“Big Brother is watching you.”
The phrase originated with George Orwell in his classic novel “1984,” but the idea has touched a nerve across the country since the revelation that the National Security Agency engaged in wholesale surveillance of millions of U.S. citizens through a secret data-mining program. The agency used phone records, email and Internet search histories to gather information as part of its anti-terrorism efforts.
“You should not be surprised that your information is out there,” said Dale Brooker, chairman of the Criminal Justice and Social Justice Department at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish. “I’m not surprised. This is nothing new.”
Some experts have maintained that such information has been collected for as long as the information has been accessible. And they say it will continue because Americans have accepted the idea of opening up private records and details of their lives to strangers all over the world by disclosing personal information on the Internet.
“Intelligence gathering has increased in its intensity because of the amount of information that’s out there and available,” said Brooker.
Donald Lynch, professor of psychology at Unity College, said much of the information has already been made available by people voluntarily. Bill-paying habits and other financial records, online shopping and social networking all convey a breadth and depth of personal information that consumers choose to overlook, he said.
“Central Maine Power knows when I get up, when I take a shower, when I do laundry,” Lynch said. “It’s kind of scary.”
Still, nearly everyone agrees that a truly private life could be one of the casualties of the quest for security in a world made smaller and more intrusive through technology, Brooker said.
Several polls conducted last week indicate that Americans — including those 18 to 29 years old — are almost evenly split on whether the government should have access to phone records and other information about its citizens to fight terrorism. But many said they worry about exactly who would be targeted and just how much privacy would be lost.
Over the past half-century — and particularly the past decade — sweeping changes in culture, politics and international relations have erupted from what Brooker calls “social earthquakes” — events or developments that dramatically change social life or people’s perception of it. The civil rights movement and the swift transformation of technology, for example, each represented social earthquakes, he said.
And then there was 9/11.
“That was a global social earthquake,” Brooker said. “This (NSA surveillance) is an aftershock of that.”
Terrorism sparked an immediate, profound fear in Americans, Brooker said, producing the conditions that led to such measures as the Patriot Act and to monitoring and detaining those believed to be linked to terrorist groups.
With recent tragedies such as the Boston Marathon bombings, the need for more vigorous security seems even more compelling, he said.
‘THERE’S A CERTAIN AMBIVALENCE’
But not everyone is comfortable with that notion. For many people, security suggests safety, not scrutiny.
“I think people are kind of torn here,” said Monsignor Michael Henchal, a Catholic priest with decades of experience in keeping the private lives of parishioners confidential in the confessional.
As pastor of parishes in South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough, he senses that these issues can often raise conflicting feelings, loyalties and questions.
“There’s a tension,” he said. “There’s a certain ambivalence here.”
With social media such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, for example, most people are aware that virtually anything about a person can be publicized, Henchal said.
“A lot of things about … life are public that have never been before,” he said. Almost everyone with a phone is automatically equipped with a camera. That fact alone can be used to share personal moments at family celebrations or dinner parties — a harmless, even positive human connection.
“But the constant exposure in the long run can be difficult,” he said, particularly if people have to be hypervigilant about every conversation or interaction. Spontaneity dissolves; trust dissipates, he said.
“If you think everything you say can be made public, will you feel free to say it out loud?” Henchal said. “I think it is much more difficult than it was in the past.”
Lynch. the psycology professor, said the incremental loss of privacy poses the risk of becoming an avalanche of intrusion.
Not so long ago, parishioners confided in their priests and ministers, seeking guidance. Then, many turned to psychotherapists and counselors for help.
Even today, many women reveal their secrets to their hairstylist, rather than other confidants.
“People talk to their hairdressers,” said Holly Fent, co-owner of Hair It Is in Portland. “I’m a safe place; I’m a sounding board. Sometimes they just want someone to listen.”
The one-on-one, in-person exchanges kept the numbers of people who knew one’s secrets low.
But the personal touch that characterized much of American life for two centuries has disappeared with more technology, experts have pointed out. Now, many people don’t know even the names of their neighbors, and their friends may be defined by Facebook.
“Privacy doesn’t have the same meaning as it did,” said Brooker. “Privacy for me is not what it was for someone living in the 1950s. … Now, even devices in the home gather information.”
‘FRAMERS … WOULD BE APPALLED’
The sudden skyrocketing sales of Orwell’s mid-20th century classic “1984” could be one indication of how Americans view the NSA surveillance program. Sales on Amazon of the book about a country held hostage by a shadowy totalitarian dictator known as “Big Brother” had increased nearly 6,000 percent by midweek.
Even President Obama referred to the book in his defense of the NSA program. “In the abstract,” he said, “you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, then I think we’ve struck the right balance.”
Still, many people say they find it disturbing that they unwittingly have likely been among those being heard, monitored and tracked. The revelation by 29-year-old whistleblower Edward Snowden, an employee for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, of the federal government’s intrusion into the private lives of Americans has reawakened concerns over issues of privacy, secrecy, safety and security.
It also serves as a reminder that what people choose and want to keep private evolves with concerns over national security.
“It’s the first time I’ve been frightened by something like this,” said mental health counselor Jennifer Lunden, founder and executive director of the Center for Creative Healing in Portland.
Lunden, whose profession is predicated on the need for and guarantee of confidentiality, trust and safety for clients, said she is concerned about who would be targeted for surveillance or for wiretaps.
“That could be activists,” she said. “It has been activists.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the NSA’s phone surveillance, undertaken under provisions of the Patriot Act. The routine combing of virtually every call placed within, from or to the U.S. violates the First Amendment right to free speech and the right to privacy guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment, the lawsuit argues.
“The bottom line is our system is based on checks and balances,” noted Brooker, a constitutional specialist. “The framers (of the Constitution) would be appalled at what’s taking place,” he said, adding that they were far more wary than present-day leaders of the way government might overstep its bounds.
“This unchecked power is balanced by the need to do everything necessary to protect Americans,” Brooker acknowledged. But how best to achieve that balance is neither simple nor clear, he said.
“What are we willing to give up as citizens to fight terrorism?” he said.
Lynch said notions of privacy have changed significantly, especially in the wake of terrorism.
“There are many of us who don’t care about privacy,” he said. “So many people seem not to mind. They want to be secure.”
North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: