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On Privacy: If Big Brother is God, It’s Time to Find a New Religion

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Perhaps it’s my age showing and I’m just a cranky old woman. Or maybe I’m on to something.

It’s a new century and a new age. We’re almost to a new decade. (How did that happen?) Modern times are filled with new technology: the Internet, GPS satellites, cell phones, tiny cameras, devices that only ten or twenty years ago might have seemed like science fiction in an unreachable James Bondian future. Now even little kids are wired up to their parents and beyond.

It is said that every American is photographed at least two hundred times a day. There are cameras on streetlights and freeways, cameras in stores, banks and government buildings. There are cameras in space. I can Google Earth my home address and see my own car parked in the driveway and make out the patio furniture and potted plants on my deck.

In addition, other entities can track you online. I know this from watching every episode of Forensic Files. How anyone gets away with crime these days is beyond me. Your IP address tells the authorities where you are and what you’re looking at, and can filter the information down to the precise minute and second. It’s not just the police, stores can track your buying habits and send you email directed toward what you like to spend your money on.

After 9-11, the government took extraordinary steps to monitor communications as a way to keep the country “safe.” George Bush, along with members of Congress, decided that a certain amount of invasion of privacy was a necessity in the War on Terror. Thus began a campaign of intercepting phone conversations as a ploy to get the bad guys before they got us.

Personally, I didn’t have a problem with it. I was raised Catholic, and as anyone who has been subjected to devout Catholicism knows, we are watched all the time. Not only does God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost oversee everything on earth, add the Virgin Mary, a cavalcade of saints and all of your dead relatives. Although I’m a fallen Catholic now agnostic, I still get the heebee jeebees at times thinking my long-deceased mother and mother-in-law may be looking down on me from the clouds as I wolf a mid-afternoon forbidden hamburger in the car or (God forbid) engage in an amorous interlude with my husband.

My life is an open book and I have nothing to hide. I use my real name online for that specific reason. My phone conversations are inane for the most part, and my email loops are hilariously funny, but only to me. My husband has access to my accounts and even he thinks they are stupid. If Uncle Sam wanted to horn in on my personal conversations, who am I to object? I allow myself to be prodded, air-blasted and searched at Metro Airport every time I want to go somewhere. Makes sense, right?

This is where old age kicks in, in case you were wondering

It’s 2009 and we are gearing up for the 2010 Census.

I happen to know a little bit about the Census. In ’79 and ’80, I worked for the Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census as both a head counter and a supervisor. I know the purpose of the count and why it is important. Back in the day, even the long form wasn’t that long, but there were always those who didn’t want to be counted for whatever reason. The bigger problem was to find employees who weren’t afraid of talking to people, much less chasing them down to answer questions. The short form asks only the basic questions regarding households, name, age, date of birth, number in household and ethnicity and takes maybe a minute to fill out.

Fast forward a few decades, and the government seems to want to know even more about its people. The long form has been phased out, but now there is an American Community Survey, which, at 14 pages, asks more in-depth questions about one’s home, mortgage and employment information.

I might be wrong, but doesn’t the government already have some of this information stored in other parts of its bureaucracy? I don't think it needs to know how many flush toilets I have, or how much I pay for homeowner's insurance. There are some things that I'd like to keep private, thank you very much. If I receive one of these forms, I’m tempted to round can it. Of course, I do so risking a huge fine and jail time, but there is a time to put your foot down.

Since I’m feeling peculiarly cranky, recently I had the chance to pen a very polite letter to the Department of Labor telling them I would no longer participate in a program  into which I somehow got roped. I’m not sure how, but about two years ago, I began to get faxes from them, asking me to count, each month: 1. How many employees I have on the payroll, which includes the 12th of the month, and 2. How many of these are women.

Because we are on a bi-weekly pay schedule, the 12th of the month payroll could very well not be paid until the end of the month. Yet I would continue to receive harassing phone messages and followup faxes asking me where my information was.

In a seasonal business such as ours, summertime is the bread and butter months. I didn’t mind figuring the information out in the dead of winter, but last summer was the last straw. I failed to comply for three months, and finally a soft-spoken Elizabeth called when I was in the office. I explained I didn’t have time for this, to which she told me to give her an estimate.

An estimate? She didn't want me to really count?

I complied, but only because she was nice.

All winter, I was plagued by a nagging feeling. I didn’t know what these statistics were being used for. I searched online, and nothing. Nowhere on the worksheet did it say where the information was going. It also didn’t mention a penalty for noncompliance. Besides, didn’t the government already know how many employees we had and which ones were women? We file quarterly tax reports. It’s pretty obvious from them who is working and when.

So this year with another hectic summer coming up, I decided to pre-empt the Department of Labor by resigning from my head counting duties. (I might relent if they come up with the report it’s being used for. I love reading, even upcoming Congressional bills and tax manuals.)

Perhaps I'd be more likely to share the information with my government if I knew what they were going to do with it. If its sole purpose is to give Elizabeth a job, they can find someone else to harass. If I'm assured a spot in heaven along with my mother, I might reconsider. But if they're going to use the information for evil, not good, I'm not sure I should share.

I long for the days when the government didn’t want to know anything about me.

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About Joanne Huspek

I write. I read. I garden. I cook. I eat. And I love to talk about all of the above.
  • Clavos

    I too, worked for the Census Bureau, Joanne. In ’99 and 2000, I was an Enumerator and Crew Chief, and then an Instructor, training new Enumerators.

    Like you, I learned a lot about the importance of the Census, and I find the Administration’s involvement of the advocacy group ACORN in the 2010 Census troubling, to say the least

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/dan_miller Dan(Miller)

    Joanne, I have two unrelated comments, beyond that I enjoyed the article.

    1. The story is told of an Army company commander who got frustrated with the many silly reports he was required to submit to higher headquarters each day. Therefore, he decided to make up his own, an enumeration of the flies captured each day on the fly paper rolls in his company mess hall. Soon, HQ began demanding that all other company commanders submit those obviously required reports. Why not make up and complete an official looking form on something really dumb — toilet paper consumption in the men’s, women’s and bi-sex restrooms for example, and submit it — every week for a month or two? It would be fun, and might do some good.

    2. The fact that the Government has lots of information on us all is not a valid reason for it to demand more. The possibility that one chocolate bar won’t harm us is no reason to consume hundreds.

    Dan(Miller)

  • sugi

    This article’s title doesn’t match the body. How can a piece titled “On Privacy: If Big Brother is God, It’s Time to Find a New Religion” contain the sentence “If Uncle Sam wanted to horn in on my personal conversations, who am I to object?” Could the author not see the glaring irony? After the first page, the topic is totally lost.

    The payroll story was particularly mindless. If the author is a small business owner, couldn’t she just go find a payroll sheet and count the employees? Is that really going to take that much time?

    All in all, even though there were 3 pages, there was little content and no good ideas. It was a collage of recollections, random bitchings over private/public sector interface, and mistrust of the government most likely fueled by conservative “news.”

    See, there are things wrong with the government worth discussing, the census is worth discussing and this article does nothing to engage those, or any meaningful conversations.

    “I worked for the census” – who gives a shit.
    “I understand how important it is” – yea, like how?

    Epic fail.

  • http://www.joannehuspek.wordpress.com Joanne Huspek

    Thank you Sugi, whoever you are. I’m not a journalist (of course, no one else is either), I’m a blogger, hence my presence in BLOG Critics.

    The world is full of glaring ironies, dude. As a blogger, I point them out, it’s all I can do. And if you would like to volunteer your time to counting pages and pages of employees, may I thank you in advance? Me, I’ve got more important things to do.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    Seems like I also worked for the Department oc Commerce counting heads in 1990. But ore interestingly, I got a visit one day in Ma’ale Levona from a nice fellow with a laptom computer who was from CBS – not not the Tisch network of shame and infotainment, the Central Bureau of Statistics for the State of Israel. On ands on he went with the same boring questions about each of us, questions that I had to dance around some, as my income is rather low, but the Income Tax people here think everybody is out to cheat them.

    It was a long form on a laptop. Who knows when some bureaucrat will use the information to suddenly harass us?