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Friday, September 22, 2017

Wiretapping, Snooping, And Surveillance - An Immoral Erosion Of Public And Personal Trust

Beth Frampton had convinced her husband to bug their daughter’s room; but that was not enough, for their suspicious daughter always talked outside the house.  Beth knew that tapping Lisa’s phone was possible, for it was no secret that IP servers routinely record personal data; that Amazon, Netflix, e-Bay, and a hundred other companies record mouse clicks; and that social media companies routinely sell data to marketers.

Cities and small towns install ‘traffic’ cameras to record the movements of their citizens ‘in case’ of a need to associate them with terrorist or criminal activities. 

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Advanced facial recognition software is commonly used at airports; and such highly intelligent programs can accurately assess mood, emotion, and even intent. 

Beth was less interested in actually accessing these advanced, sophisticated surveillance tools than using them as justification for her own personal snooping. If so many agencies, companies, and individuals were hacking sensitive accounts, collecting and assembling personal data for government and commercial use, and generally looking in on the lives of others with no guilt or recrimination, then why shouldn’t she?

As close friend of hers was suffering through a bad marriage.  Her husband was unfaithful; but he had left few traces of his liaisons.  He had always been careful to hide his tracks.

Although it was against her principles to hire a private detective, she did so; but her husband had chosen only business associates as paramours, used only the most unlikely and unsuspecting trysting places, and avoided even the lightest public displays of affection.  The detective couldn’t find a thing.

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Beth’s friend, however, had found out that the data on her husband’s computer could be subpoenaed and used in a divorce trial if it could be proved that it was shared with her.  Infiltrating his laptop was easy, for it was not a question of stealing data but introducing it.  Such ‘reverse intelligence gathering’ was still unusual enough to raise security interest.

The hackers she hired were careful not to leave any telltale signs of entry, and the computer’s files were introduced as damaging evidence despite vigorous protest from the defense.

Beth’s friend certainly had a legitimate excuse for such unlawful snooping.  Her husband was a bastard and deserved to pay a price.  So snooping on her own daughter was nothing in comparison.
Beth met with her friend’s hacker and found that tapping her daughter’s phone to access, record, and relay her texts, chats, emails, and phone calls was a simple matter.  If Lisa found out about it, it would not be from a software defect but from her mother. 

Although Beth was sure that she would never let on that she knew what her daughter was up to, she was surprised at the extent of her disobedience.  Far worse she was shocked at the immoral life of shame and risk that she was leading.  She had had no idea, for example, that her daughter was seeing Doug Bradley, the deadbeat son of a West Virginia trucker and his Pentecostal wife and that she had slept with him and his brothers.

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Not only that, but the girls in her crowd whom Beth had welcomed to her home were not only complicit in her daughter’s vagaries but active themselves in every drug- and sex-related misbehavior imaginable.

Beth had been fooled, taken in by appearances, deceived by an overweening trust, and now left with a daughter the type of whose behavior she had loudly condemned in PTA meetings, community groups, and church councils.

Beth had two choices – to tell her daughter what she had done, and suffer the consequences of a broken trust but save her daughter from the fate that was inevitably awaiting her.

Or she could keep quiet, develop a strategy for evincing damaging information from her daughter bit by bit, assemble it, and confront her with evidence which she – the daughter – would herself make known.

She opted for the latter, but was so angry and inept at subterfuge, that the truth came out within a month.  Her daughter felt betrayed, hurt, and abandoned.  Deceit by a parent was far worse than any misdemeanor of hers.  It destroyed the intimacy of a relationship begun at birth.

Of course her righteous indignation was in part self-serving.  She knew that Doug was a deadbeat and his brother far worse.  She knew that her girlfriends, unlike her, had no circumspection, perspective, or personal insights and weren’t worth much beyond their stone cool.

In other words, Lisa was on the right track even though she chose to be loose-shunted for a time.  There was no consequence to her actions, she reasoned, since her grades were good and her prospects even better.  Risk, especially at her age, was normal, necessary, and exciting; but she never lost sight of the future.

Mother and daughter became estranged, and once Lisa graduated from college, the break was complete.  Only many years later, after a husband and children of her own, did she forgive her mother.

The story of Beth Frampton is interesting not because of her actions – most parents know very little what goes on in their children’s lives and are desperate to find out – but because of the way she did it and the implications of her actions.  How bad it must be for the country, she thought, if the results of government snooping were as disruptive and damaging as her own. 

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In fact the impact of snooping on a national scale would be far worse.  Wire-tappers could never be innocent, and while they might in fact discover unsavory activities, they contribute to an ethos of suspicion, intrusion, and public overreach.  In a democracy, the accused has a right to face his accuser and to be given an opportunity to defend himself.  Such legitimate confrontation is at the heart of our judicial system and a foundation for our public and private morality.

Not only is wiretapping a highly suspect activity and unjustified in the majority of cases, but it is corrosive to the body politic. Once the judicial process becomes corrupted, there is no way for the moral foundations of society to remain unshaken.

It may be too late.  The degree and extent of public, private, and commercial surveillance is such that the very idea of consensual sharing of information is gradually disappearing.  Before one thinks of resolving an issue – whether national, regional, public, or private - phones are tapped, computer key strokes recorded, and geo-positioning location tracked.  Lock and load first, ask questions later.

The ends justify the means; and in a litigious society such as ours, the means have become amoral at best and immoral at worst.  We think narrowly and temporally, and are unconcerned about the wider implications of our actions. 

Catching terrorists is worth the invasion of privacy enshrined by the Patriot Act and other legislative means to facilitate surveillance.  ‘Traffic’ cameras are justified to reduce crime. Access to computer files is essential in both cases.

Accessing computer data to catch a wayward husband in a lie, ‘borrowing’ data from a child’s phone, or tapping into GPS data files to track spouses’ whereabouts is just as corrosive and immoral, and leads ultimately to a further breakdown in interpersonal trust and social integrity.

Beth Frampton thought she was doing the right thing as a mother, but soon found out what such well-intentioned snooping could lead to.  The estrangement of her daughter was bad enough, but by her irresponsibility she contributed – even in a small way – to the erosion of a larger trust.

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