Come this fall, Americans will be subject to another intrusion on their privacy: A Wireless Emergency Alert system, part of the National Alerting Program, will be coming to iOS6 mobile software-compatible devices. This includes iPhones, iPods and iPads.
This means that alerts about storms and other potential disasters (or who knows what) will be broadcast to these devices from the federal government. Users can opt out of the messages from the Amber Alert Program and the Federal Emergency Management Program, but not messages from the president of the United States.
This literally means that Americans on these and other mobile devices can be forced to—at minimum—glance at information that the government wants to convey to them. And at some date in the future, it might certainly be the case that they have to acknowledge having read it. They can instantly be distracted, en masse, at some critical moment. Perhaps they will have to enable their Face Time system to show them reading WEA messages, while they do.
Sound far-fetched? It really isn’t. Google’s Street View system already can image your neighborhood and your house. Google can “pixel tag” you and follow your meanderings—recording your interests and inclinations—through the Web and your e-mail account.
Facebook can do the same thing.
Indeed, just posting information on Facebook and selecting a group of friends tells Facebook (and anyone the company chooses to share the information with, or anyone who accesses it, legally or illegally) a whole lot about the kinds of people you gravitate toward, including their politics.
People now routinely fill their medications online, essentially disclosing their medical histories to who knows how many people.
At airport checkpoints, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) now images your whole body, instead of just checking your bags and scanning you for weapons.
During a recent trip from Boston to New York, I was asked by the TSA agent where I was staying (hotel vs. private home), for how long and whether the purpose of my trip was business or pleasure.
I refused to say—since was precisely none of the good fellow’s business—and had to wait a long time while I was checked out by a supervisor. Mind you, I am an American citizen, was flying domestically, was a Frequent Flyer on the airline I was flying, have no criminal record and (save for my shaved head and a certain furrow to my brow when irritated) look pretty innocent.
Generally, though, we as a culture have been passively accepting of intrusions on our privacy, even as they have grown so unwieldy. Why?
One of the reasons is because the intrusions are largely invisible. Psychologically, people don’t object so much to being imaged and profiled, because it literally bypasses the defenses we are used to employing.
Someone who asked us point-blank which sites we had visited on the Web, or what our houses look like, would probably arouse our suspicions and our resistance. They would make us wonder why they needed such information and make us worry they could be up to no good. We would “size them up” and make a judgment about whether they seemed trustworthy.
In this case, no known individual is the intruder, but rather an inanimate technology, and we are deprived of all our physical senses—sight and touch, among them—in reacting to it.
Secondly, the intrusions are perfect operant conditioning strategies. Generally, people come up with defenses against things that cause them suffering—whether physical or emotional. But eavesdropping now happens many times a day to most of us, without any clear injury (for now), so that it makes us become comfortable with the routine.
A mouse who is shocked by an electrified grid near his food, stops eating. A mouse who is in the sights of a high-powered rifle twenty feet away, enjoys his snacks. In terms of the consequences of losing our privacy, being tracked and profiled and, therefore, vulnerable to those with the intent to ultimately harm us for our beliefs, or take our money as easy marks, we are that mouse.
But, thirdly, and most dangerously, we may not be objecting to intrusions on our privacy because we have already been rendered non-individuals, in some measure, by the intrusion of technology (which spoon feeds us information and tells us when to turn right and left while driving and turns us into fake, pixelated baseball and hockey players) and an out-of-control government that has usurped our family decision-making, denigrated individual autonomy, criticized entrepreneurship and attacked our individual religious beliefs. Once you cede those things, who really cares what or who looks up your pant leg, into your empty mind or through house windows? Nobody is home, anyhow.
We will object to intrusions on our privacy only when we begin to defeat those forces stealing our hearts and minds—our individuality and autonomy—from us. That day may come, or it may not. And everything—really, everything (right down to the survival of our species)—happens to depend on it.
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.