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Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean… July 19, 2009

Posted by Paige of Quarrel in we're only gonna die.
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I went to see the new Harry Potter flick Friday morning at the AMC on 34th street. They have this deal where movies before noon are half price, which sounded great. Then, when we actually got there and sat down and the theater filled up and the lights went down…I spot two men in dark suits, one at either exit, kinda hiding down under the railing and using night vision scopes, scanning the audience. And so, I got weirded out and pointed it out to my friend, who didn’t care. But I was still weirded out, because if you don’t know anything about cheap hand-held night vision scopes, they have this little LED below the lens that you can really only see when they’re looking pretty much at you. And I’m trying to follow the action at Hogwarts and Three Broomsticks and Diagon Alley, but in the corner of my eye, there’s those LEDs sweeping the audience, spying on the audience, spying on me. They stayed pretty much the whole movie and it was really freaky and distracting.

I guess it’s supposed to be an anti-piracy thing. But no where does the theater inform you that people will now be spying on you with night vision scopes. They just hid there, spying. That sucks.

Yes, the movie theater is private property and a public setting, but there is an limited expectation of privacy. For one, theaters are dark. And recording devices are forbidden. And people are expected to be watching the screen, not me. Had the person in front of me turned around and stared at me the entire time, I could have just told management and either they’d have to do something about it or I’d demand a refund and leave. But this was the management. I certainly had no expectation that anyone would be sneaking around spying. And those scopes change the rules as well, they see through the darkness, thus those men in the dark suits were seeing me clearly while I could barely see them, other than those damned LEDs. And those scopes almost always include magnification. No, this was definitely not what I expected when I paid for my ticket. This was wholly unexpected. This was something I’d never seen or heard about happening.

Why couldn’t they tell the audience they were using night vision scopes to prevent movie piracy? Because they wanted to catch perpetrators in the act? I have to believe that if I spotted those men and I wasn’t looking for any trouble, I wasn’t on guard, any pirate would have seen them as well. So, why then? Perhaps because the audience would have objected? This way, most never knew they were watched, and when they learn about the practice later, the theaters can say, but we’ve been doing it for X amount of time and it never bothered any one before, your honor.

Well, it bothered me. I don’t like being spied on. I don’t like that this city is bristling with cameras, all of which become de facto government cameras whenever They say. I don’t like that a dozen web sites will illegally sell you my full credit report without my authorization or knowledge and there’s nothing I can do to stop it, even while the credit bureaus still get their cut. I don’t like that my phone company and my ISP helped my government illegally wiretap me and no one seems to care, no one gets in the least bit of trouble. I don’t like feeling so powerless and so watched.

Just living my life, just existing, in certain other countries would get me executed. Legally. Just being queer. Or Socialist. Or a war dissenter. I am of a fairly privileged class in this country, but even I’m terrified about the potential abuses of power given the size and scope of the abuses we’ve already seen and the awful things people with power are capable of. So, when and where will we draw the line? What exactly needs to happen in this country before We, the People, decide to place checks on Them, the Watchers? If votes don’t always decide elections and laws don’t govern the government, what power do we have left? What protection do we have left? What safety? What privacy? What rights? How much power is too much and will we realize it before it’s too late? Is it too late?!

If we’re never even informed when we’re giving up another right, another expectation of privacy, no matter how limited, what power do we have now? Look around you as you go through your day today. How many ceilings with innocuous-seeming glass domes conceal cameras? How many cameras do you walk by on your way to work? How many things do you say over the phone or online you may not want the whole world to know? What could I learn about you instantly by giving $40 to a website? How watched do you feel? How much privacy can you expect today? A little less than yesterday? A lot less than ten years ago? A tiny fraction of the privacy your parents had at your age?

Smile for the ATM. Smile for the traffic light. Smile at the post office or the bank or, well, inside or outside almost any building you could be watched. Smile in the elevator, even if you think you’re alone. Take that extra moment to fix your hair in the mirror, because today is picture day; every day is picture day, whether you like it or not. Those pictures might last forever. And who’s going to see those pictures? Who’s going going to read those emails a year from now? In a decade, under another Administration, perhaps in the midst of yet another war or another threat, who’s going to index that phone call you make today against your web history and decide that, now that habeas corpus doesn’t mean anything even to those of us who took Latin in school, you might be too dangerous? Too liberal or conservative? Too queer? Too Chinese? Too…well, you get the picture.

Most importantly, though, ask yourself, all this spying and eavesdropping, all the data collection, all those lenses focused on innocent people, all the privacy you’re giving up today, is it making you more safe or less?