YES! Big Brother Has Always Been Watching


By Lew Marcus
NEPAtoday Magazine Editor


I'd like to know who didn't know that the United States government had been listening in ourNEPAtoday Magazine Editor Lew Marcus telephone conversations and reading our emails. I've known about this since the mid-1970s. In the mid-60s, when I wasn't even in college yet, I was sure that 1984 had arrived and that Big Brother was listening in on the telephone lines. Shit, when I visited my Aunt Marion in farmland New Jersey just before the Beatles invaded America I knew that the lady down the highway was listening in to every call on the party line. We've just made it more sophisticated and certainly more high-tech than actually having to listen to every call to find out where the teenagers will be making out tonight.

   We've been tinkering with the telephone since it was invented. I remember a fraternity brother of mine in high school in the 60s rebuilding his mother's black rotary dial telephone so that he could shut off the bell whenever he planned on skipping school. When the vice principal called to see where he was, his mother never got the call. It wasn't long after, when I was a copy boy at The Tribune, that I learned of the "pin register," this mechanical device that recorded the telephone calls of any target of an investigation authorized by a judge. But in those days they were looking for bookies when the object of enforcement was the organized crime and its gambling operations instead of international terrorism.

   I wasn't at all surprised that we have government agencies, mostly known by their alphabetic designations (that's acronyms for you folks in Rio Linda), listening in to phone calls. At first the admission, years ago, was that these military intelligence agencies were only listening to overseas conversation. Then it broadened to calls originating overseas into the U.S., and then to all overseas calls in either direction. However, those of us who braved those turbulent Nixon years, when our wildest and most drug-induced paranoia was totally justified, had no doubt whatsoever that Tricky Dicky was listening to our Domino's PizzaTricky Dicky Nixon pn the phone orders. A government that would slide a huge reel-to-reel tape recorder under the hotel bed of civil rights leader Martin Luther King to listen to his foreplay conversations was not above tapping the phone of the local organizer of a fair housing march in some backwater town in America, like Scranton, in the mid-60s. We were scared then. Today, us aging hippies with a few twitches and flashbacks still plaguing us from the Summer of Love, just nod our head sagely when Brian Williams admits that the government is a peeping tom.

   Hell, I was already a veteran of the Penn State riots in 1967 when protestors tried to burn down the Garfield Thomas Water Tunnel, which had huge Navy contracts to test the hydraulics of missiles. I had survived the May Day BOSTON MORATORIUM 1969Moratorium in Boston in 1969 when Abbey Hoffman referred to Paul Revere hanging a lantern in the church to warn if the British were coming as that big strobe light in the tower. I knew it was only a matter of time until they came for us all after the National Guard fired on students, killing four, on the campus of Kent State in 1970. I was ready to move to Montreal two years later when a bunch of Nixon's cronies broke into the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate,

   And it was just a scant two years later that I was now a reporter for The Tribune covering the Federal Beat and I was told by the then U.S. Attorney, S. John Cottone, that there was no such thing as a privileged conversation in America. He said you could not be sure who was listening to your conversations, even those you had with your wife in bed in the middle of the night. I didn't have to ask this man to explain himself. His meaning was clear. Big Brother was listening to your every word.

   Well, not exactly. You first had to attract their attention. The value of the effort was balanced against the perceived threat. Then the government still did not have the resources to actually listen in to every phone call. They listened in on the numbers runner until they got this connection. They followed it up the feeding chain until they got to Mister Big, the person the government perceived to be at the top of the food chain. It was a pyramid in reverse.

   But something happened post Bill Gates. You remember him. He was the guy who said you'd never need more than 64k of memory in a home computer. The world went digital and it suddenly became possible to capture and sort an infinite amount of data. We all knew the paradigm shifted when word leaked out that the government, again one of those mumbled-lettered agencies, was purchasing multiple units of the mammothTHE CRAY TITAN Cray Titan super computers. It was now possible for the government to actually monitor every call it wanted to and store the data for as long as it was necessary. How this actually worked is that the agencies were not at all interested in Aunt Maude helping cousin Hilda's win the flower show. But if Maudie or Hildie used any of that day's buzz words, their phone calls would be flagged for inspection. Maybe Maude started talking about fertilizer for sale down at the Agway. "You know the one, with that nice man from Afghanistan." And then she casually mentioned that Makmed is only too happy to load the ammonium nitrate into your van for you. And, of course, she would warn Hildie that they had to get the load home before the big blow. The Cray Titan didn't know that Maude was referring to a Nor'easterner and not to setting off a bomb. But the FBI was there the next day anyway.

   Well holy moley, how did you figure the government knew about all those terrorist plots that it twarted? There are only so many cells that you can infiltrate. That is an outdated methodology. Sooner or later even Osama bin Laden picked up the phone and ordered a case of Viagra from Amazon. And that's where we had him. He triggered the key words and modern technology parses the call, triangulated the signal and nailed his ass to the wall. How far and how long can you stay off the grid before someone somewhere using someone's protocol bumps into a bump in the normal and finds something worth listening to.

   Netflix tells me where I left off in that series I am watching. Amazon suggests things I might want to buy based on what I have already bought. Hulu custom designs commercials for me based on my preferences. And why is that surprising. When I ran marketing campaigns for supermarket chains in the 1980s, we were pumping out coupons to customers based on their shopping patterns. Damn, we could find out the frequency with which you buy toilet paper and give you a couple to a competing brand the week before your next purchase. If Unilever and Proctor & Gamble can do that, why can't the government? Do you think Price Chopper gives you a store card because they want to give you a discount? No, they want to track your every purchase and anticipate your needs. They make more money selling P&G your demographics than they do on each tomato they sell. When Maude calls Hildie on a Friday night instead of that regular Sunday morning call, then there is a bump in the normal and the ABCEFGHIJL Agency wants to know what's up.

   I have a banker who always tells me it is important to let him know in advance when an emergency is coming up. What is the matter with him? How do you plan for the occurrence of an emergency. How do you know when the furnace will break or the neighbor's tree is going to fall on your garage and the insurance company calls it an "act of God." That is definitely a bump in the normal and we all experience that bump from time to time. Nobody told the FBI that Maude is going to her husband's cousin's kid's recital on Sunday; hence, FBI CHIEF J. EDGAR HOOVERthe bump in the normal phone calling practice to Hildie.

   Well, folks, having known about all of this since Hector was a pup, and having seen the paradigm shift from a world beseiged by bookies and pot dealers to anarchists and terrorists, I am fairly happy that someone is listening for the bump in the normal. But it doesn't stop me from looking under my bed every night to see if J. Edgar Hoover is listening.