Watching the Watchdogs:
what TRW knows but my friends don't

Technopolis 1.3, by Michael Jensen
originally published in Breeze, March 1996.

Baltimore City plans to install 200 videocameras to oversee every intersection in its downtown. The police will watch the video feeds and alert patrols when they see signs of trouble.

They say that it's to help mute "the perception of danger." They emphasize truthfully that the danger isn't that real--there's not a lot of downtown muggings or violence; the numbers don't show any calamitous state of urban war--but they want people to feel safer. Hence the cameras.

Do I feel safer with videocameras downtown? Probably. Do I feel less safe--in a different way--with the eye of Authority watching me? Assuredly.

However, my own "my god it's Big Brother" reflex, though well honed, doesn't grab hold fully with this one. The City Council, Chamber of Commerce, and Police all seem to be trying to do something to help their community. That is, they don't seem to be part of an evil cabal out to control me, some FBI/CIA/NSA plot to identify the tendencies of everybody in the country. They seem to be honestly trying to solve "the violence problem": real violence, perceived violence, and potential violence. And for all those the video solution has some benefit.

The Maryland ACLU is tolerant of the plan, because it's video of a public, rather than private, space. They'll "be vigilant," as was said the on a local NPR talk show, but that's about all they plan.

Privacy in a public space; public disclosure of private information; private disclosure of private information; these are the things I'm thinking about as I write this article. Something arrived today in the mail was very disturbing: I'm accustomed, now, to getting "Congratulations, MR. MICHAEL JENSEN, on your new home in OWINGS MILLS..." messages. Of course, I say numbly, anybody can buy my name, my address. It's only one step above "YOU MAY HAVE ALREADY WON" scams.

But today arrived an envelope from some insurance company. Inside, no letter, no "Congratulations" note signed with rubber. Just a single blue business reply card. On the form side, at the top, under the MORTGAGE PROTECTION PLAN head, it said "Our company records indicate that you have not taken advantage of our low-cost mortgate insurance which would pay off your home loan with Crossland Mtg Corp. Upon death of either spouse, your loan of $111,000 would be paid off."

Every bit of this was true. But why a two-bit insurance company would be able to easily buy this information from my mortgage company (without paying me for my invaded privacy) eludes explanation.

Two of my children asked me a few days ago why I didn't want them being fingerprinted in school without my permission. They'd noticed my tendency to grouse about such matters, and resist passing out personal information to any organization that asked. What I said was that in a democracy such as ours, it's possible for bad people to get in power and take advantage of being in power. That a totalitarian regime could initially be voted in, as happened in Germany before World War II. And that I didn't want to make it too easy for them to identify me and my willingness to resist such as they.

I know how easy it is to correlate database information, as long as there's some structure, some linking correlative between information bits. Give me the databases of Visa/MC, the Mortgage companies, and the hardware stores in your community, and I could, as an amateur, find out which of your neighbors are probably doing renovation in their homes. With one more database--city housing--I could tell you which of them hadn't filed for a permit for that renovation.

It would take me a little while--maybe a couple of weeks at worst--once I had the data. But imagine what the pros do.

In times of fear, we give up our rights. This truism is hard to dispute: in time of war, we allow the government to push us around. In times of economic recession, we allow others to test our urine (for fear of losing our jobs). In times of economic depression, we look to strong leaders (like Hitler) to give voice and metaphor to our sense of injustice. In times of rampant crime and violence (or perceived crime and violence), we allow the authorities to harass young black men because they seem part of the "dangerous element." Or we willingly move to a heavily punitive justice system; or we begin to assume that if someone's been arrested, then they must be guilty; or we allow police to sweep through a particular neighborhood doing house-to-house searches for weapons and drugs without specific search warrants, because it'll make our city "safer."

To whose advantage is it, to have a citizenry willing to give up its rights? To those already in power, naturally. I'm not sure I'm willing to cede my rights for a sense of security which (I believe) will be publicized as being threatened no matter what I do.

Violence, crime, and awfulness sell newspapers, of course. And sell CNN, and NPR, and Nightline. Not to mention selling Christian fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists, or the Fami-nazis who glorify Ozzie and Harriet.

What this has to do with cameras in downtown Baltimore is that the same motivation is at work. Fear becomes its own messenger of fearful news. The fact that we have to resort to "big brother tactics" to combat the perception of violence essentially validates the fear, makes it more real.

This "perception makes reality" habit is the same one at the heart of my fear of reading on a business reply card what my house mortgage is, who my mortgage holder is, and that that information is for sale. We become inured to it, and easily cede "them" the right to use that information. The more specific the information, the more easily it's correlated. The more we become accustomed to giving out specific information, the more we'll do it. It becomes "their" information about "us," instead of "my" information which they happen to also have.

Somehow I want to take this process back. I want to not give into fear when walking downtown (watchful of course, but not fearful). I want to re-own my own information. And I want to re-own my community's oversight. There's been a "taking," I believe the legal term is, of my private information, at a time when a multitude of semipublic information can be alchemically bonded to identify exceedingly private information.

I think there needs to be a change in attitude about our own content, and about who owns our public and private information.

To retake our information--the multitude of bits of personal information floating about which "belongs" to "them,"--is the only protection we have against "them." Complacency will only result in "them" knowing more about us then we know about them. Those information bits about me belong to me; it's my information, guys, about me--I should reap the benefit.

What I'm thinking is this: that eventually, if we make things go somewhat well for us, we'll be paid to watch our advertising. That is, in the new online society, since transmission is so cheap, mechanisms for payment will be arranged; advertisers will pay us a nickel, a dime, a quarter for us to read what they are offering. The demographic analysis of my data will be so well-honed that an advertiser will pay to publicize its wares exactly to me. This will take some modifications in our thinking, and require us retaking our media and society a bit. This is a retaking of ourselves as consumers: I am what I am, so if you want to use that, give me something in return.

But how do we "retake" information like my mortgage? My answer is (I discover as of this writing), to make it public. I'd rather that everyone know that information, instead of only those with money. "One-instance" information is particularly vulnerable to being "taken," such as that single public notice that appears upon sale of a house. This bit of data is keyboarded by a few wageslaves a handful of times, either by the mortgage company, or by companies who resell such information. Either way, it is then sold, and followed up, and verified, and resold, from that moment on. Hundreds of database resellers (I am not making this up) know the birthday of my mortgage. Why should they know things my friends don't?

Something's wrong here.

To regain a slight degree of control of my own information, I guard as much as possible against "information takings," by the government and by the corporate information culture. But if I lose ground, then why not make it truly public? Maybe I'll put my mortgage numbers on my home page on the Internet. I'll certainly eventually put up this essay.

To retake our community from the 200 cameras watching downtown, there's only one answer: we need to insist on having at least half of those as cable channels, available to anyone with cable. It might be no one would watch those channels, but I'd be surprised. There should also be cameras in--and a channel for--the police offices where those 200 feeds are being watched. We can then watch the overseers.

I don't believe that these "information takings" I'm talking about are a conscious conspiracy. There's no military-industrial plot with generals and directors. It's mostly an inevitable result of a capitalist structure, where individual differences are seen as a market niche.

I do believe the FBI and NSA watch everything, and are taking note of this article. Fine: it's their job, as it is the job of the marketeers who validate and generate and buy and sell my information. Similarly, it's of course my job--all our jobs--to be protective of my own data. The post-capitalist system--in which we are all seen as consumers rather than as generators--continues to affect (and infect) the trends leading to the next society.

We are at the beginning of a very very very interesting cultural upheaval that will be created by an interconnected society. I think I'd rather be open with my information than have perceived danger force me into a shell. Like the perception of danger driving the fear in downtown Baltimore, I don't want to fear being informationally invaded so completely that I become paranoid. What they know, they know. But I'll be chary of what else to give them. And I'll be really public about the stuff that they know, but my friends don't.

In this way, we begin the process of becoming a nation of watchdogs, instead of a nation of watched dogs.

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