Monday, March 19, 2012


Dear George,

While I don’t think I’m any more paranoid than the next guy, I do have occasional small episodes of unrealistic suspicion and fear about this or that. Lately these have become more centered on the Internet. The more experience I’ve had with my blog, the edgier I’ve become about where these postings go and who gets them. Even though my blog is set up a publicly available, I naively think that it’s going mostly to family and friends. But that’s an unfounded assumption. I became acutely aware of this when I wrote a satirical piece about a local cemetery, then got back a lengthy e-mail response from the cemetery’s president within 24 hours. One of my knowledgeable friends explained that many organizations pay a fee to automatically receive any web content that mentions their name. A few weeks later I wrote a humorous account of my first year of college, then discovered that the college Alumni Association had referred it to thousands of readers. I posted a story about my hometown, and the president of the Chamber of Commerce replied. Most recently I heard back from the great grandson of a man who I’d described as committing a violent criminal act. All of this seems harmless enough, but it does make me nervous about writing for an unknown, hard-to-predict audience.

My wariness was reinforced when I read recently in the New York Times about government efforts at Internet surveillance. It’s pretty well-known that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) monitors the Internet for information about potential threats to public safety, e.g., terrorist attacks. What's not well known is that the DHS also monitors political reactions to government proposals that have "homeland security implications" or "reflect adversely on the U.S. government." According to the Times (1-13-12), a nonprofit advocacy group used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain nearly 300 pages of documents about the DHS's monitoring program. In a 2009 test, the Department paid a contractor to monitor the Facebook postings, Twitter messages, blog content, and reader comments about a Washington Post article by the residents of Standish, MI, to see how the residents were reacting to a proposal to move Guantanamo Bay prisoners to a local prison. The contractor recorded personal identifying information from Facebook, Twitter, etc., but didn’t include such information in the final reports. For example, a quote from Twitter would refer to "a Twitter user" rather than citing a specific person by name. Asked about the Standish report, a DHS spokesperson said it was simply an example and had been removed from their handbook because it “does not meet our operational requirements or privacy standards” which “expressly prohibit reporting on individuals’ First Amendment activities.” However, even if Homeland Security says they are not out to get me personally, it still worries me. (Dear Homeland Security monitor: If you are analyzing this paragraph, it’s all just in fun.)

Every once in a while I Google my own name to see what turns up. When I did this recently, the first hit was a web-site I’d never heard of which says it is designed to help people “find and connect with one another.” From it I learned that I was a married, Protestant, white male in my mid-70’s, with a Democrat political preference. It listed my wife and son by name; gave an aerial photo, street location, and appraisal value of our house in Clifton, as well as listing the monetary values of all my individual neighbor’s houses in a two-block radius. My life style interests were specified as including: owns dogs, enjoys the outdoors, likes music, reads about world news and politics, cares about healthy living, is a collector, collects antiques, and enjoys family activities and reading. It also says I am sensitive, intuitive, desirous of security and comfort, clingy, protective, value marriage, and have trouble letting things go. Most of these are spot on, and my impression is that the web-site has broader knowledge of me than do many of my acquaintances (or even myself in one or two instances). I tried searching the site for a dozen family members and friends. Except for our three-year-old grandchildren, everyone else was listed there, with varying amounts of personal and mostly accurate information. The facts I found about myself are just a teaser of what’s available through the site. If I pay them $2.95 a month I can find out my own or anybody else’s exact age, phone number, e-mail address, occupation, education, detailed financial information, detailed property information, economic health rating, and information about the person from 81 social media sites (e.g., Facebook, Google+). Perhaps this amazingly well-informed site sometimes actually does help people “connect” with one another. But it also helps marketers, real estate agents, prospective employers, banks and credit agencies, snoopy neighbors, online suitors, identity theft criminals, probation officers, mothers-in-law, newspaper reporters, and a wide range of others who may be “connecting” in less than preferred fashions. No wonder I’m feeling more paranoid.



SOURCE: New York Times, "Federal contractor monitored social network sites," Jan. 13, 2012) (

G-mail Comments

-Gayle C-L (3-19): David, Pretty amazing. They are watching you for sure. You better be careful! Lol. G

1 comment:

  1. Add to your concerns that when I Googled "bloganoia" your blog post came up fourth, after a page in Chinese and three Urban Dictionary listings. I'm going to quote you (anonymously) in a Writers Alliance of Gainesville (WAG) talk tomorrow about blogging for writers, but I won't share the "Bloganoia" title or your blog address. I hope this won't add to your bloganoia -- Florida writers are fierce!