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I’m Only Passing Through

August 15, 2015

“I never said, ‘I want to be alone.’ I only said ‘I want to be let alone!’ There is all the difference.”

– Greta Garbo

There is all the difference. I think we’d all agree.

It’s a Saturday morning. Reaching for the familiar with my morning coffee, I put John Prine on the stereo. This made me think about one of the very first blog posts here on Ram On. It’s only been a couple years, but it seems like a long time ago.

Keeping out of sight isn’t so easy as it once was, even for those of us weren’t ever and will never be confused with celebrities as big as Greta Garbo. Technology has made it increasingly easy and inexpensive for any of us to be followed. Data about our everyday lives is being collected by government agencies and corporations all day, every day.

None of this is a secret anymore. The only novelty are the various revelations about new programs and efforts. For example, we recently learned that the data collection efforts that Edward Snowden told us about were simply extensions of a program put in place by George H.W. Bush to monitor international phone calls from Americans twenty-three years ago.govt use your location Calls made from old school phones that hung on a wall or sat on the desk. Washington has been wire-tapping us long before they created modern programs such as PRISM, MYSTIC, and MUSCULAR.

With the constant pound of the “news of the world” and other aspects of our 21st Century lives, the matter of this incessant surveillance seems to be lost. In a perverted twist, to the extent many of us think about it at all, we treat it with a shrug of the shoulders. We seem to accept it. I don’t expect many votes in 2016 will turn on this issue. Busy lives lead us to conclude that since we’re not doing anything wrong, there’s nothing to worry about.

I think there’s more to it than that and sadly, for people who can remember what it was like before, we seem to have forgotten how much we valued privacy. We took it for granted that nobody cared where we bought gas for the car, played softball, drank coffee or talked to on the phone. Many of us don’t seem to value that anonymity anymore.

We’ve traded our privacy for the convenience of the daily routines to which we’ve now conditioned ourselves. After all, just how am I going to keep a close eye on those baseball scores without this modern technology? The Sporting Green section of the SF Chronicle that I found on my doorstep for years is long gone. I’ve conditioned myself to check the box scores and other details more than once a day. Too many times. Way too many times. If the baseball season doesn’t end soon enough, I’ll have to check myself into a 12-step program.

I make my daily work commute in a very non-wired car. It rolled off a Gothenburg, Sweden factory floor during the days of the Reagan administration, six years before government agencies under George Bush, Sr. hatched their plans to monitor our phone calls. There’s no internet access, colorful monitors or modern technology to be found. With nearly 444,000 miles on it, the only wires I think about are those that keep the simple systems running and the car on the road. There isn’t any risk of somebody hacking my old Volvo.

This doesn’t keep me off the radar (quaint term) however. With my fancy Samsung Galaxy appendage in my briefcase, I’m well within view of those who want to know.

Here in the Bay Area, we are also monitored by licence plate readers. When I can, I like going into Oakland and Berkeley for an urban break. Oakland greets me at the city border and watches me until I leave. Each of their automatic license plate readers are capable of scanning the data from 1,800 license plates per minute. I don’t drive to Oakland to cause trouble. I’m there with the dream of finding good Mexican food, trying out one of the trendy coffee houses or new restaurants, sit in the stands at the A’s game or just to “get out of the house.” Tonight my son and I may pass through Oakland on the way to listen to Jackson Browne in Berkeley.

Perhaps you recall that in the early days of the “war on terror,” Vice President Dick Cheney spoke about the “One Percent Doctrine.” What Cheney meant by this was setting policy to encounter a “low-probability, high-impact event.”

In Oakland, we have the less than one percent doctrine. One analysis reported that less than .16 percent of the data collected from the licence plate readers over a three-year period applied to criminal activities. I’m part of what you could call the 99.84% crowd. My file over there doesn’t even include a parking ticket. Come to think of it, I did receive a jay-walking ticket while crossing Broadway Street on an quiet early Sunday morning thirty-five years ago. While I thought Oakland had long forgotten about that, maybe I shouldn’t be so sure. Perhaps they are monitoring my movements because still consider me a high-risk pedestrian.

Here is what eight days of monitoring license plates in Oakland looks like. You can read more about this at The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s website. I think I see my old Volvo barreling down those roads.

  1. Richard Haus permalink

    Hi Bruce! Thoughtful post which I enjoyed reading on a lazy Saturday.
    Thanks! We should catch up.


  2. Yep, privacy is a thing of the past. What creeps me out is after I buy something online, only a few minutes later an ad for it shows up in my Facebook timeline or as a pop-up ad in some other site I land on. To think my purchasing habits are so closely monitored is concerning. And yet, for the ease of online shopping, we accept it and put up with it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As you note though, how many of us will actually give all this technology away for privacy, and for those who do ‘they’ make TV shows about living off the grid…which consequently isn’t so off after all.


    • We’ve given privacy away for a pretty low price. I’ll take your word about those making TV shows about living off the grid. It does seem like a contradiction, but we’re all a bit messy with this stuff. Here we are. You and me. Talking about such stuff on the Internet, for all to track. Our little exchange here now in the data room for the ages.


  4. Fascinating. I miss privacy and I find it’s interesting how easily most have of us have adapted to these changes, maybe in some cases not even realizing how we’ve adapted. The need for information and convenience may greater than the need for privacy. I only think this is possible because we really don’t know what they have on us. My guess is probably a lot more than people realize. What isn’t being discussed are the long-term risks of losing privacy. Maybe it is, but how easily we all ignore it all. Now I have to go Google it. 🙂 Great post, Bruce.


    • Hi Amy, Performing a Google search to learn about how we’re giving up our privacy. Yes, we live in strange times. Here’s an alternative to “Do No Evil Google” – take a look at DuckDuckGo search.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes, it’s annoying and scary how much it “out there.” Most impressed with your Volvo!


  6. I think you’re so right about being slowly lulled into complacency. Just as Carrie noted, the proliferation of ad banners and direct appeals are showing up more and more frequently, and parallel my web searches. There was a time this bothered me more, and now I accept it and have even utilized the “reminders.” I don’t hesitate to give my phone number at the grocery store to have my purchases tracked to save what totals more than few dollars. And having a blog that identifies where I live? My grandmother, who warned against all this, would be appalled. I somehow think I should be too, but I’m not–I’m just not sure why I’m not. Very interesting, Bruce.


    • Hi Debra, we’ve walked tight into it. Shiny objects in our hands and thumbs with new muscle memories. I don’t utilize the constant stream of “reminders.” I would rather start a new search than give the adtech folks the satisfaction of another click.


  7. It seems to me the fight for privacy is over, and now it is just a question of adjusting to the new world, and discovering if anything about it really makes our lives more difficult… and then how to get around it. Over 50 years ago… I don’t remember exactly. Kirk Douglas starred in a film, ‘Lonely Are the Brave”, when the problem was much smaller… but the basis of it was the same. You might find it interesting. Liked your article, though. Even if it doesn’t make us miserable, it can make us uncomfortable.


    • Shimon, it’s not easy for me to accept that we are under constant surveillance. I still imagine spots that are the exception. I’m going to take a look at that Kirk Douglas film. I recall seeing parts of that before. Thanks for the suggestion.


  8. It’s still a surprise when we aren’t anonymous. I looked up washing machines on the internet 2 months ago and have been inundated with ads ever since.


  9. Well written and thoughtful as always. I have to wonder how they justify a system where only .16% of the data collected applied to criminal activities over a three year period. Maybe I’m approaching this from a naive perspective (I can accept that), but it seems like a lot of money and effort that offers little real value. I feel the same about other monitoring activities – how much are they collecting and of the tons of information they do collect, how much is actionable? useful? How many real threats are deterred? And what are we giving up in the meantime? It is very Big Brothery (a new adjective) and it appears that we as a society are all assumed guilty which allows the government to justify this gross invasion of privacy on such a mass scale.


    • Hi Beth, if there is one thing our society seems to agree on, it may just be the lackadaisical march towards a world of constant surveillance. Generally speaking, there we are, hand in hand.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. “We’ve traded our privacy for the convenience of the daily routines to which we’ve now conditioned ourselves.”

    Extremely well said. I have this dream. I have a work smartphone and a personal smartphone. When I retire in a few years, I will not only ditch the work one, I will ditch the personal one as well. I’ll move to a small town and no longer be tethered to them or to the daily routines we have conditioned into.

    A friend went to Hawaii a week ago. It was for a friend’s wedding and a group of friends went together for the event. At some point they wandered through a small swap meet. One of the friends left her cell phone in the car — just forgot to take it out with her. When she realized she didn’t have it. She insisted that another friend stay right by her side until they got back to the car. He didn’t. He wandered off and when they met up again, she was furious with him. This — at a very small swap meet, basically one short aisle of vendors — with their car parked only a couple hundred feet away. We have become slaves to the things, getting dumber the more we use them. My kids don’t bother to try to figure out how to get from one place to another. Why should they? Siri will tell them. We don’t try to figure anything out anymore? Who was that actor who played Steve in that movie back then? No, wait, it was XXX. No, it was YYY. None of that happens anymore. It’s just “google it.” The lack of basic knowledge about the world we live in is stunning.

    And then there’s the privacy. On some level, I’m not as concerned about that. Most of my on-line presence I have created myself and if I was motivated by privacy I wouldn’t have a blog, that’s for sure. But there are other nefarious ways in which this has gone overboard. As Carrie Rubin mentioned in her comment, the tracking programs that connect the things we do on-line are outrageous and scary.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. The thing that takes me back the most about your post is that we “treat it with a shrug of the shoulders”. Guilty.
    I’m off to check out duckduckgo …


  12. And now that we’ve lost our privacy, you know we’ll never get it back, barring some kind of worldwide cyber-apocalypse. Even if the governments of the world put in some kind of legislation outlawing this kind of tracking, there will always be something somewhere monitoring it all.


  13. kdk permalink

    “We’re not doing anything wrong, there’s nothing to worry about.” Those are the words I stumble on. That’s me – totally guilty. It’s the whole issue of tradeoffs: can you have better information without the vulnerability of privacy? If it was clear cut it wouldn’t be a discussion. Good food for thought. I think about the footprint that I leave as I go through my day-to-day … Surely with this issue there is a clever play of words waiting to happen on the old, “take only photos, leave only footprints” but I can’t quite come up with it.


    • kdk – the way I look at it, footprints should be able to wash away with the rain or smooth out after the wind blows. You’re only passing through.


  14. I’ve grown used to Big Brother honing in on my purchases on Amazon or seeing links to recent Google searches I’ve made show up in ads, but last week, this invasion of my privacy reached a new low. I got a few new followers that are directly related to something major that is going on in my private life, something I’ve not written about on my site, but it’s why I’ve somewhat dropped off the blogosphere grid. (I intend to return eventually.) I don’t even want to know how they know what they know, but it is disturbing. It makes me want to take a shower to wash off the invasiveness. If only that could work!


  15. A thoughtful post, as always, Bruce. I have these periods when I’m furious about these developments and the complete loss of privacy in today’s world. And then I give up. Sigh. I actually had a good laugh when I found my ad profile (don’t remember any more how and where…I think it might have been somewhere deep in Google’s tummy) because it put me in a much younger age bracket, driving a wrong make/model car, etc. Pretty much everything about this “ad me” was wrong. I blogged about it. Let them read it!


  16. Hi Bruce, I’m dropping by via Susie’s Drop and hop blog party. My husband used to live in SF and after 32 years of marriage I have yet to visit but I hope to remedy that sometime next year. I’ll need to peruse your blog a bit more when I have time.


  17. Interesting blog. I’m enjoying wandering around here. Susie sent me!


  18. I enjoy wandering around here too. Great stuff.


    • Hello Gary – always a pleasure to have you wander around Ram On. (Did you see Coco’s car among the red dots of Oakland plate readers?)


  19. There you go, making me think again. Darn! Actually, I’ve thought about this loss of privacy often. Hasn’t stopped me from writing a blog, “Facebooking,” tweeting, and being Linked In. I’m uncomfortable with it at times, but also appreciate some of the values. I’ve sold lots of books via social media. I’ve ‘met’ you and other articulate intelligent writers who keep me thinking and probing rights and wrongs But I know I’ve lost my privacy, doing so. When I was researching for my book The Right Wrong Man, I looked up web sites on drug running and the making of meth. I was truly concerned that soon I’d hear a knock on my door and the DEA or CIA or some government agencies would be ready to take me away. But I still researched, I published my book, and so far, I haven’t gotten the knock on the door (um, by the way, I’m looking over my shoulder as I send this to you…)


    • When the knock on the door comes, you now have all your social network to vouch for you.

      Somewhere, there’s a photo of you in a database singing a Beatles song along with your car stereo as you run your errands. Hopefully, in tune.

      “Facebooking” as a verb. Just like “blogging,” I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. I worry less about losing my privacy to large corporations as I do to individuals. Personal acquaintances who you might not want knowing all your business can now do so more than ever, I’ve had bad experiences with that, but then I don’t make efforts to remain anonymous or private online so it’s kind of my own fault!


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