The drone at the window and your pregnant credit card: Notes on privacy

A great South Park episode once featured panicked parents, terrified of child abductors, forcing their kids to wear “Child Tracker” helmets that made them look like crosses between Marvin the Martian and a 600-channel satellite dish. Technology has gotten sleeker, if not simpler, since those innocent days. Now, if it’s 10 PM and you wonder where your child is — what opium den or white slave ring she’s wandered into — you can check the data your personal, aerial drone is feeding you.

They’re not just for repressive governments (and human rights organizations!) anymore. The new thing is the DIY drone — for “do-it-yourself”; rhymes, I think, with “die.” Forbes magazine, a great promoter of cheap consumer technology, cites a Canadian technie waxing enthusiastic about the little devils’ potential:

People are often most frightened by the state’s growing interest to monitor what we do online. Here in Canada for example, the government has proposed a law that would require telecommunications firm have the ability to record, and save, everyone’s online activities. But technology to monitor people offline, in the physical world, is also evolving. More importantly, it is becoming available to ordinary citizens. …

The neat thing is that, instead of a telescreen giving the State a window into your private life, you can have a hovering camera outside your neighbor’s window to watch theirs.  The work of keeping tabs on thoughtcrime is thus not only decentralized but, in conservative fashion, privatized. “It is entirely conceivable,” he writes,

that, in 5-7 years, there could be drones that would follow your child as he walks to school. You can of course, already choose to monitor your child by giving them a cell phone and tracking the GPS device within it, but a drone would have several advantages. It would be harder for someone to destroy or “disconnect” from your child. … This may all seem creepy to you, but if such a drone cost $100 dollars, how many parents do you think would feel like it was “the responsible thing to do.” I suspect a great deal. Even if it was only 5% of parents, that would be a lot of drones.

And of course there are thousands of other uses. Protestors might want a drone observing them, just so that any police brutality could be carefully recorded for later. Cautious adults may want one hovering over them, especially when going into an unfamiliar or unsafe neighborhoods.

Drones (upper R) classical style: Put those clothes on, young lady! Your mother can see you!

In fact, why wait till you go into a neighborhood?  Why not keep the drones hanging constantly, like Saruman’s White Hand, over doubtful places where darker people live? I don’t know how it is up placid Toronto way, but in the Big Apple white people are tired of that flaming sword of fear preventing them from entering Bed-Stuy to price the housing.

For some years New York City civil libertarians have been diligently at work (presumably observed by the FBI and other notekeepers) recording where surveillance cameras in Manhattan operate. As this map they’ve produced reveals, there’s a wealth of such devices downtown, but a distinct dearth north of 125th Street.  This means, reassuringly, that white folks in lower Manhattan are protected from Harlem’s poorer tribes attempting an incursion across the Great Wall; but when it comes to knowing what the barbarians are doing over their own campfires, no one has an idea. A few drones whizzing over Lenox Avenue and Sugar Hill could put this to rights.

If you think back 20 years ago and told someone you were going to give them a device that would enable their government to locate them within a few feet at any given moment, they would likely have imagined some Orwellian future. But this is, functionally, what any smart phone can do. Looking forward 20 years, I ask myself: would my child feel monitored if he has a drone helping him get to school? Or maybe he will he feel unsafe without it? Or maybe it will feel like his Hogwart’s owl [sic], a digital pet?

I never trusted those goddamn owls. Satanic.

An expert on privacy and robotics (another thing you wouldn’t have seen outside a sci-fi novel 20 years ago) observes that while “you might think [private citizens’] drones would already be ubiquitous,” the Federal Aviation Administration has slapped restrictions on  unmanned aircraft systems. However, police and other “public agencies” are lobbying to rolle these back.  “Recently the state of Oklahoma asked the FAA for a blanket waiver of eighty miles of airspace.” (What the hell could be going on in Oklahoma?) “The FAA faces increasing pressure to relax its restrictions and is considering rulemaking to reexamine drone use in domestic airspace.” Meanwhile,

Agency rules impede the use of drones for now; United States privacy law does not. There is very little in our privacy law that would prohibit the use of drones within our borders. Citizens do not generally enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy in public, nor even in the portions of their property visible from a public vantage. In 1986, the Supreme Court found no search where local police flew over the defendant’s backyard with a private plane. A few years later, the Court admitted evidence spotted by an officer in a helicopter looking through two missing roof panels in a greenhouse. Neither the Constitution nor common law appears to prohibit police or the media from routinely operating surveillance drones in urban and other environments.

Dead diva: Easier with a drone

The author argues that drones’ noisy intrusions will actually galvanize the law into acting against all these violations. They’re just too extreme: “Drones may help restore our mental model of a privacy violation. They could be just the visceral jolt society needs to drag privacy law into the twenty-first century.” But I wonder; especially if, as he indicates, the media get involved, and TMZ and Perez Hilton have their warring aircraft locked in on the radio frequency of Lindsay Lohan’s ankle bracelet. You may be offended when it’s your own intimacy that’s invaded, but fascinated when it’s somebody else’s.

The National Enquirer infamously printed a photo of Whitney Houston’s corpse last month, and while sales figures haven’t been released, you can bet — judging by the fact that CNN got 10 times its usual Saturday viewing audience just for showing mourners’ minked backs trudging into the funeral — they spiked. Consumers want the famous, live or dead, splayed for inspection. Incidentally, Forbes separately tells us that  a hanger-on beautifully named Raffles van Exel snapped the doleful photo, and apparently hawked it to the Enquirer for six figures. If you were an editor, and could get the same shot cheaper from a birdbot spying through a stained-glass window, cutting out the middleman in the process, wouldn’t you jump?  And how many would buy it!  The economics are not on the side of indignation.  What, too, if Peter Tatchell got his hands on a drone?  Run for your reputations, sexually healthy civil rights heroes! Not even Martin Luther King would be safe. I can see Peter proclaiming that he caught Martin masturbating to Rawhide in his grave.

Forbes also carries more sceptical approaches to the DIY drone question. Venkatesh Rao, an aerospace engineer, worried in its pages three weeks ago that the current bubble is a bit weird. Although he admits that “Heck, my wife is now insisting that I help her build one,” he says: “I don’t get it. What exactly do people expect to do with their own private drones?” In addition to the Superpaparrazo idea, he cites some other options:

  1. Start a revolution. If drones are the new guns, and the burgeoning political movement to ensure a “right to bear drones” succeeds, you and a few hundred of your friends can secretly build a drone swarm. …
  2. Attach guns to drones. There is absolutely nothing stopping drone hackers from doing this technically, and there is almost no conceivable scenario where this will ever be legal, but if you’re on the wrong side of the law already, for murder say, what’s one more charge for “attaching gun to drone”? The mayhem possible with a bunch of armed drones would make Columbine look like a kid’s tea party.

And he’s not very sanguine about the idea that citizen drones offer people a liberatory way around the government:

[The] only advantage the world of private citizens has over the military-industrial complex is sheer numbers. If, as some commentators speculate, drones are going to be citizen weapons to act as a check-and-balance to absolutist police-state tendencies, it will be through sheer numbers. A handful of extremists maintaining serious drone capability could be sneezed out of existence by any modern military within minutes. The trend only becomes serious if drone ownership becomes as common as gun ownership.

Great. Every Minuteman will have a Minuteman; every band of lunatics, its own Luftwaffe. The universe of Mad Max, where they only had trucks to fight with, will seem the Peaceable Kingdom by comparison.

Drone (upper R), classical style: My eagle doesn't like what you've been doing

Surely the government will restrict the technology before then — not for the sake of privacy, but for safety. (Not ours, its own.) The real question, though, is what will happen to our intimate lives when not just the state but the corporate order have vastly expanded their abilities to spy. Business, after all, equally surely has its (remaining non-mechanical) eye on this new opportunity both to collect information on citizen-consumers — by camera, infrared, and any other legal means — and to commodify it in its turn. For whether the subject is a celebrity or an ordinary credit-card holder, information is power, and power is money, and somebody will pay.

Forbes, once again, has a story (via the New York Timesthat’s not so much a cautionary tale — who will be cautioned by it? shoppers never beware — as an allegory of the age. Target, the US megastore, hires its own statisticians devoted to “consumer tracking.” The firm “assigns every customer a Guest ID number, tied to their credit card, name, or email address, that becomes a bucket that stores a history of everything they’ve bought and any demographic information Target has collected from them or bought from other sources.”

Marketeers pant particularly damply for the new-parent demographic, eager to get them hooked early, before “they turn into rampant — and loyal — buyers of all things pastel, plastic, and miniature.” Babies need so many things these days; the last time a new mother stayed with me, the neighbors thought an army regiment was moving in.  And Target’s 50% revenue growth from 2002-2010 may partly be owing to statisticians “helping the retail giant corner the baby-on-board market.” The nerds used Science. They

ran test after test, analyzing the data, and before long some useful patterns emerged. Lotions, for example. Lots of people buy lotion, but [they] noticed that women on the baby registry were buying larger quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester. Another analyst noted that sometime in the first 20 weeks, pregnant women loaded up on supplements like calcium, magnesium and zinc.

They identified “about 25 products” that, taken together, added up to each shopper’s “’pregnancy prediction’ score. More important, [they] could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.”

Unfortunately, this sometimes backfired: not by being wrong, but by being more right than the humans. One teenage girl’s father reacted with rage to the coupons his daughter was getting. She had to tell him she was pregnant — not a confession she’d planned.

Target is in retail, not the revelation business. This wouldn’t do. So, a store statistician explains, they got cannier — “started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random.”

We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. … That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance. And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons.

“So the Target philosophy towards expecting parents is similar to the first date philosophy?” Forbes comments. “Even if you’ve fully stalked the person on Facebook and Google beforehand, pretend like you know less than you do so as not to creep the person out.”

We’re all on blind dates with the information buyers these days. And stalking, far from being criminal, is studied in business school.

... is you.

Peter Tatchell, Whitney Houston, Malcolm X, and race remixed

I hear dead people (© Max Sparber)

Madcap Briton Peter Tatchell enjoys ventriloquism. It’s a skill he’s probably been practicing since childhood; and anyway, he knows what people should be saying, even if they don’t.  Dead folks are easy marks as dummies, since they’ve got nothing to say for themselves. And Tatchell’s talent at taking on the voices of dead Iranians is notorious.

Tatchell also has a driving concern with black people. Look at his recurrent need to speak about and for Africans, even when Africans are doing a perfectly fine job of speaking for themselves. Or his peculiar way of attaching to himself a few tokenized black folks from time to time in his advocacy– as if he draws deep pleasure from their dependency, but knows they have an authority he wants to pirate somehow. He seems to think, one might say, that black people are less sexually civilized than he, yet need him to enlighten them: a form of self-flattery magnified at continental scale. Plenty of Africans haven’t forgotten, after all, how in his unwanted intervention on Nigeria’s anti-homosexuality bill in 2006 , his key description of the legislation was: “savage.”  (That Tatchell’s political deputy for years was the weirdly obsessed Brett Lock — known for defending what in the US we call the “n-word” as merely an inoffensive derivation from the Latin – further suggests his odd attitudes.)

Brett Lock of OutRage! discusses race and discourse: Hurryupharry.org

Most interesting, though, is his periodic expropriation of the sexualities of dead black icons. Tatchell appoints himself posthumous press agent, and sets up a dynamic where anyone who objects to a white guy doing this is simply proving that black people can’t stand gays.

He did this most famously with Malcolm X: branding Malcolm GAY!, then brandishing the outraged response as evidence of black homophobia. When Manning Marable devoted one page of his brilliant, magisterial, 576-page biography to Malcolm’s sexual relations with white men early in his career in Boston, Tatchell read and responded to that page alone, proclaiming to the world he’d been right all along. Marable himself was dead by then too, making Tatchell’s man-grab easier and more fun. (Fellow grave-robber Doug Ireland did the same; to read these necroerotic  writers’ reviews of Marable, you’d think the biography was the long-lost, mixed-race episode of Will and Grace.)

Marable’s sensitive account makes it clear that the principal relationship  in question had nothing to do with identity, but rather with – mutual — exploitation. Malcolm was hustling: using somebody for money and power, and being used for sex in the process. What Tatchell reads, blindly, as a story of love and identity was in fact an episode in African-Americans’ ways of confronting subjugation. Tatchell can’t grasp that the interaction, however much one of exchange, was founded on the partners’ inequality. Its contribution  to Malcolm’s ideology, if it had one, surely was to deepen his awareness of how intimate both exploitation and resistance were, how they shaped experience at all levels. In taking the relationship as equal affection,  Tatchell erases African-Americans’ historical passage. A white man has no right to do that. But this is one rights issue Tatchell greets with indifference.

No surprise, then, that Tatchell himself hustled to latch on to Whitney Houston. Nothing like milking a dead celebrity for publicity! Within six hours of her death Tatchell was tweeting about her “#lesbian partner in 1980s”! He parlayed this into plenty of press, and a slightly creepy piece in the Daily Mail.  None of his story quite checks out. It’s strange, for one thing, that a deeply closeted celebrity would meet the most famous practioner of outing in the UK, and say to him, “Hello, Mr. Tatchell! This is my lesbian partner!” But hey: it upped the Lexis-Nexis count.

Two, though, can play ventriloquist. The blog Racism Remixed has decided to tell us what Tatchell really meant. Their reconstruction is here — and reblogged below:

Whitney Houston- The Unofficial Inside Story – By PETER TATCHELL

Peter Tatchell grave robber

Tatchell has taken Whitney Houston’s death as an opportunity to ‘out’ another black person. It appears that ‘Whitney’s REAL tragedy was giving up her greatest love of all – her female partner Robyn Crawford’ http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2103164/Whitney-Houstons-REAL-tragedy-giving-female-partner-Robyn-Crawford.html

NOTE:PETEY LOVES ADDING CREATIVELY TO OTHER PEOPLE’S HISTORIES AND BIOGRAPHIES, SO WE THOUGHT WE MIGHT, TOO.

I met Whitney and her female partner at the Reach Out & Touch HIV vigil in London in 1991.

Whitney spoke movingly in support of people with HIV, at a time when many other stars kept their distance. Her support was much valued.

She advocated the welfare and human rights of people with HIV. It was a commendable stand.

I have, in the past, declined to name Whitney’s female partner EVEN THOUGH YOU KNOW HOW I LOVE A GOOD OUTING, AND HAVE FOR A WHILE BEEN FASCINATED IN THE INTIMATE LIVES OF BLACK PEOPLE MOST OF WHOM YOU KNOW ARE ON THE DL OR MSM, I MEAN WSW (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/oct/20/malcolm-x-bisexual-black-history). SEE I AM NOT AS SEXIST AS PEOPLE SAY I AM, AND I DO CARE ABOUT LESBIANS, EVEN WHEN THEY ARE BLACK. MOST of the media DO TOO, AND have since named her PARTNER as Robyn Crawford, SO HERE GOES. WHITNEY’S FEMALE PARTNER WAS NONE OTHER THAN ROBYN CRAWFORD. 

When I met them, it was obvious they were madly in love. Their intimacy and affection was so sweet and romantic. LESBIANS ARE ADORABLE AND MATE FOR LIFE.

They held hands in the back of the car like teenage sweethearts. Clearly more than just friends, BECAUSE WHEN LESBIANS HOLD HANDS IT BASICALLY MEANS THE SAME AS WHEN WE ARE HAVING SEX, AND WOMEN WHO ARE NOT HAVING SEX WITH EACH OTHER NEVER HOLD HANDS, they were a gorgeous couple, EVEN I COULD SEE THAT AND I’M WHITE, I MEAN, AND I’M GAY, and so happy together. To see their love was infectious and uplifting. BLACK PEOPLE, FINALLY UPLIFTED IN MY EYES, AFTER CENTURIES OF TRYING ON THEIR OWN. I WAS CERTAINLY UPLIFTED. I FELT LIKE I WAS WALKING ON AIR. IT WAS AMAZING. 

Whitney was happiest and at the peak of her career when she was with Robyn. I KNOW THIS BECAUSE WE WERE CLOSE FRIENDS AND TALKED ON THE PHONE EVERY NIGHT ABOUT MATTERS OF THE HEART. AND EVEN IF WE DIDN’T, I KNOW TRUE LOVE BETWEEN BLACK PEOPLE WHEN I SEE IT. Sadly, she suffered BLACK family and BLACK church pressure to end her greatest love of all.

She was fearful of the effects that lesbian rumours might have on her family, reputation and career. SHE TOLD ME THIS ON MYSPACE. AND EVEN IF SHE DIDN’T, I KNEW IT ANYWAY BECAUSE I’M A JOURNALIST. KIND OF. WELL I WRITE FOR THE GUARDIAN A LOT. AND WHEN THE GUARDIAN DOESN’T WANT ME I’M HAPPY TO GO TO THE DAILY MAIL GIVEN THEIR GREAT RECORD ON GAY RIGHTS REPORTING. Eventually she succumbed. The result? A surprise marriage to Bobby Brown.

The marriage was a disaster. Bad boy Bobby was never her true soul mate. I KNOW THIS BECAUSE SHE TOLD ME ON MSN MESSENGER. Giving up Robyn – they’d been inseparable for years – must have been emotionally traumatic.

Whitney’s life started going downhill soon afterwards. Previously wholesome AND AS PURE AS THE DRIVEN SNOW EXCEPT THAT SHE WAS BLACK and clean-living, she went on drink-and-drug binges – evidence of a troubled personal life and much unhappiness.

I’M NO PSYCHOLOGIST, PERSONAL FRIEND OF WHITNEY’S OR EXPERT ON ADDICTION, BUT it seems likely that the split with Robyn contributed to her substance abuse and decline. There is a known correlation between denial of one’s sexuality and a propensity to self-destructive behaviour. DAN SAVAGE SAYS SO TOO, AND YOU KNOW THERE’S A LOT OF MONEY IN THAT NOW. Homophobia undoubtedly added to the pressures on Whitney and hastened her demise.

Soon after her very sad death, I was quoted as saying that Whitney was happiest when she loved a woman. Some fans accused me of ‘insulting’ and ‘smearing’ her. (SMEARING IS ONE OF MY FAVOURITE WORDS EVER, AS MY FANS AND REGULAR READERS MAY KNOW). BUT ACTUALLY THE MOST INSULTING THING I’VE EVER SAID ABOUT WHITNEY HOUSTON IS THE TITLE OF THIS ARTICLE, IMPLYING THAT HER SUPPOSED BREAK UP FROM HER SUPPOSED SOUL MATE IS MORE TRAGIC THAN HER ACTUAL UNTIMELY DEATH. SORRY FRIENDS AND FAMILY, BUT AN OVERDOSE IS NEVER AS SAD AS WHEN TWO SUPPOSED LESBIANS PART WAYS.

But there is nothing shameful about a woman loving a woman. It’s not dirty or sordid and shouldn’t be kept hidden. FORGET ALL THE JOKES ABOUT FISH SMELL AND CARPET MUNCHING YOU HAVE HEARD GAY MEN SAY.

PEOPLE WHO DO KEEP IT HIDDEN ARE BLACK. I MEAN CLOSETED. OR IS IT HOMOPHOBIC? SELF-HATING? ANYWAY, DON’T KEEP IT HIDDEN FOLKS, BE PROUD AND WEAR A RAINBOW.

I did not out her as lesbian/ bisexual. APART FROM WITH THIS ARTICLE, BUT SHE’S ALREADY DEAD, SO. She semi-outed herself by dedicating her albums to Robyn. NO WOMAN EVER DEDICATES HER ALBUM TO ANOTHER WOMAN UNLESS SHE’S HAVING HAND HOLDING SEX WITH THEM. EXCEPT FOR WHEN SOME FEMALE ARTISTS DEDICATE THEIR ALBUMS TO THEIR MOTHERS. BUT EVEN THEN, YOU GOTTA WONDER, RIGHT?

Years ago, she was outed by Bobby’s sister, Tina, and by her former bodyguard, Kevin Ammons. THEY DID IT FIRST FOLKS! 

Bobby Brown hinted in his autobiography that she married him to dispel lesbian rumours: ‘I believe her agenda was to clean up her image … The media was accusing her of having a bisexual relationship with her assistant, Robin [sic] Crawford … that didn’t go too well with her image. In Whitney’s situation, the only solution was to get married … [to] kill all speculation.’ AND IF ANYONE KNOWS THE TRUTH OF WHITNEY HOUSTON’S HEART, IT’S BOBBY NOT-HOUSTON’S-SOULMATE BROWN. 

Telling the truth does not besmirch Whitney’s memory. It honours the most important relationship she ever had. I KNOW IT WAS THE MOST IMPORTANT RELATIONSHIP SHE EVER HAD BECAUSE SHE TOLD ME ON FACEBOOK. APOLOGIES TO WHITNEY’S FAMILY MEMBERS – YOU GUYS DIDN’T MAKE THE LIST. BUT DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY – LESBIANS ARE OBSESSED WITH ROMANCE AND DENOUNCE ALL OTHER INTERACTIONS AS INSIGNIFICANT AND MEANINGLESS. THE LGBT PSYCHIATRIST WHO’S NOW PART OF MY CAMPAIGN SAYS IT’S CALLED CODEPENDENCE.

What’s wrong is ignoring or denying the one love that made her truly happy, NOT OUTING PEOPLE AND BELITTLING THEIR DEATHS.

Homophobia contributed to Whitney’s fall.

I want to see a more tolerant society where people don’t feel the need to marry – UNLESS IT’S A GAY MARRIAGE – to deflect rumours of homosexuality, and where they are not driven to self-destruction because of their inability to accept and express their love for a person of the same sex AND I ALSO WANT MORE FAMOUS BLACK PEOPLE TO DIE SO I CAN WRITE ABOUT HOW THEY WERE REALLY GAY LIKE I DID WITH MALCOLM X.

Achieving this goal would be a fitting tribute to Whitney Houston AND TO MY SAVINGS ACCOUNT: sort code – 8-5-E 18-R 15-O  account number – 19-S 1-A 22-V 9-15-O 21-U 18-R