06/17/2013 07:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Tinfoil Hat Territory

Just for fun, today I'd like to use my column to skate perilously close to the edge of rampant paranoia. I'm really doing this to make an ironic point, at the end, but I can't deny that this type of thing is certainly fun to write. Especially when I'm stating up front that what we'll be exploring is territory only those in tinfoil hats usually set foot in.

A short history of such tinfoil hattery in American popular culture is in order, though, to begin with. Because before the shiny and crinkly hats even appeared, there has long been a paranoid streak in America, especially at the movies. The most memorable early example (to me) was General Jack D. Ripper, from the darkly humorous Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb. Ripper was convinced that the Soviets had hatched an evil plot to infiltrate Americans' "precious bodily fluids" through the introduction of fluoride into our water supply. If that sounds dangerously paranoid, well, that's because it is. Even more dangerous, since Ripper was commander of an air base and ordered a pre-emptive attack on the Soviets by his nuclear-armed bombers.

The real paranoid archetype, however, has usually involved aliens. You know, bug-eyed monsters. UFO enthusiasts became almost synonymous with the "they're all out to get us" types, and the list of films in which this sort of character has appeared is a long one. The character Richard Dreyfuss played in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind stands out as an example, not just for good acting but also because he was ultimately proven right -- there were aliens! He wasn't crazy! More normally, though, the character is portrayed as being some sort of loner/crank who is warning people of a threat which just doesn't exist. There was a period when Jeff Goldblum became the "go-to" actor to play such a role in any movie that came along, in fact. His best performance was in a film where (again) not only were the cranks proven right, but which actually featured two such characters: Independence Day. There was Goldblum, playing the geek extraordinaire (who knew about computers and stuff), and then there was the drunken pilot who had been previously abducted by aliens (even though nobody believed him, because he was a drunk and a crank).

But fringe paranoiacs aren't always solely concerned about aliens invading. Sometimes their fears center on the government. Usually they ascribed expansive powers to the federal government which any sane individual would consider either technologically unfeasible or laughably delusional.

This is, in fact, where the tinfoil hat comes into the picture. The phrase is used today so dismissively -- and has actually become shorthand for "paranoid and probably crazy" -- that it's easy to forget the literal meaning of saying something like "pay no attention to him, he's part of the Tinfoil Hat Brigade." Where did the tinfoil hat come from, and why would someone put tinfoil on their head? As I said, it's easy to skip over this thought when using the phrase these days.

Tinfoil hats became part of the alien-hunting-paranoid archetype because of fears of signals either going in or coming out of your head, usually with the government at the other end of the transmission. In early days, it was "radio waves" which "controlled everyone's thoughts." As technology improved in the real world, sometimes this was changed to "computer chips in our brains, installed at birth" which were beaming our thoughts back to government antennas. Metal, as any student of science will tell you, blocks radiation (such as radio waves). So if you think the government is controlling your brain, what easier way to defeat their nefarious plot than by hauling out the Reynolds Wrap and crumpling it into a not-so-fashionable chapeau?

I have no idea when the first tinfoil hat actually appeared in a movie or on television. If anyone does know, please chime in and enlighten me in the comments. I'd guess it would have appeared around the late 1960s or 1970s, but I could be woefully off on that (maybe some drive-in flick from the 1950s flying saucer era pioneered the concept). But the theory was always the same: the magic of tinfoil protected the wearer either from beams which controlled people's thoughts or from mindreading by men-in-black working for some secret government agency somewhere.

You can see where this is heading, can't you? There's a Washington joke which has been making the rounds for decades (since the agency's creation, in fact) that "N.S.A." actually stands for "No Such Agency" -- it was so secret, government officials wouldn't even admit it existed.

But what I find ironic and amusing about the confirmation of the N.S.A. vacuuming up everyone's telephonic metadata is that the citizenry really only has itself to blame for even making it possible. Well, that's overstating the case, I will admit. After all, it wasn't until the invention of the supercomputer that such vast collection of data was even technologically feasible. Back in the 1970s, it just flat-out would not have been possible to collect, store, and analyze such volumes of data. However, back in the 1970s, the only thing being transmitted over telephone wires (yes, actual wires) was telephone calls. Other than a few universities, military installations, and extremely high-tech companies, computer communications simply didn't exist. Neither, really, did cell phones (there were mobile phones back then, but they were basically radios, nothing like today's cell phones).

Now, of course, everyone and their brother has a cell phone. And the phone lines carry an enormous amount of data as well as people just calling their dad on Father's Day (you did call your dad yesterday, didn't you?). Videos, images, email, text chatter -- all sorts of things are transmitted over the wires (yes, some wires still must exist to transmit this stuff long distances). And computers are a lot bigger and better now. Which is what led the government to attempt such data collection in the first place -- because it became possible to do so, which has not been true for all that long, historically.

One piece of metadata is especially worrisome, when it comes to cell phones or other portable devices, though: location. The government is not only recording what numbers are called, they are also recording where the phones are when the call happens. Such data -- not just what cell you're in, but GPS information which can pinpoint precisely where you are -- is a goldmine of information for the government.

Of course, they swear they're not actually looking at the data, merely collecting it. They also swear it's only terrorists they're looking for, so everyone else needn't worry. However, it's easy to imagine a scenario where these promises might be overlooked. I'd be willing to bet money that the first time some law enforcement officer gets to dip into this ocean of data (when terrorism isn't even a possible issue) will be in a kidnapping case. After all, lives will be at stake, and immediate information (along with the entire history of a kidnapper's phone and its whereabouts) will be required. Kidnapping is even a federal crime, meaning no jurisdictional issues will exist.

But if it's easy to picture that scenario, it's also easy to picture where such a slippery slope might lead. For instance, gaining information on exactly who is "Occupying" a certain park might be too irresistible to pass up. There's a long history of the federal government treating anti-war (and anti-other-issues) demonstrators as "national security threats" (see: tapping Martin Luther King's phones, for instance). And the information is just going to be sitting there, on a government computer, tantalizing and oh-so-easily-accessible. In fact, with the ability to track movement, anyone who drives too quickly on a road through a national forest (or any other federal land) could one day conceivably get a speeding ticket in the mail for doing so.

But this is getting far-fetched, and descending into paranoia... right? I mean, stuff like that could never happen... right? The government is compiling a gigantic database of useful information that they swear -- they swear -- they'll never use, except in the case of terrorism. Or what they decide to call terrorism. Or maybe a kidnapping, which is pretty terrifying. Anyone who has problems with this is just some paranoid civil liberties freak who probably sits around in his mother's basement wearing a tinfoil hat, in fact. After all, why shouldn't we all just place our unshakeable trust in the federal government's benign and benevolent nature?

But what is truly amusing about the whole thing is that we've really set this situation up ourselves. Babies aren't "chipped" by the government at birth, after all -- that's some real paranoia right there. The government doesn't operate on every citizens to implant a device to track them in real time.

They don't have to. We've taken care of that part of it ourselves. How old is the average child, after all, when they get their first cell phone these days? We voluntarily carry around locator chips -- there's no need for the government to go to all the trouble and expense to do so. And that's not tinfoil hat territory -- that's as true as the phone in your pocket.

Somewhere, a character sporting a very shiny hat (played by Jeff Goldblum, no doubt) is laughing.


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