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You shouldn’t be surprised that Big Brother’s watching

Frederick Niedner

Frederick Niedner

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Updated: June 29, 2013 11:44PM



This week’s Supreme Court rulings momentarily absorbed much of the nation’s righteous anger quotient, but so long as Edward Snowden remains a fugitive, the furor over his revelations concerning National Security Agency surveillance programs won’t subside appreciably. Some deem Snowden as a whistleblowing hero, others a garden-variety traitor.

To my mind, this story’s biggest surprise is that the information Snowden leaked surprised anyone. The government has systematically spied on citizens since the days of J. Edgar Hoover.

After September 11, 2001, Congress fashioned the Patriot Act that in effect said, “Watch over us, Big Brother. We can’t afford to have secrets.”

After the recent Boston bombings, we saw how closely our republic monitors citizens. Within an hour of someone recognizing one of the Tsarnaev brothers’ baseball caps, the whole world knew pretty much everything about them, including intimate details of their personal lives.

Government agencies acquire and examine various kinds of data that each of us generates as we go about our lives, but retailers, communication companies and financial institutions collect, own, and have first dibs on all that information.

Our cell phones and toll-way transponders act as tracking devices that chart our every move, although it rarely matters much unless we have an affair or blow something up and then have electronic data implicate us in a divorce or criminal court.

Credit card companies observe us closely, too. They know where we shop, what we buy, and plenty about what sort of people we are.

They do this partly to protect us as well as themselves. A few months ago, one of their computers knew instantly that I wouldn’t likely buy $400 worth of truck fuel in Texas, so it automatically froze the account and the company sent me a new card.

For that I am grateful. It doesn’t warm my heart, however, to know that credit card companies do sophisticated research that enables them to string along folks from whom they can ultimately extract the most substantial fees and interest.

Card holders who pay off accounts every month generate little income for card companies, but financial institutions do sophisticated research and have learned, for example, that people who use cards in certain kinds of clubs and bars rarely pay in full and often default, thus incurring penalties as well as interest.

These prove the most valuable customers, so they, not those who pay up monthly, get the most seductive ads encouraging use of cards for even more of life’s pleasures. When cardholders fall too far behind, skilled credit counselors help them keep cash flowing into the companies’ coffers.

I once thought letters were forever and email ephemeral. Now we know that every email ever written is out there somewhere, which means that Google and Yahoo know more about me than family members do.

The Internet currently offers the easiest way to buy airline tickets or make hotel reservations, but complete one purchase online and the advertising fountain will flow forever.

“Cookies” that reside on my hard drive monitor and report everything I buy or merely consider buying. Check out blenders or tents on a couple sites, and the next time you log onto Facebook you’ll be told where to buy them.

Once upon a time I trusted that only God and Santa Claus knew my thoughts or watched me as I slept. Today, Microsoft, Google, AT&T and half a dozen credit card companies know me better in some ways than I know myself.

To my way of thinking, they, not the people for whom Edward Snowden once worked, represent the spookiest cadre of Big Brothers in our world.



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