You’re Being Watched, Deal With It

rear window

It took all of maybe three months living in New York City for me to realize that I really didn’t give a shit about privacy. I was sitting on the couch of a girl I’d been on a couple of dates with and we were talking, when I happened to glance out her open window and into the apartment directly across from us on the other side of MacDougal Street. Standing there, in front of her own open window, was a naked woman. As in head-to-toe, full-frontal. Why she was naked I didn’t know and of course didn’t care. She could’ve just figured out the secret to cold fusion and wanted to call CERN as quickly as possible and therefore hadn’t bothered to get dressed; it wouldn’t have mattered one bit to me. All I cared about was the fact that I was getting a pretty impressive peep show and I didn’t even have to debase myself in a dark, tiny room just off Times Square that smelled like Clorox and cigarettes had a mysterious waist-height hole in the wall leading to — somewhere. Strangely, for all my various experiences up to that point, I’d never seen anything quite like what I was witnessing and for the next half-hour, despite several attempts, I couldn’t take my eyes off the nude figure not more than a hundred feet or so from me. I continued watching it, in fact, right up until my date asked me to please leave and never come back.

What I started to understand that night is that in New York City — Manhattan especially, stacked on top of each other like lab rats in numbered drawers — it was naive and stupid to expect complete privacy. Your neighbor in the next apartment could hear you. The guy on a date with somebody you didn’t even know across the street could see you. If you were being stabbed by a stranger in the alley next door to your building, everybody would know it and there’s a pretty good chance nobody would do a thing about it. And so, in short order, I became one of those people, like the woman across MacDougal Street: someone who never much worried about who could see me or what they could see me doing. Propriety was merely a matter of distance and ignorance: If you personally were right outside my high-rise window peeking in, chances are it would have bothered me; widen the scope of possible offenders to hundreds and put them far enough away to where I couldn’t tell for sure who was watching and who wasn’t — make the eyes invisible — and who has time to care?

More than once in the past couple of years I’ve brought up the name Jeremy Bentham in the stuff that I write. For those who weren’t paying attention — and really, who can blame you if you weren’t? — Bentham was a British philosopher and sociologist who, among other things, first proposed the idea of a new kind of prison where thousands of inmates could be watched by a single guard tower in the center of a circular complex but the inmates themselves could never tell exactly who was watching them or if anyone was at all. It was revolutionary — and it was called the Panopticon. I’ve brought up Bentham again and again for the simple reason that his unholy creation has now come to fruition on a massive scale, one that for all his genius I guarantee he never could’ve imagined. We’re all living in Bentham’s prison. We now exist in a digital, social media, telecommunications Panopticon. What’s more, while it’s easy to argue, particularly after the past few days, that the guards of this prison are members of the government and its various national security agencies, the reality is that we’re our own guards — our own wardens — and we willingly submit to incarceration in this nightmare almost every minute of every day.

It’s true that the NSA has been data-mining from U.S. citizens via both tech and telecom companies and the width of the dragnet cast may be cause for concern; this revelation is hardly a revelation at all and should surprise no one. But the reality is that we don’t need the government to dig to find out where we are, who we’re talking to, what we’re looking for on the internet, and so on because the very tech giants we fear are being wantonly raided by the NSA have been collecting data on us for years. And they haven’t been using it for anything so noble as national security. They’ve been using it to make money — millions in fact. Companies like Google and Facebook violate our supposed privacy as a matter of policy, selling our searches to companies looking to target us with specific ads and actually turning us, on occasion, into unwitting pitchmen for crap we’d never in a million years want our names associated with. Wireless behemoths like Verizon, meanwhile, may be at the center of a maelstrom right now for turning over metadata to government agents armed with FISA warrants, but guess what? As recently as three weeks ago Verizon was called out for turning over the personal data of its customers to big business through a program called Precision Market Insights (which could amusingly be shortened to “PrIsM” if you felt so inclined).

This has been going on for years and not only is there nothing you can do about it, most people have barely cared. What are you going to do, drop off Facebook? Leave the internet? Throw your cellphone away? The bottom line is there’s nothing you can do. As a recent article in the Huffington Post said, you simply cannot reasonably expect to exist in the modern world and not have your private information sold off for a profit. So you shut your eyes and pretend it isn’t happening. You tune it out and go about your business, even though you know the prison guards are watching you.

Even if you can get past the notion that there are unseen forces monitoring your every move, vast entities that consider you little more than a set of not-so-secret longings and fascinations to be stoked and marketed to, you still have to contend with a potentially far more immediate and invasive violation of your privacy. Just last week, while most of us were losing our minds over the possibility of the NSA having access to the pictures of Grumpy Cat we were circulating to people who secretly hate us, a woman named Steph Strayer was single-handedly trying to destroy a guy who had the bad luck to be sitting near her on a train ride out of Philadelphia while he apparently bragged about how much he enjoyed cheating on his wife. Steph, you see, not content to simply tuck her earbuds deeper into her ears like the rest of us do when a nearby conversation annoys the piss out of us, whipped out her cellphone and snapped a picture of the offending asshole; she then posted that picture on Facebook and crowdsourced for the poor bastard’s identity in the hope that he’d be publicly shamed and would, I’d imagine, get a serious talking to by his wife (one that would likely involve a packed-solid Samsonite Carbon to the side of the head). This story closely followed that of Adria Richards, a software developer who tweeted out a picture of two guys she says were making sexist jokes behind her at a tech convention — the resulting firestorm got everyone involved, including Richards, fired — and Melissa Stetten, who claims that married C-list actor Brian Presley spent an entire flight hitting on her, the details of which she live-tweeted.

None of this is meant to argue that idiot men have to worry about how they comport themselves around women these days — it’s meant to argue that everyone apparently has to be on their best behavior at all times these days. Why? It isn’t because you never know who’s watching you. It’s because everyone is watching you. You’re always under surveillance. Everyone is connected to the social media hive mind. Whether you’re jacked in yourself, by yourself, putting your own information out there for all to see, or the person next to you is commenting on what’s going on in his or her general vicinity and you just happen to be a part of the action, you have no expectation of privacy anymore.

You can let this paralyze you. You can let it make you crazy. Or you can let go.

You have no idea where the guards of this prison are or how many of them there are at any one time. But you always know they’re there. You have no idea exactly who’s watching you. But you know you’re being watched. That’s the Panopticon.

But if you don’t know who’s watching, whether it’s the NSA or the guy sitting across the street from you on a date, is it really that big a deal? Remember: distance and ignorance. Widen the scope big enough and far enough — make the eyes invisible — and who really has time to care?

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  • Matthew

    Funny, I had a naked neighbor across the way on the UWS and it never made me give up my interest in privacy. Rather it highlighted why I don’t just stay undressed whenever I think nobody’s watching, though it could save time: because none of your damn business.

    Maybe it’s because I’m from NY, and also the sight of a naked stranger doesn’t change my life.

    Or maybe people privilged enough to think they don’t need or care about privacy are the kind of people who find outlets in today’s news media: clueless extroverts without experience with consequences. What a travesty that essential service has become.

    • Chez Pazienza

      Experience without consequences? Without consequences? Uh-huh. Go fuck yourself. Your snap-judgments prove your ignorance.

      • Matthew

        That’s what I’m talking about. Telling a stranger to go fuck themself on the Internet is experience without consequences. Perfect for you.

        In fact, exactly what I’m talking about. I said “without experience with consequences”, and you turned that into some kind of rorschach and spat out “experience without consequences”. See how the Internet is perfect for you? Internet journalism in particular.

        You probably can’t see how that’s how Internet journalism makes today’s news media a travesty. You think “Uh-huh. Go fuck yourself” isn’t depthless ignorance”. Clueless extroversion is like that.

        Congratulations!

        • Chez Pazienza

          Sure thing. Sincerely, do me a personal favor and go read something else.

          • Matthew

            Of course I’ll do you a personal favor. I owe you one, right?

            We’re all sensitive people here, and you’re just tired. Why should you have to make an effort after telling me to go fuck myself? The Internet is your cesspool to jabber into until you’re ready to drop. Putting stupid stuff in public is just an experience – it should never cause any consequences.

            You got the “comical” part right.

  • Rochd

    Re Bentham & Panoptican prisons-part of the point was that the prisoners would also police each other, wittingly or otherwise so he would hardly be surprised that official warders are complemented by ‘citizen’ ones. As to the ‘nothing we can do so lets just learn to love it’ attitude-there is nothing inevitable, unchangeable or benign about these developments and history does show that there are always options

  • Old Editor

    Yup. So give up. Don’t fight the Man.
    Goodbye and good luck.

  • George M Forgues

    Giving up has never been my way. I understand what is going on but I don’t have to like it…

  • trgahan

    It seems that many people freaked by the recent NSA “revelations” picture themselves as Winston. They see themselves in the near future being held up in front of that mirror. Emaciated and exhausted, after having been told not only were they watched the whole time, but they were baiting into committing the very act that got them detained. And it all happened for the pursuit of pure power.

    The reality is most of the examples of information commenters are providing that the Government could possibly use against us is either public information and/or obtainable by standard old legal warrants. No FISA court or NSA needed. We love to think of ourselves as heroes of our own mythology and that our mere existence would so threaten a government like that portrayed in 1984 to require such an expenditure of resources. But in reality, we are not that interesting or important to even warrant a second look.

  • Lady Willpower

    Here’s my impression of a Republican in 2006:

    “I don’t care how much surveillance the govt. puts us under! They can read e-mails, they can tap phones, they can put us through hell at the airports, I DON’T CARE. There’s a lot of crazy Ay-rabs out there who want us dead, and they need to be stopped! Who cares if the govt. is listening in, the innocent have nothing to fear. Because AMERICA.”

    Now here’s the same guy in 2013:

    “Wait… Obummer’s doing it? I may have to rethink my position…”

    This is why no one takes you all seriously.

    • Christopher Foxx

      May rethink their position? It’s uncertain?

    • chrisj

      “Wait… Obummer’s doing it? I may have to rethink my position…”

      I observe the same accept your last quote. For example, on WSJ Op Ed comments, there is some unwritten rule that the prior administration can’t be discussed or compared to the current administration. So there is no memory allowed (one of course is welcome to the glorifying revisionist stuff one can find in the new Bush Library).

  • joseph2004

    There’s a lot we can’t do about a lot of things. While I agree that people will have to get used to a certain lack of privacy when it comes to the social media groups they belong to and internet usage, “Just deal with it” can be taken too far.
    Big info giants like Google and Facebook would like nothing less than for their users to simply accept that, hey, technology is what it is, the cat’s out of the bag, it’s moving too fast and if you don’t like it, well tough!
    But, how far does this really go? To your medical records, too? We’ve already seen how IRS insiders were willing to break the law and divulge personal tax data. Is part of the premise behind digitizing everyone’s medical records only to make it easier for doctors to know your medical history? Is the message in there somewhere that a certain risk to our medical privacy is something we’ll all just have to get used to, given the impractical notion that government employees are trustworthy with our most sensitive information and that technology “solutions” today hardly give anyone a sense of security about their data?
    Personal data privacy is a serious issue. It’s not just a social media issue. Data in the wrong hands can be used maliciously. I don’t intend to get used to that.

  • Awreally

    There’s a wide chasm between being surveiled in order to be marketed to and being surveiled in order to determine wrong doing (potential or actual) with the ultimate punishment being incarceration and permanent damage done to your reputation and financial standing. You would do well to know the difference. This article is moronic unless you’re an authoritarian at heart. Congratulations on once again misunderstanding the gravity of a situation.

    • Chez Pazienza

      Hey, turn around. There’s about to be a knock at your door.

      • Awreally

        Oh goodie pizza is here. Thanks buddy!

        • Chez Pazienza

          Well, at least for a self-satisfied paranoiac you try to have a sense of humor. I’ll give you that.

    • Pelle Svanslös

      Congratulations on once again misunderstanding the gravity of a situation.

      Well…, it’s only OK if a Democratic president does it.

      I remember what we on the left were saying when Bush was the doing the spying, and it certainly wasn’t “Get over it”; Now though? IOKIYAD, i guess. I wonder what the reaction would be if (god forbid) a President Palin or Gingrich was doing the same things Obama is doing (many of which are the same things Bush did).
      Partisanship clearly doesn’t just affect the right.

  • dbtheonly

    Cartoon in morning paper suggests that Americans are fine with having their internet usage tracked as long as someone is using the material to sell them something.

  • Draxiar

    That’s a damn insightful take on the internet and social media. I’m not sure I’ll be able to not see it that way now. Naturally I’ll also see it as a wonderful resource tool and means of communication but in the back of my head it’ll be whispering that it’s watching.

    • missliberties

      and well written too

  • http://www.cvn71supportgroup.8k.com/ GunNut2600

    Man its posts like this that really make me wish I was a rich white male in America. Growing up in Baltimore, I was once arrest at 14 for sitting on my parents porch…or as police call it “loitering in a known high crime area”.

    The damn charge has followed me for the rest of my life. Of course the original charge went away. Can’t be arrested for being on your own or your family’s property so it was turned into resisting arrest.

    I guess since I don’t view the police or any government authority as actively protecting my interests (since they never have in my life), I cannot just assume they all of a sudden will start doing so.

    And I don’t blame the major corporations for working with the Feds. Just look at what happened to Qwest for voicing concerns over their customers’ privacy.

    • Jack Carlton

      Thanks for sharing the story of growing up in Baltimore. It’s really important to let people know that stuff happens.

      I’m not a rich white male, but I still feel almost as privileged as one, having grown up as a middle class white male. I never had to worry about suspicion (much less open hostility) from police. But that’s only because I was lucky enough to be born on the overwhelmingly advantaged side in the centuries-old racial divide that defines America. And I can tell you: most of the others on this side of the divide — other white people, especially males — refuse to acknowledge that racism and systematic discrimination even exist.