As a police officer in Colorado I watched as other cops went through some extremely uncomfortable and destructive internal affairs investigations. Some involved allegations of use of excessive force, which is a career-ending accusation if it is sustained. Others involved more personal issues, such as an argument with a neighbor over a barking dog, or an argument with one’s spouse. There was a period of time in the 1980s when we had an inordinately high number of “Professional Standards” investigations in progress – many of which turned out to be frivolous and without factual basis. But the stress and distress of being under the microscope is a morale-destroying experience.
The net effect of this atmosphere was repressive, to say the least. I remember our upper level administrators assuring us that internal affairs investigations are entirely confidential and not available for public consumption. Later on in my career I watched as that assurance turned out to be a lie. Attorneys can and do obtain Court Orders to open an officer’s personnel file and bring it to light in a Court of law. It’s all a matter of public record for a cop. Everything.
British novelist George Orwell, whose birth name was Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950), painted a rather grim futuristic portrait in 1949 with his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. He lived for only six months after its publication. I read that book when I was in junior high school. While Big Brother, the ever-present, all-seeing, all-knowing, thought-policing entity known as The State, is a major theme in the story, there are other levels of invasive, disturbing ideas to contemplate – especially in today’s world. And they have all come true for us.
One such idea, which is really a fact of our lives, is that there is no privacy remaining for any of us – not in our trips to the bank or the grocery store, not in our vacation travels, and not in our communications. We are under some sort of surveillance day and night, as surely as if we were locked up in a prison.
The United States Post Office now photographs every piece of mail which passes through that institution. Every written or telephonic communication becomes a recorded piece of potential evidence for the NSA to call up and use for whatever purpose it may deem necessary. Much has been made of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State. Whatever you may or may not believe about the propriety of Mrs. Clinton’s alleged email use, or whether you believe or disbelieve anything which has been reported about the issue, the truth is that somewhere out there in the ether-net there is a record of every communique she ever wrote and sent. And there is no way to know exactly who has been reading her emails.
Likewise, none of us in private life can possibly know when our emails are being read – or by whom. Hackers and snoopers, whether from within or without our households, can read what we’ve written and leave no trace of their visits. There’s something to think about.
Here’s a News Flash: “Private messages” on Facebook are not really private messages. I deactivated my account several years ago when the Facebook computer kept prodding me to provide more and more personal information. And I got exasperated with watching people post their contentious personal issues for the entire world to see. It’s pretty common knowledge that any attorney’s divorce investigation includes a capture and inspection of the opposing spouse’s Facebook postings. And a Court Order to turn over records is a Court Order. It must be obeyed by the social network providing the service.
So, welcome to George Orwell’s world. Welcome to our veritable prison, where nothing we do, say or write is in any sense of the word private.
One thought is comforting. (Yes, so far, one may still think his own thoughts in privacy.) George Orwell doesn’t have to worry about any of this.