I’m Scared of Paranoia

Is it just me, or do we live in a CULTURE OF PARANOIA?

It seems like I spend a large proportion of my waking hours these days typing in passwords, jumping through security hoops.  What is your mother’s maiden name? Nope! Wrong answer!

OK, maybe I’m only annoyed because I just spent half an hour trying to save a photoshop document on a new laptop. It seems that I hadn’t assigned the correct permissions and in fact, didn’t have enough privileges, who knew? This after spending 45 minutes trying to copy the folders over from another computer. Once again a simple task becomes a lengthy ordeal, all because of automated, built-in and completely unnecessary security features.

But the indignance I feel goes deeper than a momentary irritation. I am constantly being reminded that I do not have access to information, do not have any control or influence over the things in my life that that I am told are very, very important. In order to navigate this labyrinth of classified information about me, I have to remember a long list of passcodes, usernames, ID numbers and so on. Each little virtual world that intersects with mine demands of me that I come up with a secret key, one that may or may not be case-sensitive, contain numbers or letters or periods or dashes or slashes, and which will be graded on a scale of one to ten for the strength of its secure-ness. I must treasure this key, store it carefully someplace where nobody else will have access to it, (uh, really?) and never, ever forget it–or dire things will happen!  Perhaps I will have to spend 30 minutes blundering through some internet maze or waiting on hold to speak to a useless and apologetic customer service representative. Perhaps I will be charged a fee for replacement identification, late payment or a special service that protects me from all the bad people out there who for some reason want to be me.

If I could be paid a minimum wage for all the time I’ve spent satisfying the demands of “security”, I would have several tens of thousands of dollars coming to me by now.

And then there’s the ramped -up obstacle course of paranoia that makes traveling a draconian torture. I’ve been felt up, had my possessions impounded, been intimidated and humiliated– in airports, colleges, government buildings and train stations.

In spite of all this policing of me and mine, I do not feel safe. I do not feel secure. I am beset by risks and avoidable losses. Here are some examples:

Should I leave my expensive eyeglasses behind at my assigned seat on an airplane, no flight attendant upon finding them will feel obligated or even empowered to make sure that, if I later try to recover them, I can do so. The glasses will simply begin their inexorable journey to a warehouse filled with mountains of lost glasses, located somewhere near Baton Rouge.

If I wildly leave my wallet out on a table in a crowded library, while dashing to the reference desk to sign up for another 20 minutes on the public computer, which is even now ticking away the last allotted moments before I’m to be booted out of the network security system, so that I’ll never be able to finish my application for a job/grant/loan/copy of my birth certificate in time, that wallet will absolutely disappear in three seconds. Despite the fact that everybody knows that somebody in the room stole that wallet, the real life security guys naturally won’t do anything about this theft except fill out a report and advise me to search through trash cans.

Strangers will walk up to me and apologize for existing in the same room at the same time as such a debacle. It is appalling to witness in actual life a routine and complete lack of effectiveness in basic security. This is a fact that is profoundly inconsistent with the fantastic, paranoid culture we live in, where law and order are supposed to be a desirable and achievable reality.

As we all know, if I lose my wallet, a phalanx of fiery hoops rises before me. Until I undergo an inconvenient and costly passage, a rebirth of sorts, I do not in fact exist as a person. For a time I am locked out of my former paradise, that state of Being Myself. Nobody can be Me if I can’t. And I can’t, not without my ID, credit cards, health insurance documents  and photo of my dog/child/lover wearing wings/shaving cream/boxer shorts on head.

But back to the internet. Despite all the virtual security encircling me in glowing hoops, I have less privacy than ever, and feel constantly attacked and spied upon.

Although I can assure you that there is little to be gained from stealing my identity,  I am told that everyone wants to and can easily hijack being Me at any moment, in spite of (or possibly because of) all the glowing  virtual hoops. Yet this Identity does not ever really belong to me, I must constantly be prepared to supply incontrovertible proof that I am indeed Myself.  Myself is now a cypher, a code in a computer somewhere, a conduit for digital cash flowing endlessly into and out of digital coffers: milk, eggs, telephone services, coffee, electricity, dental work, lingerie, all reduced to digits in a stream.

And everywhere I am told, “We will not sell your personal information, ever– now please fill in the required information on the form.” Then digital cookies get passed around, and a picture of me builds up in the database. What I read (comics, leftist blogs, police brutality reports); sexual preferences; art supply purchases; addresses I’ve lived at, screen names, passwords, friends’ names, email.

On the computers I use, my most “secret” information is automatically encrypted, and instantly provided to me at my request. While I have no idea what the little dots mean anymore, anyone who sits down at my computer can easily empty my bank account in a few clicks. Still, I can’t copy a file over the network to my laptop without verifying my identity to myself.

All in all, our culture of fear, of secrets protected and secrets revealed, hasn’t benefited me one bit.  Besides, I don’t really want a job in security or security systems, the armed forces, IT or even bill collections.

And what of my true secrets? What of my secret pain, my secret love, my secret self-hatred? What has been protected, and what revealed by all of this madness?

I still live in a world where “teacher” means “disciplinarian”; where families riding in cars are riddled with bullets, maybe just because Dad either didn’t hear, or didn’t understand the word “stop” shouted in Arabic and/or English.

I stay on the defensive, always. Those mysterious digits bound to my name as irrevocably as a social security number, the ones that credit score companies will provide to anyone for a fee–a fee which I may be obliged to pay on behalf of the requesting party–now define my individual rank and value, my morality, my fitness to work or learn, and of course, my capacity to buy. The credit score is nothing more nor less than a de facto financial class system. One credit score company recently ran advertisements suggesting that my personal relationships– love, marriage and parenthood–also depend on these numbers, these digits over which I have such tenuous control.

So for the sake of defending the sanctity of my personal data from constant attack, I must spend my hours in drudgery. Hours that might have been spent singing, writing a poem, dandling a baby, planting a seed. This is the crime, the real theft of my identity. This is the tyranny of “security”.

.  .   .

In my imagination, you are all laughing at me behind my back for writing this.

OK, now I’m being paranoid. Maybe I should just shut up and fill in the blanks.


Another irony is the fact that I have to put my e-mail address into this site in order to comment, despite the fact that the site *swears* it won’t be “published,” whatever that means.

I work in IT. I work in network security. I have a very high level of paranoia, especially where information and technology are concerned.

And I think you’re absolutely correct, particularly about all of the “security theatre” at the airports. It’s all a show and doesn’t really do that much good. If someone were truly bent on “getting you” on a plane, they’d do it. The way we allow our citizens to be treated it nothing short of a tragedy. I think your post sums up the state of things very well.

We don’t need better, more secure technology. We need better citizens. Not in other countries, either.


Well said, Justin. But where do better citizens come from? Is there, perhaps, a special on them at Big Lots? Because we’ll need a good many.

The Dadas insisted nearly a century ago that the solution to all social ills is “universal unemployment, with small beer and potatoes for everyone!”

Maybe they were onto something. If we all had a fair share of the pie, there would be nothing to lose, and nothing worth stealing.

I’m not saying we should engage in some sort of glorious revolution of the masses, although I can think of a well-kept lawn or two that would look very fetching decorated with a tent city of the homeless, rather than some quaint jockey sculpture.

As much as anyone, I’ve bought into the idea that my stuff matters. I’m told that my prized possessions are a god-given right that must be protected, are more important even than many other people’s potentials, dreams, their very lives. How much stuff do I really need? What wouldn’t I give up for the people I love? Are strangers so much less than they?

Say I walk down the street and a distraught, sly or mumbling person asks me for a handout. I don’t usually cough up, not because of the extremity of my poverty, but because of a fear of being “had”, an unwillingness to engage in a conversation with somebody weird and possibly funny-smelling, and a suspicion that I might be drawn ever deeper into a relationship lacking the kinds of boundaries I’m accustomed to.

In the end what I give up in my life–ease of intimacy, compassion, and a sense of adventure– is hardly compensated for by what I get. Namely, control over the space around me, convenience, and the illusion of privacy.

An nice, sterile place to be alone in with my stuff. Isn’t that what we all want?

This was a really powerful post Rebecca. Despite and maybe because of all the technological so called progress we are all becoming more and more alone, looking forward to logging in and spending time with our one consistent companion- the computer, which by nature has no agenda, outside of its automatic cold scepticism of our access rights and programmed in algorithms of information control. (you wanna copy that file on your hard drive?! DING! think again!) I think most people live with that shade of paranoia already, but since everyone has it it is all the harder to notice, except in less warm interactions with friends, and in increased second guessing of the motives of strangers.

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