know what I want to say and how to say it; for a machine to suggest anything is a waste of time to a writer. As an aunt-in-law would have said, “It just gets into my goat.”

Edward Snowden was interviewed via cyberspace in September by National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” program. He is – or was until recently – the most famous American whistleblower. He’s been living in Moscow, Russia, since 2013, where he wound up after he blew the whistle on the CIA for spying on its own citizens – us.

Through phone texts and calls, through emails, as he said, “They collect it all, on everyone, everywhere, at all times.” I was chilled by his statement because I am so apt to political incorrectness in emails, texts and phone calls. Am I on some list?

Snowden did not publish the information he gleaned off the CIA computers where he worked, but he did call three newspeople and told them what he’d found and that he thought the CIA’s habit was undemocratic. If the reporters wanted to pursue the story, they would have to do the research, talk to the agency, prepare their own information. Then, he ran for his life.

One of the reasons he didn’t go through a whistleblower route was that our spy agencies only honor them if the whistle is about mundane things like stealing paperclips or exposing an extramarital affair; notifying superiors about something in the category of secrets of the CIA would land one in prison, probably forever. And the information the whistleblower was complaining about because of its unconstitutionality would never get out.

So, after contacting the Press, he took to the road, asking for refuge in European countries, all of whom were approached by the State Department to give him up or suffer consequences. He thought of Ecuador, who said okay, but it was by then too late; he couldn’t get to them through legitimate means. His solution was Russia, believing that they would not cave in to U.S. demands for anything. It worked. He’s lived there for six years.

He is not paid by the Russians for anything – housing, food, employment; or even for the good PR that he is an American who can survive only in Russia. They ignore him. Initially he was afraid of being offed by U.S. spies. But that fear eventually waned, and he now lives without disguise, with his wife, in an apartment on the outskirts of Moscow. He travels, giving talks on whistleblowing and on conscience as a speaker for the American Program Bureau.

The point I want to get to is this: He seldom uses a cell phone. It sits in his apartment, but he keeps it in a condition he calls “modified.” He unscrews the back, opens it up, removes the mic and disconnects the phone speaker. If he needs to use it, he connects to an external microphone.

If I can figure out how to do this, perhaps I shall. Being watched by the CIA or Amazon or Microsoft or my bookstore – I don’t care who – is beginning to get into my goat.

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