Modern Weapons

Nowhere to Hide

February 23, 2014

Multiple Pages
Nowhere to Hide

People who were charged with a crime in England used to be told by the police that they did not have to say anything, but that anything they did say might be taken down and used as evidence against them. I think we should all be given this warning whenever we use a mobile telephone.

Recently the courts asked me to examine a man charged with murder. Among the documents in the case the prosecution provided for me were transcripts of the accused man’s last few mobile telephone calls to the person who was soon to become his victim. The accused, of course, had no idea that his calls were being recorded. There was no doubt whatever that he had committed the act of which he was accused and that he was not altogether a nice chap; murderers seldom are, though I have known some nice murderers. Nevertheless, I found the transcripts disturbing. Everything these days is taken down and may be used in evidence against us.

Practically all our life in the public space is now recorded by a camera placed somewhere unbeknown to us. Video evidence of the accused person’s movements before his alleged crime is now routinely produced in court. There are millions of recordings of us. It is enough to make a sensitive person fear to leave his house and never to use his telephone.

“Most of us comfort ourselves that we have nothing to hide, though personally I doubt that anyone can be quite as dull as that.”

I remember the last days of Ceaușescu’s Romania. If you went to someone’s home, he immediately put a cushion over the telephone because he assumed that it was bugged by a microphone. In embassies diplomats would speak to you only in basements deep in the ground that they believed had been cleared of all electronic apparatuses. But surveillance under Ceaușescu was crude and sporadic by comparison with the surveillance that we all undergo nowadays in free countries.

Where our movements, our purchases, our conversations, and our financial transactions are universally traced, or at least traceable, we hope that the effect of the surveillance cancels itself out, that the signal is lost in the noise. We continue to live as before because we cannot do otherwise; even terrorists continue to use the phones so often that will entrap them. (I don’t understand why they don’t communicate by post.) Most of us comfort ourselves that we have nothing to hide, though personally I doubt that anyone can be quite as dull as that.

The advertisements that I receive over my email tend to simultaneously comfort, alarm, and amuse me. I use no spam filter because spam is often more interesting than bona fide personal communications (just as overheard conversations are often so much more interesting than the ones we have ourselves). I assume that, given the almost infinite number of possible advertisers, the advertisements I receive are not sent to me at random but as a result of some kind of electronic profiling. What comforts me about them is that such profiling has so completely mistaken my character; the advertisements are almost all for things in which I have absolutely no interest. Cyberspace has not succeeded in plucking out the heart of my mystery any more than Rosencrantz succeeded in plucking out the heart of Hamlet’s mystery.


“Our travel scientists,” said an advertisement that arrived yesterday, “have discovered that you have a passion for shopping on holiday.” It would be difficult to be more wrong. I never go on holiday and I detest shopping. I am one of those very fortunate people whose work is his pleasure and who therefore feels no need to take a break from it. Even a bus ride is grist to my tiny mill: I take down what people say en route and use it in evidence against humanity. As for shopping, it is the last thing I would ever do if by chance I did go on holiday: I have long since acquired all that I need and rather wish I had fewer things than more. The only material objects I still covet (a foolish weakness, I admit, given that I now cannot expect to possess them for longer than a few years) are rare books, but I do not think that the term “shopping” adequately covers their acquisition.

Advertisers seem to think that I am a very nervous fellow, terrified of all the ordinary hazards of living. Last week alone I was offered a security camera system to protect me from attackers, though I am hardly prominent enough to live under threat; all kinds of medication for diseases I don’t have but might at some time in the future contract; and walk-in bathtubs to prevent me from falling during the baths that I don’t take. I was offered the chance to “earn” a Ph.D. (“Even you can earn one,” the advertisement said not altogether flatteringly), presumably after I had completed the drug rehabilitation course that I was also offered. The overall picture of my character that the cyberworld has formed appears to be that of a materialistic, drug-addicted hypochondriac with paranoid phobic anxiety, of some mild academic potential. I must also be deemed tolerably prosperous, because I was also repeatedly offered private jets for hire. Presumably I inherited the wealth, for it is difficult to imagine how a person of such a character could have acquired it otherwise.

The almost comical inaccuracy of the cyberworld’s estimation of my character as revealed by the commercial propaganda it sends in my direction is reassuring. It would have been frightening if, instead, it had correctly estimated my tastes and desires. But man is incalculable and not reducible to a formula, or so at least I hope. The dream—or nightmare—of technical control over life is an old one and comes in many forms. One manifestation of it is the notion of surgical wars; that is to say, wars that achieve precisely their ends and neither more nor less.

Thank goodness there is a law of unintended consequences to protect us from the ennui of omniscience! How intolerably dull life would be if everything could be calculated precisely in advance, if no one had anything to hide, if life could be, or were, lived entirely in the open, if there were no hypocrisy or dissimulation. But such a life there will never be.


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