By Bob Charest
Why Should You Care NH
March 9, 2017
(This column is usually published the first of the month, but FBI Director James Comey’s recent remarks at a Boston cybersecurity conference made columnist Bob Charest think the topic was worth a special column to address the importance of Comey’s talk.)
“There is no such thing as absolute privacy in America.”
These words came from the mouth of FBI Director James Comey, who delivered a speech at Boston College on March 8 that should be chilling to every American now alive.
It is difficult to address Director Comey’s remarks without sounding like a paranoid conspiracy theorist, but I will try.
Comey was clear that “there is no place outside of judicial reach” and “Even our communications with our spouses, with our clergy members, with our attorneys are not absolutely private in America.”
What Comey is telling us as Americans is what the state of privacy is right now in America. Translation: There is none, even though he insisted in the same speech that, on principal (and the U.S. Constitution), we do “have a reasonable expectation of privacy in our homes, in our cars, in our devices.” Oh really?
His remarks took on a special poignancy, coming on the heels of news that the CIA, via WikiLeaks’ latest blockbuster, is able to spy on people through TV sets, smartphones, and other Internet-connected devices, even access the control systems in late-model cars to conceivably make someone drive off a cliff. (The only bright spot in this revelation is that it would be illegal for the CIA to do this on American soil … but does this rule out other law enforcement agencies, say the FBI with a warrant, from doing so? I wonder.)
We invite these gadgets into our homes. We pay good money for them: Amazon Echo, smartphones, baby monitors, surveillance cameras tied into the internet, etc. We used to say, “If I could be a fly on the wall …”
Well, guess what? Now you can.
(Even Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame has confessed to covering over the camera on his laptop with a piece of tape. Now if he does that, what does he know?)
This is all a little too much for me, and I shall now lie down until my headache passes.
OK, I’m back with a flashback.
Back in the mid-eighties, when The Union Leader was down on Amherst Street, the lobby was a place where many dignitaries and normal folks would pass through daily when the newspaper was in its heyday and everyone was trying to get attention for something or other.
Ruling over this sacred space was a man by the name of Col. Tom Wreck. He was the guard for many years, and for many, the face of The Union Leader. You had to get by him to gain access to people beyond the lobby doors, and thus the treasures of exposure in the statewide daily.
One man who tried on a near-daily basis was named Marvin. That’s all many of us ever knew him by, just his first name. Marvin would always be trying to get the attention of a reporter or editor because he had an important story to tell.
You see, Marvin insisted that his brain was taken over by aliens. Upon telling the nature of his business at the front desk, Marvin was pretty much doomed from getting past Col. Wreck, but that didn’t stop the rapscallion colonel from forwarding up to the newsroom some of Marvin’s writings, which included drawings of actual space men with antennae, purportedly taking over Marvin’s mind.
I now know how Marvin felt. I think I am becoming Marvin. Not only would no one listen to him, but he thought he had an important story to tell.
Slowly, our minds are being taken over in America (I told you I was going to have a hard time not sounding like a paranoid nut job.)
We are losing the battle to protect our rights as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Technology is now making it nearly impossible to be a “private citizen.”
That’s what many of us used to be, but now every time we step out on the street, get behind the wheel, or go to the mall, we are no longer private citizens. The law has always viewed us this way, but now technology is heightening the effect. We are what is known in everyday America now as “fair game.”
We are eligible for embarrassing exposure on YouTube, footage for the evening newscast, or worse, some troll commenting on our tragedies should we become the subject of a news story. (Take a look at any newspaper’s website after a story of someone’s demise and count up the number of commenters who blame the victim and feel within reason to make crass statements.) You can be elevated to a stage for being unlucky enough to get caught up in an incident that attracts attention.
And we accept this.
That is the real tragedy of this new America that we live in. We think we need this ever-invasive technology to protect us, to keep us safe, because if we don’t have it, “they” will, whoever “they” are.
And the real fear is this: Our minds have been trained to believe that this is right, that we need these protections to catch the bad guys, to keep the next 9/11 from happening, to stop those who would do us harm.
And I fear that we are going to allow this to happen. As FBI Director Comey said in his speech, “We all value privacy. We all value security. We should never have to sacrifice one for the other.” But guess what? That’s exactly what we are doing.
Bob Charest has been in the news business since 1977. He has worked at newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire as a reporter and editor. A graduate of Boston University, he has consulted with InDepthNH.org on editing and grant proposals since before its founding in 2015. He write on topics related to advances in technology and how they have affected our privacy in America.