Is this off the Record?

If you don’t have anything to hide, does that mean you are OK with everyone seeing your private moments?  If thousands of private moments flooded the net, and they all seemed basically the same, would it matter whose moments you saw?  My older half-brother Jack, one toad of a human, demonstrated this beautifully for us all.  Wish we could unsee a lot of each other again, including the parts of ourselves we didn’t like to look at.

The country kept working, and us kids were never too concerned.  Dad put on his suit, left the house with his work carpool, came home in time for dinner, and kept the yard up on weekends.  His easy smile and pretend warmth seemed to have come off a shelf at the store.  He did the ball toss bonding thing with me and engaged with any of us using board games, if we wanted to, but otherwise never got passionate about anything, not even sports.  Mom had her own small business things she did during the day in her office, that I wasn’t to disturb her for, but once school started, my older half-sisters ran me to the daycare attached to school.  Mom was home in time for my bus, though.  Typical suburban blended family fracturing.

My half-brother Jack almost bridged the gap in ages between my sisters and I, but since he had a different mom, he disappeared on weekends and alternate holidays.  His hazel eyes, long black hair, and pasty skin would’ve been fine if he wasn’t such a creeper.  The remote control car with a camera taped to it might have been alright, but the fact that the camera was the size of a six sided die and only pointed straight up from the end of an extendable rod went too far.  I was a boy, so skirts weren’t an issue, but my sisters were forever trying to stomp on the thing when it peeked out from under a closet door.  Nobody stood up for him except Dad, and none of us understood why even he did, since even his smile dimmed when we talked about the latest thing Jack was up to.  I made a point early on to keep Jack’s poison more than at arm’s length.  My friends were only ever invited over when Jack wasn’t around, and when I was at home when Jack was there, it was often dialed into some sort of gadget that would let me chat with my friends while gaming.

The god-boxes were a work of diabolical genius.  I was just as excited about it as anyone.  Think google glasses with implants, add a TV stick gaming media center computer, then overlay a secret programmable AI algorithm to interface your brain with it.  We all knew it needed training to learn our personal neuron mapping, but we had no idea how much that internal Tivo was recording.  That nasty secret stayed perfectly hidden until the line of criminality was crossed.

I pulled on the office door.  “Mom!  My friends are coming over.  This was a weekend Jack was supposed to be with his mom.”

“Maybe your Dad can take him to a movie?”

“Nice.  Also, can you play it off like it’s to make up for getting ditched?  I don’t want to have to deal with him going clever on us as pay back.”

She smiled and ruffled my hair.  I cringed.  The piles of black coiled hair on her head never looked bad, but she didn’t seem to understand about mine needing to be tended to stay parted.  She was going to bat for me, though, so I smiled and said nothing.

Dad went for it.  They planned on hitting a Thai place and doing an eight something show down by The Wharf.  I kept my friends busy in the back yard on the trampoline until they left.

“You guys get the newest edition of Black Reaper?”  I asked.

Some of the guy had, some hadn’t, but all wanted in on the chance to play it, since I’d just gotten a server copy and they could all join mine.  When Mom entered our basement lair, we had the lights out and our usual spots on the couches, but it’d been over a half hour of mad virtual gaming on our god boxes.  We were ravenous.

Typical mom foods were on the table.  Green beans, over-loaded potatoes, popcorn shaped chicken, and milk in glasses.  My sisters hung out for just a bit, despite their empty plates.  We chatted about the game.  They ate it up.  Mom smiled at our excited banter and quick consumption of her gifts.  She flipped on the kitchen TV for some news, but kept it muted and read the streaming feeds along with the captions.  When were just starting to fight over the last of the food, Mom flicked the sound on.

“Guys, news break.  National news is talking about our city.”

“Police released this footage.  Ten suspects taken into custody, five still at large.”

We all watched.  The images were obviously done from a personal wearable.  Details about the recovered supplies and a translation of the voices flashed at the bottom.  An expert came on to explain what it all meant.  She described the planned blasts, the trains and bridges involved, and the estimated death toll.  The TV news host started asking about how police even found out about it, and the look of the video.

“That looked like it was filmed from a god-box head’s up.”

“I can answer that.”

The news feed cut to a small nondescript man in a suit.  He was sitting next to the expert, a government seal between them on the wall.  “Previously we had to let crooks slip up and leave information in publicly available location.  We needed those leads to gain permission to intrude into private affairs for public need.  Search warrants often came too late, many leads turned cold before the evidence could be put together, and detective work was always a balancing act of catching private things, like crimes, being done publicly.”

Then they pulled out the fine print out on the user agreement.

The TV host’s voice comes back on, “What exactly are we looking at here?  Nobody really reads these license things, right?”

“Whether or not you read them is up to you, but when you say you agree to them, you say the rights outlined are binding.  In this case, that means all events witnessed by the device are owned by who paid for it, and in this case, become subject to being used as impartial witnesses because the government paid just over half the cost of the device, making it their unit that you willingly placed into your private affairs.”

“Sounds like a classic bait and switch.”

“Sounds like a partnership.  When you get into bed with someone, both parties get warmer and stay healthy.  We have no interest in the other things that happen in bed, but healthy is a good thing and we want that.”

“Does healthy work both ways?  Say for instance, a policeman gets a little too friendly with someone who is drunk and won’t remember it.  Will his device remember it for the judge?”

“Most certainly.  That’s a big part of what we wanted to include.  Power corrupts, and nobody should be above accounting for its use.”

“Will this information become public record?”

“I certainly don’t hope for that, but it is publicly owned.  We trust the key holders of our government offices for many things much more critical than whether or not you flushed after doing whatever it was in there.  Simply trusting them with more truth will let them do their jobs a lot more effectively.  Personally, I’m much more frightened of a privately owned terror cell operating in my own community like this one was than in the police knowing what positions I sleep in.”

“For those of you just joining us, we have a massive terrorist attack just thwarted by a new development in policing.  Over twenty thousand saved, but at the cost of a startling new development in government oversight.  We’ll have a panel of experts to discuss that at nine, but first we take you live to the interrogation chamber.”

Mom turned it off.  She locked eyes with me.  “Nice that they waited a few years, let it catch on, then pulled this stunt on uncovering one of the biggest terrorist infestations in the country’s history.  Who wouldn’t want to loose a little freedom in exchange for that level of security?”

I certainly did.  None of us fighting over the last chicken cared a whit if the police saw us in our underwear.  Then I thought about my older sisters and Jack.  At my primary school, none of the kids were even aware it was a bad thing to lose privacy and have someone laughing at you in your underwear.  Most of us already felt like our parents may even do that in our sleep anyway.  Since the observable everyone in the country had already installed the god-boxes surgically inside their bodies via government subsidy, it was simply an uncomfortable moment for grown-ups to laugh about.  But it felt like it should be more.

I led my friends back to our lair that night.  We had a blast until the voice whispers started telling us to look at the time, just before ten.  We wrapped up, did our fist bumping in the driveway to say good-bye, and I watched them go.  I looked up at the house after the last one left on his blinking red bike.

Jack’s window was doing its usual glow from his lava lamp.  I made my way in and knocked on his door.

“Don’t come in.”

“Your nasty business days are numbered, Jack.  The police get to review our god-boxes now.”

The door opened a bit.  His white clammy face appeared.  “Did you put Dad up to tonight?”

“How’d you guess?  Sometimes I surprise myself, and find myself actually wanting you to have a good time once in awhile.”

His eyes were obviously distracted by some heads-up data feed only he could see.  I started to leave.

“I’m no terrorist.”

I turned back.  “Yeah, I know.  Creeping around your own sisters makes people feel ill, not scared.”

“There’s no law against it.”

“For grown ups there still is.  Good thing you’re not mature.”

“You just wish you could get ahold of my video.”

I rolled my eyes.  “Like I said: Good thing you’re not mature.  From what I saw on the news, though, everyone will likely get to see your video, and I’m not talking about the one’s you’ve been creeping around to shoot.”

I moved close enough to him to smell the cheese puff dust he’d spread on his shirt.  “They probably will never figure out how to write a law against being a creep, but they may just find a way to make nobody want to be one, though.”

He hit me with the flat of his hand hard against my chest and slammed the door.  I smiled to myself.  I didn’t know exactly how things would play out just yet, but a lack of his own personally privacy might be the only way Jack was going to change and grow up a little.

Rumors at school the next day imagined kids who’d hacked into those god-box government files, and got to see into everybody’s dirty little video secrets.  We had no idea what we were talking about, though.  Lots of kids imagined the worst they could, and those became their own spin-off rumors.  But none of those were all that bad.

I even find myself laughing as I look back.  I can now see a lot of good in kids being sheltered and naive.  Censorship does have its place.  Nothing in any of those rumors were half as bad as what eventually did surface.  If the grown-ups were having a lot of trouble handling these weirdly complex right and wrong choices, then their was no hope kids could even begin to know for sure what was really good to know about yet.  I know I sure couldn’t, and still can’t.

Suddenly those awkward moments nobody wanted to admit they had, were on everyone’s minds.  Those trivial and slightly embarrassing ones they’re just glad their spouses found out about after committing to getting married, were suddenly available for the divorce courts.  We all had those moments; kids just had fewer.  We all felt funny for just a bit when we realized that all the cats were out of their bags, and on somebody else’s screen to look at.  But then we got over it.  Then we all felt even closer to each other for a while.  Jokes were made about people’s honesty or modesty, since it was all a matter of public record somewhere.  My biggest take away that I learned was that embracing the even the idea that someone somewhere knows your deepest secrets opens up all your relationships.  It makes everyone a lot more willing to tell the people nearest them about wrongs done while a chance to be forgiven is still possible.  But I was pretty sure Jack was well past that point already.  I avoided knocking on his door.  His creepy nasty self was not something I wanted to be exposed to.

A few weird leftover rules from previous generations began to be the focus after the terrorists were caught.  Some spoke of where you couldn’t park your horse or spit what you coughed up.  Rules that were judged to have been made to compensate for the lack of public data available began to be called out for removal, like Miranda Rights.  Everyone knew their words would be used in a court of law well before the police even arrived to hear them.  Even the Police in their own squad cars muttering racist things, or simply talking out-loud about the profiling they were thinking, was now a thing of public record and admissible in court.  Anyone could get a judge to review your recordings if anything happened to you while in custody.  With all the lights shining into the private shadows, and the normalcy of some level of depravity was on full display for the courts to review, only those with criminal stuff to hide were really squirming.  But the government seemed swamped and very interested in having help with digging through their data overload, starting with pulling out old laws that weren’t useful anymore.

Online public forums started happening to list and discuss other rules that assumed privacy was important.  School kids would later have to do papers on these first discussions.  How big the fence was in front of your house to hide your RV parked alongside it remained to beautify the street, but the dismissal of criminal evidence based on how they got that information went away.  Crooks who previously could simply pay lawyers enough to pull those “non-governmental intrusion” constitutional strings, were now getting sentenced to hard time.  Getting freed on procedural technicalities, or the fact that most crime is done privately and easily subject to any remaining privacy law protections, suddenly was no longer an option.  Even the heavy police presence in prison to watch the crooks was getting turned over to centralized pattern recognition computers that simply turned on magnetized walls near the prisoners, pulling on the metal strips sewn into their orange jump suits.  That is assuming, of course, that they aren’t really fast at stripping naked so they can fight it out before the actual humans show up.

At my school there were rumors about there even being voices in the heads of the prisoners to help them think about their poor choices, since most of us had begun hearing whispers in our own heads, too.  Those voices helped us avoid getting caught when a teacher or parent was about to show up and bust us, but it wasn’t hard to hear the whispers simply repeating important lessons we’d just heard.  The whispers seemed to think the weird rules that were obviously no longer relevant should just be erased.  They weren’t important if the people who needed them weren’t alive.  Often the grown-ups simply rewrote them to conform to the new standards of full disclosure, at least where minors weren’t able to view the full depravity of “mature” adults.  Lot of us kids, though, imagined a future that we got to be the ones choosing new laws and erasing the old ones that didn’t make sense anymore.  Try as i might, I couldn’t figure out any good laws to stop being a creeper.  Was Jack even hearing a voice from his box?  Maybe he’d hacked his, and gotten it to feed his ego instead of his moral compass.

The last weird rule to trigger public outcry of any kind was the statute on Tom Peeping, or was it Peeping Tom?  Old history now.  A case of Jack versus Jackie.  This one hit home for me, since Jackie was my Mom and Jack my older half-brother.

Jack, the new step son of Jackie was found tripping security alarms outside the bedroom windows.  A pair of slightly older step sisters were involved, but, since Jack was only nine, it seemed harmless enough, according to his father.  Jackie didn’t take it that way, however.  She put on a show of going along with it for my Dad, but saved all the data.  She made recordings of Jack’s behavior she find, and talked into the camera on some of them.  She told of her own intentions to track his depravity over time, and prove the diseased ways of this boy to be harmful.  Dad noticed her covert video observations years later, and, when I was eight, tried confronting her.  Jackie brushed it off and told him it was just a chance for Jack to get a piece of his own medicine, but secretly began putting together a legal suit for damages.

Mom initially thought she’d win, but the lack of privacy in the closed courtroom seemed to minimize the shame of the boy’s obvious and immature entertainment at the expense of his privacy-violated grossed-out sisters.  If anything, the bored tone of voice the judge and lawyers fed into the way everyone was reacting.  She felt it was significant and should at least sting the little pervert so he would change.  The crime, even in it its hay-day, always carried such a small consequence, in her opinion.  Such a weird thing to chat about with your mom about over breakfast.

Even a civil suit seemed to be losing it’s power, so she adjusted her damages claim to ask for even more access to the evidence of boy’s activities, dropping all formal charges, and giving her rights to do with the evidence whatever she saw fit to do with it.  The amused judge thought it only fair to reverse the privacy invasion, and granted her full access and rights to publish any and all surveillance footage she wished to, as the boy’s defacto guardian, even though actual adoption hadn’t been applied for.  The tables were definitely turned.  The peeper was now the one on display for not just one person’s amusement.  All his slimy nasty and private moments were sent to a creative media team with the older sisters to oversee careful cropping was done.  When those uploads went viral, I was an instant celebrity in a very unwanted way at school.  But I easily got used to it.  In some ways it helped me figure out who was a real friend from those who just saw me as personal entertainment.

The peeping toms were themselves served notice.  Now, as the subjects of scrutiny and public shame themselves.  For a while, even that barrier of private moments still not being a publicly traded item was held secure by the government.  The scary precedent of using the government owned data for something other than the closed courtroom for purposes of justice, however, had opened a way for other things.

I didn’t get any of that for lots of years, however.  I just knew that suddenly there was a Shadowy Force guiding and directing the ridicule and shame by way of anonymous, and now legitimate, internet postings.  The ones I saw had obvious parts pixilated, but the Shadowy Force quietly became skilled at pruning the culture tree of unwanted and unhealthy practices.  By the time I got to middle school, my history class talked of the boone of statutory rape cases being prosecuted suddenly soared.  Most celebrated the new status of minors as protected members of society.  Protected by the lack of secrets or privacy.  Protected by the new lack of unhealthy secrets that everyone had been uneasy to relinquish.  And those prone to the impulse of Tom Peeping were silent and stuck behind their video screens in the dark once again.

Unfortunately they didn’t stay there.  By the time my sisters were going into college, what was labeled “Porky Jack’s Revenge” had become a weirdly popular sideshow in media streaming.  General format played both sides of the privacy war, though.  My school friends initially thought it was great.  Not only were all the peeping toms served notice, but everyone got a free pixilated peep show.  It didn’t take long for that pandora’s box to be shown for what it was, though.  Coupled with a push for new non-tax revenue after massive government cut-backs in staffing and a chance to use their massive investment in the hardware everyone had implanted, the government got creative.  Yeah, not exactly what we had expected.  We had no idea the god-boxes could do more than just whisper in our ears and record what we saw.  We also had no idea a smaller structure of government meant it was open to creativity.

Mom stood in the kitchen, arms crossed, scowl fully developed on her face.  Thankfully the glare was pointed at the TV.  I sat at the island counter eating my english muffins and eggs with Dad.  It was a Saturday, we got to eat the good stuff for breakfast for a change.  She switched the audio feed from her own god-box to the speakers.

“Welcome back to our story on the latest god-box development.  If you’re just joining us, there has been a new use of them revealed by some acting up students in juvenile detention.  The best way to put it, was that they were reprogrammed with new brain wave patterns being emitted from their god-boxes.  We have with us some Silicone Valley geniuses to give us their take on this latest development.”

The short one with an ugly christmas sweater waved at the camera and then at the tall skinny guy with a royal blue turtleneck “I’m Carl, and this is –”

“Hey, Genius, they probably have an on-screen label already under our faces.”

“Oh, yeah.  Hey, you just did that so you could derail my train of thought, didn’t you?”

The face of the middle aged announcer grew serious against the playful smiles of his guests, who were pointing their finger guns at each other with thumbs madly firing away.  “Guys, the question I have for you this morning is about scenarios.  What is likely, and what is possible.  Go ahead, Carl.”

“Likely: a slow start, and I mean just about nothing at first unless it has significant public support.  The main strategy with mob intelligence in play is to make a wave, let it die down, then develop it from there.  Runner up to that is to get some sort of bait and switch, like we saw with the terrorist cell that was uncovered.  They gave us a compelling bate, evil people ready to kill us getting stopped, and then switched in the death knell of privacy from government awareness.”

“Why do you say ‘awareness’?  Intrusion and awareness are the same thing, aren’t they?”

“I’ve got this one, Carl.”

“Go ahead, Pete.”

“Spy’s can know stuff with telescopes or from standing outside a door.  Until they enter the room and do action, that’s all they’re doing is passively learning.  Constitutional protections for privacy all hinged on that intrusion thing being interpreted by judges, corrupt and paid off in my opinion, to see knowing as doing.  To have the police know there is crime happening in private was to assume they had to intrude to find out.  Then things got really murky when a judge in 1962 went so far as to say that even a one on one conversation by an organized crime stooge, done on a public phone booth on a public street in Las Vegas, was in a private sphere because of the nature of the call.  The police in that instance had their own recording device sitting in the public phone booth instead of putting an undercover policeman there.”

The announcer cut in, “Sounds a lot like these recordings.  How about future use?  Are we just going to see passive information retrieval, or will there be action taken by these god-boxes?”

“The information that would’ve shut down the operation of that crime syndicate was not allowable for prosecuting them.  That judge used faulty logic to intentionally keep criminals free.  Over a dozen law abiding citizens died within the next year at the hands of that syndicate.  That judge basically committed third degree murder on those people through his misuse of power to keep things hidden.”

“Pete, you were asked a question.  Need me to answer it?”

“Thanks Carl.  Sorry.  Action was often needed by the spies in the past to plant a device, or to photograph things in person.  Action is no longer needed for the passive information, but these boxes are not just recording devices.  They even go beyond even just sensory feedback to your eyes and ears.  We interact with our world through our five senses, but how often do we have psychologists reprogram our endocrine system or trigger biological responses based on Pavlovian reinforcement?”

“Carl, why don’t you tell us what that is going to look like in two years and then in ten.”

Carl leaned forward with a smile, but his eyes grew intense and unfocused.  “I foresee these psychological factors sneaking up on us.  Likely to make things better, but also to make us hungry for things.  Hungry to do healthy things, so that the insurance companies and government services don’t have to pay out so much on damages.  Eventually the corporate interests will want us hungry to produce more, so we can buy more.  My hope is that the latest governmental creative push will push for a need to make us hungry to do moral things that help others out.  Any smart sociopath knows the statistics about needing to be married to live a longer healthier life.  But they don’t do it out of feeling it.  When these god-boxes start helping us want to do what’s good for us, we will start developing the Pavlovian habits based on their rewards.”

Pete leaned forward even farther than Carl and cut in, “Incentives are always needed to do what’s right.  Even the recognition of an action being a good thing combines with your want to be seen as a good person, if only by yourself, and becomes it’s own reward system.  What the government has done, according to the test subject’s own reports, is to generate a cognitive reward in their brains through these patterns.  Capturing brain electrical signals into computer chips is nothing new, first examples of it were in 2006, with practical applications in surveillance cameras in Minneapolis shortly afterwards.  Those electrical patterns captured from animal brains allowed immediate recognition of a gunshot sound amid static level background noise, and provided pin-point accuracy for rapid camera tracking to that location.  While public are data was all that police could work with, that level of immediate crime area data solved hundred of murders over the years.”

Carl leaned even further forward.  “What my pal here is trying to say is that forms of technology putting brain waves and computer chips together is very old news, along with bribing people with the right things to get them to do right.  Putting them together in this way, however, is rather novel.  I wouldn’t mind having brain cookies of joy every time I did what was good, especially if I already knew it was good for me and I was just too lazy to do it.  Make a list for yourself, and you’ll quickly see where this is all going.  What do people really think is good, and when do we get to have our own brain cookies?”

Mom hit the power switch.

“Mom, are we getting an upgrade with this?  We already have the whispers in our heads helping us do well and stay out of trouble.”

Her eyes flew open.  “Whispers?”

“I thought you knew.  Everyone at school get them.  That’s why we know how to keep things out of sight, or when it’s time to go home or to bed.  It’s been amazing, really.  LIke having our own private assistant keeping track of a few things we halfway meant to do anyway.”

Her cold look was fast becoming murderous.  “Voices in your head?”

“Just one voice.  Just what our god-box thinks we need to hear.”

“And how long has this been going on?”

“Years.  We thought everyone was getting them.”


Mom stalked out of the kitchen.

I pulled up a few news feeds on my god-box as I made my way to the back deck.  Looks like mom missed some of the possible applications of the brain interference.  I connected with some of my friends.  Their take was that this was just the fun side of the tech.  I agreed.  We all had fun spinning out the nasty possibilities.  In the end, it really came down to trust.  Could we trust the ones pulling our strings?  Could we become the ones pulling the strings?  Could I?

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