04/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Peek-a-boo: Technology and Translucency

I'm currently writing a book with a man who was illegally wiretapped by the FBI for more than seven years. Now reading that statement, you may be thinking this co-author of mine seems paranoid or perhaps delusional. But the records exist: I've seen the transcripts of hundreds of telephone conversations, the FBI stamps marked "TOP SECRET," the J. Edgar Hoover signatures on the memos to Robert Kennedy explaining why it's imperative that, in this particular case, the law of the land has to be ignored.

So this man -- a taxpayer, a law-abiding citizen, a lawyer -- was relentlessly spied upon by the people in charge of the American Dream. The adults. At the time, my friend had his suspicions. But the real proof that he wasn't simply suspicious and overly-cautious didn't come for another fifteen years. A Freedom Of Information request exposed the truth in the form of boxes and boxes of wiretap transcripts and surveillance photographs.

We've talked about the invasion over many writing sessions, that nauseating feeling that accompanied the incontrovertible discovery that all his comings and goings, all his conversations were observed, parsed, and discussed in the DC corridors of power.

Now my co-author can joke about it. When he writes his memoirs, he says with a laugh, it'll be as if he had a secretary taking his dictation around the clock, except the government footed the bill. But what is happening with privacy in this country is no laughing matter. Staggering leaps in technology undreamed of in Hoover's era have made the ability so see into each of our lives almost too easy for those in authority to resist. And with the alleged threat of terrorism looming all around us, it continues to be virtually unpatriotic to point out this simple fact: eroding privacy in the name of safety is in actually a chipping away at one of the cornerstones of America itself.

Not far from where I live there is a lawsuit boiling over. A Pennsylvania public school district created a "laptop in every lap" program (clever!) and gave out computers for all their students to use at home. The district is one of the wealthiest in the country, and it's very likely that a huge majority of home have computers for the school-age children to you, but you can't go around installing spyware in people's computers. Much easier to hand out your own.

That's right, each computer was sent home with the capability for the school district to remotely and invisibly turn on the webcam and observe whatever is in front of the computer. The school claims this was put in place only to help retrieval in the event of a lost or stolen computer, but somehow they had one of things active when they saw one of their students apparently taking a large number of pills. Parents were alerted, bedroom doors yanked open, the district's panic alert was elevated to saffron.

This student's life was disrupted because in someone's off-site opinion he seemed to doing something dangerous and illegal, a claim which goes exactly nowhere in explaining whatever school board version of probable cause made them activate the webcam in the first place.

As a result, look at the breakthrough sociological data we've garnered: 1) kid eat candy; 2) private property is not school property; and 3) people confronted with direct invasion of privacy sue.

You can file this under "education," of course. See, a school's duty is to arm children with the basic skills for real life. One of those survival skills is to be highly skeptical -- the Trojan horse wasn't just a lovely and decorative gift.

Like rape, invasion of privacy is a crime that isn't really about what it seems to be about on the surface. How does a person ever feel comfortable again when they learn they've been exposed without their permission or knowledge? How can you make a victim whole again after that?

You can't.

We live in a country where privacy is melting away bit by bit. In the interest of what? Safety, honesty? Drug prevention? If we live in a dangerous world where candy looks like pills, what else are we supposed to do but jump to conclusions, invade a private home with a video camera, call up people's parents? For starters, you could let people put what they want in their mouths when they aren't your responsibility or on your property.

I can think of at least twenty reasons why even if the kid was popping fistfuls of Oxycodone it was none of the school district's business. Since when does public school have anything to do with private life? Are students now signing contracts that contain a morals clause?

You're a school board that wants to make sure it gets its laptop back? How about taking a credit card deposit refundable at the end of the semester? It works for Avis.

* * *

Here's a fun drinking game: flip through the cable channels sampling random "Law & Order" episodes and take a shot every time a detective checks some suspect's EZPass record to see if they were or were not where they said they were on the night in question. I promise, you won't be sober for long. Okay, the EZPass gotcha might mean more to lazy TV writers than any of us non-crime committing Americans, but there's still something to be said for just going on a drive where no one knows where you are. Maybe not even you. Again, the gift of zooming through tollbooth lines exacts a ethereal, almost unnoticed price. They know where you are. It probably doesn't matter, but it's worth a thought.

Smartphones that can turn into listening devices, GPS navigators that can act as tracking devices, web cams that show school boards people eating Mike & Ike's in real time. It's all part of a trend. I'm not one for the old slippery-slope diagnosis I find it hyperbolic and scraping up against common sense -- I eat steak, but I don't feel I'm a few mere uneasy steps from becoming a cannibal. Still, in this instance, slippery feels right. If a school, for the good of education, can watch you through your webcam just to make sure you're not cheating on your term paper, what's to stop your insurance company, for the good of corporate cost control, to watch and see if after that car accident your neck has a better range of motion than it appeared in your doctor's office.

Some will say if you've got nothing to hide, why worry? But the truth is actually the inverse of that argument. We're hiding when we're in public. We play at ourselves and do so very carefully. We anticipate what our subtext says and who will pick it up. We posture, we angle. We package and sell a version of ourselves in work, in dating, in society. We judge and are judged in return.

But you can't keep that up forever. Alone, we can be ourselves at last. We can let our guard down and relax. On the phone with a real friend, we can share things we'd never say if other people were listening in.

Are those not American values?

Those who aren't quite as suspicious of the motives of those in charge might suggest that the people in power only focus on the bad apples. I answer that point by returning to my co-author, who was monitored twenty-four hours a day by the FBI for years. So, what was the clear and present danger this man presented to the United States? If J. Edgar Hoover wanted him, he must've been a pretty bad cat. He wasn't the quarry; he was in the crosshairs merely because he was a close friend and confidant to a man our government was concerned might somehow destroy the fabric of this country.

Dr. Martin Luther King.

Stuart Connelly is a screenwriter and novelist.