An Open Book

July 24th, 2021

“Privacy is dead. We live in a world of instantaneous, globalized gossip. The idea that there is a ‘private’ sphere and a ‘public’ sphere for world leaders, politicians or anyone in the public eye is slowly disintegrating. The death of privacy will have a profound effect on who our leaders will be in the future.”

Gavin Esler

“Yeah, I’m an open book.” – Amy Winehouse

Are the Internet and social media destroying the whole idea of privacy? Maybe. Maybe not. They did not begin the process. The erosion of privacy started long before these things existed. The forces of our digital age have simply accelerated the trend. It requires very little effort to learn something about almost any person living on this planet. A few well placed clicks can tell you whatever you want to know about someone. People could be anonymous a generation ago, if they wanted to be. No more.

There is no place to hide.

In 1975 I applied to go to West Point. The U.S Army put together a rather extensive file about me before the military ever agreed to let me join up. This was back in the days of rotary phones, typewriters, and filing cabinets. God only knows what the government can do now.

Is there any information about a person that is sacrosanct? Is there anything that is still considered personal and private?

I’m not sure. I doubt it.

I taught a citizenship class for several years. Immigrants came to me to study for the interview with USCIS. They usually had already filled out their application for U.S. citizenship, the N-400. The N-400 was (and is) a tremendously complicated document. The U.S. government wants to know everything about the prospective citizen: arrests and convictions, work history, names and status of any children, travel to foreign countries, etc. The government even wants to know personal information about the applicant’s ex-spouse(s). Who keeps track of their ex-spouse’s current address? If you want to become a U.S. citizen, you do.

Does the government really need all of this data? Who knows? The Department of Homeland Security can justify asking damn near any question in the name of national security. In any case, the Feds already know most of this information, because the applicant had to supply it when he or she got their green card to live in this country as a permanent resident.

When immigrants would ask me for advice about what to put on the application (if they had not already completed it), I would just suggest to them to tell the truth and to omit nothing. I encouraged them to assume the government already knows the facts, or can easily find them. The Feds look for fraud on the applications. If an applicant lies on the N-400, they’re done. Game over.

The applicant for U.S. citizenship has no privacy, and has no alternatives. The person seeking to become an American has to tell the bureaucrats in the U.S. government everything they want to know, no matter how intrusive. If the applicant balks at this requirement, they do not become a citizen. It’s that simple.

I have a similar situation with the State of Wisconsin. I am applying for certification as a foster parent. The state wants this more than I do, but I understand that I need to be certified in order to care for a small child. The state’s vetting process is at least as thorough as that of the Feds. I had to fill out two “safety surveys”, forms which ask intimate questions about my life from my earliest childhood until the present moment. Then I had to participate in an interview to go over my answers in more depth. The interview was like a warm and fuzzy interrogation. I talked to the licensing specialist for over two and a half hours about things in my past that I didn’t even want to remember, much less discuss with a stranger. The session was extremely stressful for me. I felt emotionally naked by the end of it.

In applying for the foster parent certification, I gave my entire life story to the State of Wisconsin. There are now people working for the government who know as much about me as my wife does. I am not happy with this situation, but I did what I had to do. Like the immigrant seeking citizenship, I had no privacy and no alternatives.

I have been railing against the government here, but it is not the only institution invading our privacy. Corporations do it all the time. I saw that every time I applied for a job.

I give up.

I am an open book.

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