Last week my iPhone showed me a new trick. It knows what food looks like. In a feat that will come as no surprise to those who understand the rudiments of Artificial Intelligence, it greeted me when I woke up, at an hour when human callers know not to bug me, with an edited, sequenced photo-log of restaurant meals I’d enjoyed over the years. For the most part, I’d forgotten all about them – the meals, the snapshots, and my motives for taking and saving such boring pictures -- but iCloud never forgets, and wished to prove it. That creamy Eggs Benedict. That bloody sirloin. That rich chocolate malt in the frosty fluted glass. Though the shots were mundane and not incriminating (unless a snoopy insurance company was interested in my weakness for heavy foods), the album still unsettled me, partly because it had showed up uninvited and partly because it caused me to imagine other, less innocuous photo series that might be culled from the galaxy of images I’d entrusted to Apple for safekeeping. Mistakes Made at Midnight. People in their Underwear. Friends with Fringe Political Beliefs. (Produced in cooperation with Twitter, that one). Give the software a case to make, a line of argument, and it could find evidence for it in my past.
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Just hours after my food diary appeared, I came across a story on the web about an undercover surveillance program run by -- get this -- the US Postal Service. You trust it too, and have since childhood, especially if you watched Mister Rogers Neighborhood. (McFeely, its mailman was called. We should have known.) I assumed when I saw the headline on the article that the spying operation involved the furtive opening of packages, something I’ve always known was done sometimes to protect us from flammable liquids and the like, but no, it had nothing to do with physical mail. It scrutinized people’s social media posts. It studied them, according to the story, with the goal of defusing rumored future protests that posed some hypothetical vague danger to our vulnerable federal government – the one which secretly surveils its citizens through the same arm that sells them Christmas stamps. Referring to the imagined riots, internal bulletins quoted in the article confessed that “No intelligence is available to suggest the legitimacy of these threats,” but it seems the spying mission continues, perhaps because its title, iCOP (Internet Covert Operations Program), is just too iCatchy to waste. There is also a chance public outrage over the program may someday trigger the sort of rebel actions it was established to curtail.
Though I doubt this will happen. The self, the private self, the part of us that we’re taught in school is special because it’s where our art projects come from, the part science tells us we’re seeing during sleep when our eyeballs start to jiggle, is mostly occupied territory by now. Rising belatedly to liberate it would likely prove futile, assuming we cared to try, which most of us show no appetite for doing. Privacy feels important when first its violated, but eventually, as the intrusions multiply and the excuses for them grow more persuasive, a point is reached when we want none of it. What little privacy remains to us, we nervously rush to surrender or discard, like a traveler at an airport checkpoint who happens to find an old jackknife in his coat. If the airlines allowed us to fly naked or clad in only a sheer stocking, a few of us would, soon followed by a lot of us. It would relieve us of our neurotic guilt, signal our deep devotion to public safety, and speed the line. Life is a series of trade-offs, one keeps hearing, and trading something of scant remaining worth – our last symbolic sliver of sovereignty over the exposure of our own genitals – for things of practical and present value – simplified interactions with officialdom and extra time to reach our gate – would strike a lot of us as a major bargain.
I know this because I once took a similar deal – one I’ll get to further down, after I’m finished freaking out -- which I later regretted but then chose not to think about, because if you think something there’s a risk you’ll speak it, and if you speak it there’s chance they’ll hear it, and whatever they hear (or read: much worse) they faithfully record and store, with back-up. It’s a policy with them, driven by two trends. Memory, meaning computer memory, grows cheaper every year, see, as does the processing power required to search it, while certain carelessly uttered words and sentiments grow exponentially more expensive. That’s why sharp dealers and iCops archive everything; remarks and ideas that seem unimportant now, when judged by future standards we can’t anticipate but the big players have the means to shape, may constitute offenses so abominable that one or two of them (two is what they’re after; it shows a pattern) are enough to destroy a reputation, or even – a super-spy can dream! – intimidate and extort a trillionaire. Because they’re undoubtedly coming, trillionaires, and all the top crooks know it, from Washington DC to Palo Alto to the deck of a sinister black super-yacht I once saw anchored off Malibu and heard from a model who’d partied on it one night belonged to a “princedom in exile,” whatever that is. The problem for those who aspire to blackmail trillionaires is that the candidates for overlord status figure out before age nine or ten not to think or speak or write or act in any remotely spontaneous human way, even around their pets. Privacy? A risky low-yield fantasy peddled by hotel-casino chains. End-to-end network-wide dominance? Game on.
Anyway, here’s the impulsive choice I made that I later questioned, grew frightened by, and then resolved to banish from my skull, lest I betray my suspicions about “the system” in a fashion that might be deemed subversive by future Postmasters General and their goons, who, chances are, will soon have fleets of drones equipped with medium-range scanners tuned to the blips and beeps of nano-bots cunningly implanted in our bodies by the handling of official-looking envelopes printed with the words “Refund: First Installment.” Not that I’ll shudder if this program leaks. Such stealth operations only reach the news when their masters want them to for bureaucratic reason beyond our ken — perhaps to claw more money out of Congress. Privacy for me is dead subject. I’m putting it behind me with this essay, which I’m writing on a new computer I bought five days ago from Apple. When I first turned it on, a solemn message appeared declaring Apple’s belief in privacy as “a basic human right.” On a laptop whose parts are manufactured in China but, like it matters, “assembled in California.”
But I digress. When Apple digresses, I digress to call them on it. California. High-wage, rights-respecting freedom land! That’s where they clip in the keyboard and slap the case on and call it good.
It happened a year ago last January, before the virus hit, at Kennedy Airport. The place was crazy. The Pre-Check line that I’d coughed up lots of info and paid a fee for the privilege of joining was nearly as discouragingly endless as the lines that cost you nothing. Betrayed again by vain desire. In an impatient, competitive society no express line stays express for long, not at any price. “The last will be first” is probably overselling it, but the last will certainly move up to the middle where the first will inevitably join them. The only exceptions to this glum law will be few weird soulless trillionaires who plan to plug their minds into machines and calculate pi until the stars go out, at which point they’ll command them to switch back on. I hope God is watching them from outside the cosmos and lets the maniac gamers reboot the universe, causing them to snap back to the Big Bang and wait forever to crawl back out of the ooze and another forever to invent the abacus, the way I felt doomed to wait at Kennedy. You hand your data to the government and all you get is a respite from the hassles that it spent your taxes to create and then charged you extra to half-avoid. If you spout off in line about this farce, Homeland Security pings the Postal Service and Agent McFeely taps your social media. Later you receive a strange grey envelope from “USA No-Fly List. The Registrar.” Probably fake. Aswarm with nano-bots. Either way, you lose.
Sunk in fatalism and evil thoughts, I stared off into space and noticed Clear. The Clear line was too short to call a line, just five or six people stopping at small white booths, squaring their shoulders, smiling for a beat, then briskly proceeding through the checkpoint. I’d read a pamphlet once about the program and knew it involved biometric body scans that would linger forever in your file, allowing the cameras mounted in phones, computers, light poles, toll booths, and the entrances to national parks to track you across all platforms to your tomb. At the time I’d read the pamphlet, I’d reviled this slick dystopian limbo and the stooges who paid to dwell inside it just to slightly outpace the Pre-Check People. For a five-minute lead, an eternity onstage. What if you relished a bit of mystery? What if you liked to talk trash about the president? What if your wife asked to do it in an alley?
The line hadn’t budged. I decided I’d take my chances.
I walked to the Clear lane and up came a young woman holding a clipboard, eager to sign me up. The process was quick, including all the scans, which I cheerfully endured by pretending I was at the doctor. Even the air felt cooler in the Clear lane, an ionized, filtered breeze from the the near future. Inside the metal detector, I inhaled deeply as I raised my arms to form a triangle and shifted my feet to fit the footprint stickers. It was the easiest of crucifixions, and they let me do it clothed.
To finally trust and be trusted, a dream they offer. To shed all shame and stride into the light. It’s hard for a species that evolved in caves, for Christians whose Savior was born in a dark manger, and for Midwestern boys like me who dabbled in grown-up secrets in basement bedrooms dimly illumined by purple bulbs that made our Black Sabbath posters glow and shine. The murk of privacy, deep beneath the sea, a sheltering grotto of salty, wormy stirrings from which we are coaxed to emerge, not sure we should. And find ourselves in an airport once we have. Guards to the left of us, more guards to the right, and in front of us a white-haired couple who’ve learned to travel in slip-on Nikes and zippered track suits with no true pockets. But at least we’re not stalled, for now. At least we’re moving.
I saved so much time that day when I got Clear that I was able sit down in a restaurant, enjoy a meal, and watch the world go by. I forget what I ate, I didn’t take a picture, but perhaps one exists from a point-of-view not mine, with a digital time stamp in one corner. If so, I suspect it depicts a happy traveler, relaxed, at peace, with honest blue-green eyes and, in that quiet moment of renewal, absolutely nothing on his mind.