Living in a Non-Private World

By David L. Brown

I first noticed the intrusive nature of the internet about five years ago when I wrote a private, personal email to another Ace of Spades member offering to review his novel, and in the subject line I used the phrase “I’ll be your dog.” Within hours I began to receive spam emails offering me dog food, veterinary services, all kinds of dog-related products and services.

About the same time someone mentioned something called a “walk-in tub” to me. Never having heard of this, I Googled that product and learned what it was about. I am not and never will be a buyer of such a contraption, and only wanted to satisfy my curiosity. However, that Google search triggered a wave of spam emails that continues to this very day. I can only make a guess, but over about five years I have probably received and deleted between five and ten thousand spams on the subject of walk-in tubs, including several so far today.

This is bad enough, but now I have learned that one does not have to actually do an on-line search or mention certain keywords in an email to be targeted by intrusive spammers. It may seem hard to believe, but I am convinced and will offer evidence below, that our smart phones are listening to us all the time, even when they are locked and on the table or in our pockets. They are little electronic spies, always listening for us to utter keywords that can be collected and sold to spammers.

I first heard of this a few months ago by reading an account by a person who made this claim to a friend and was told that could not be true. He offered to demonstrate, and began to talk about a made-up story in which he was planning to go to Spain, where he wanted to rent a Jeep. Within a few hours, in came spams offering vacation deals in Spain and opportunities to rent Jeeps.

I decided try the same thing, and soon found similar results. I have learned that not every subject will result in hits by spammers. For example, when I made up a story about wanting to buy an ultra-light aircraft I got no hits. I suppose this is because there are no spammers wanting to pay Google, Apple, or Microsoft for keyword leads. I have gotten many very positive and direct results, however.

Here are a few examples of things I have experienced just in the last two or three weeks:

  • When I was chatting with a friend who is a wine lover, I mentioned that years ago I used to buy a French wine called Mouton Cadet. Within less than 24 hours I received spam messages offering to sell me (can you believe it?) Mouton Cadet wine. Hadn’t heard of it for about 40 years. What a coincidence!
  • On another occasion about two weeks ago I began to receive dozens of offers to buy Dr. Seuss books. I couldn’t figure that one out until I remembered that a day or two before this started my friend had made a wise-acker remark about “Horton Hires a Ho.” Horton (the Elephant) as a keyword leads to Dr. Seuss and has resulted in dozens of spams, sometimes as many as 20 or more a day. As we talked my phone was sitting nearby, doing its quiet listening thing.
  • At the same time I also started to get spams from “Elmo,” and when I mentioned this to my friend along with the facts about the Dr. Seuss spams he recalled that we talked about toys that talk to children, among which is Elmo. BTW, I am a 76-year-old childless widower and have about as much interest in these subjects (or walk-in tubs or many other things that appear in my inbox in an endless stream of spam) as I have in putting my head in a vice and squeezing until my brains burst out.

Most recently, a few days ago I had a client for one of my photo tours. Before we departed in my Jeep we stopped by his car to pick up a jacket. It was a Range Rover, and later as I was driving, locked iPhone in my pocket, I asked “How do you like your Range Rover?” We talked about that for a moment, so I should not have been surprised that night to discover spam in my inbox offering me opportunities to buy, lease or rent Range Rovers.

But here is what is really interesting. During our time together he was shooting with a Leica camera. At one point, I asked him if he had a polarizer filter for it. He said he did not. Thinking I might be able to loan him one, I asked if it took a 52mm filter. He said, no, it was a 38mm polarizer.

Well, my iPhone was tucked in my pocket and turned off, but obviously listening. About two days later I was looking up something on Amazon and noticed something that got my attention. In the display below my search result on the bar containing “recently viewed items,” there was a Leica 38mm polarizer filter.” Trouble was, I had not recently viewed that item, and in fact had never viewed it – I had only talked about it within hearing distance of my iPhone.

Yes, the iPhone was definitely listening for keywords in my conversations, and those keywords were being shared with Amazon as well as dozens of email spammers. There is no way this could be due to coincidence.

There are other examples, far too many and too specific to possibly be due to coincidence. I have no doubt whatsoever that my iPhone is listening to me all the time, and no doubt reading this as I write since I am using it as my internet connection so it is plugged into my computer. It is seeking out keywords that can be sold to a variety of spammers who launch cascades of never-ending spam messages to my two email accounts, which are also connected to the phone.

I have no doubt that the NSA gets feeds of anything that sounds like a threat to national security, as we all have come to suspect. But the fact that I am being constantly monitored by my phone (and perhaps my Macintosh computer, my Sony TV set, my LG pad and who knows, maybe even my toaster) for purposes of feeding my personal information to spammers is very disturbing. It is a sign that we live in a very different world than we may have thought, one that makes the plot of the book 1984 seem like weak tea by comparison.

I remember an old movie in which the protagonist seeks to discover the source of some evil spying activity, only to discover that “it’s the phone company!” Well, maybe it IS the phone company, or at least the makers and sellers of digital phones and other items, to wit Google, Apple and Microsoft, no doubt with the aid and collusion of governments and, yes, the phone company of course.

I remember reading that during the Obama administration members of Google management visited the White House something like 250 times. Hmm, something big must have been going on. I am convinced that it has to do with what I am experiencing, for think what the next step might be if everyone’s smart phone is being used to listen in to everything we say, every place we go, and who knows, perhaps even using the built-in cameras to watch us or those with whom we interact?

Well, I can imagine it and it is not pretty. Blackmail. Use of secretly obtained information to bend someone to the will of the holder (perhaps such “someones” as a Senator or a Supreme Court Justice or even a presidential candidate).

 

Perhaps actual monetary blackmail is already taking place on a wide scale, where secrets obtained by listening in on private conversations are used to extort money from less-than innocent victims (for example, cheating husbands or wives). That may already be a “thing,” and who knows where it will stop?

 

I have pondered whether this knowledge should lead me to make changes to my life. I feel violated, and while a friend with whom I discussed this subject pointed out that as long as I am not doing anything wrong it should not matter, it really DOES matter. My illusion of privacy has been utterly destroyed. There are, well not “people” as such, but machines, massive computer networks listening to me whenever I talk around my phone (or computer, pad or whatever). I am sure of it.

 

There was a great but little noted German movie that came out a few years ago called “The Lives of Others.” It was about the intrusive spying in East Germany, where privacy was virtually non-existent. It did not come to a good end. Are we in a similar situation now? I think so, and it is extremely concerning.

 

Should I feed my iPhone to the toaster (there would be sweet irony in that), or continue to live as if under a microscope? I don’t know. Like nearly every human being alive today, I am addicted to the convenience of a hand-held device that acts as phone, internet connection, video player, e-book repository, GPS device, calendar, calculator, and so much more. It truly is like science fiction … but is the loss of privacy worth it? I wonder.

 

It would not be easy to go back to the old ways. There used to be phone booths everywhere from which you could place calls to and from anywhere in the world. During a year I spent traveling around Europe in the 1990s, that was how I kept in touch with home, and there was never a lack of a phone, even in the most remote villages. Now, with smart phones in every pocket, that option no longer exists.

 

Mail service is a dying thing and the service is terrible. Fax machines would probably fall prey to the malicious listeners. Smoke signals might be a possibility for some situations but seem impractical on the whole.

 

How does one live under the biggest, most invasive microscope ever conceived of in the mind of Man? I don’t know, but I do know that I don’t like it and I suspect it will come to a bad end.

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