Monthly Archives: February 2013

The End of Privacy

I have long argued that the women’s health and feminist movements mounted a weak strategy when they called for “pro-choice” perspectives in the discourse over abortion. In my view, we would have greater success winning the hearts and minds of Americans during the debates that swirl around reproductive rights and abortion if we focused on everyone’s right to privacy. Think about it: medically unnecessary vaginal ultrasounds constitute a violation of privacy. And don’t politicians who argue in favor of such invasions of women wish to keep their sexual peccadilloes private? Who can be against privacy?

Yet, now come invasions of personal privacy on such a massive scale that the mind boggles. When the world learned about the hacking scandals carried out by Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers it was a wake-up call of sorts, but since then other hacking stories have sent chills up our spines, not the least of which was learning that the Chinese had hacked into The New York Times and other news media.

No wonder this sort of thing, not to mention the real possibility of large-scale cyber-attacks, have become the newest worry among intelligence and military communities. Indeed, computer hacking is now so pervasive that a search of the Internet will take you to sites where you can learn to hack yourself. We are all at risk of being hacked all the time.

Or of having our credit card numbers used, our social security numbers stolen, our buying proclivities shared, our screens flooded with targeted advertising based on recent online searches, our whereabouts known, and so much more. As a journalist who often conducts research via the Internet, I shudder to think how many message minders believe I’m into child porn, sexual slavery, domestic violence and now, learning how to hack computers.

Invasions of privacy are also taking place routinely at many workplaces. According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, “new technologies make it possible for employers to monitor many aspects of their employees’ jobs, especially on telephones, computer terminals, through electronic and voice mail, and when employees are using the Internet. Such monitoring is virtually unregulated. Therefore, unless company policy specifically states otherwise (and even this is not assured), your employer may listen, watch and read most of your workplace communications.”

The same source reveals that medical privacy is fragile at best. Although the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 2003, known as HIPAA, set a national standard for privacy of health information, it only applies to medical records “maintained by health care providers, health plans, and health clearinghouses – and only if the facility conducts certain transactions electronically.” But a lot of health-related information exists outside of health care facilities and health plans, so it is beyond the reach of HIPAA. How much privacy you really have with respect to your medical information can depend upon where the records are located. And “confidentiality is likely to be lost in return for insurance coverage, an employment opportunity, your application for a government benefit, or an investigation of health and safety at your work site.”
Video surveillance is another way to intrude upon people as they navigate their daily lives. One BBC report written in 2006 revealed that Britain, dubbed “the most surveilled country in the world,” had at that time 4.2 million cameras poised to photograph its citizens and visitors all over the country. That’s one camera for every 14 British people. By 2016, the Surveillance Studies Network of Great Britain has predicted, “shoppers could be scanned as they enter stores, schools could bring in cards allowing parents to monitor what their children eat, and jobs may be refused to applicants who are seen as a health risk.”

New York City is not far behind. Last year a new Domain Awareness System was installed that so far has 3,000 cameras in place. Developed with Microsoft, the mayor’s office touts it as “an innovative tool that has the potential to revolutionize law enforcement, intelligence and public safety operations.” Unlike simpler camera surveillance networks, the new system “instantly gives officers massive amounts of information about what they are monitoring.”

There is, of course, an argument to be made for such spying in a time of terrorism and urban crime. But there is also the legitimate worry that Big Brother has, indeed, arrived.
Whatever your point of view is on increased surveillance whether by bosses, doctors or drones, we would all be wise to watch out for hackers, identify thieves, and marketers. Given the increasingly complex and intrusive world we live in, personal privacy is a civil rights issues that bears watching. Protecting it is a choice we should all be in favor of.

Upcoming Workshops!!!

From Harriet Tubman to Harry Potter: Exploring Our Archetypal Journeys

Thurs. April 4 and April 11, 7:00 pm to 8.30 pm
Main Street Arts, Saxtons River, Vt. (www.mainstreetarts.org)

What do King Arthur, Luke Skywalker, Harriet Tubman and Harry Potter have in common? They all have a great story to tell. But it’s more than an exciting narrative: Each of them has been on an archetypal journey – a heroic exploration, full of adventure, fraught with risk, and ultimately rich with reward. As they seek to find meaning in a complex world, each of these characters is changed forever by their experience, an experience peopled with mentors, villains, jesters, and other archetypes. This workshop will help us explore our own archetypal journeys as we reach for the “Golden Fleece” in our lives. Minimum enrollment: 6.

Main Street Arts for fee information; Register, eclift@vermontel.net or 802-869-2686.

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Identity and Culture on the Page; A Writing Workshop About Our Roots

Sat. June 8, 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
The Writer’s Center, White River Junction, Vt. (www.thewriterscenterwrj.com)
$40

“By having roots, you can see the direction in which you want to go.”
Joenia Wapixana, Brazilian

Culture and tradition play a large part in shaping our individual and group identities. This workshop, which draws upon cultural traditions, rituals and experience, provides an opportunity to write about who we are and where we come from – geographically, historically, and emotionally. Whether whimsical or wise, join in crafting written explorations that takes us back to our roots.

To register or for more information: eclift@vermontel.net or 802-869-2686
(Min. 5, Max 8 participants)

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Finding the Golden Fleece — Writing Our Archetypal Journeys

Sept. 7 – 15

Rancho La Puerta, Tecate, Mexico (www.rancholapuerta.com)

Check out the Ranch, voted best destination spa in the world 2011 & 2012! Week includes 4 writing workshops and an evening talk “From Doctors to Doulas: The Art and Heart of Women’s Healing” – and that’s just from me! Lots of other offerings in this very special place. Registration not required but reservations are.

What do heroic literary figures like King Arthur and Harry Potter, or real-life people like Harriet Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe have in common? They all have a great story to tell. But it’s more than an exciting narrative: Each of them has been on an archetypal journey – a heroic exploration, full of adventure, fraught with risk, and ultimately rich with reward. As they seek to find meaning in a complex world, these characters or people are changed forever by experiences peopled with mentors, villains, jesters, and other archetypes. We’ll explore our own archetypal journeys as we reach for the “Golden Fleece” in our lives. Come prepared to write, share and have fun!

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Breaking Silence: Writing Our Way to the Truth of Our Lives

Oct. 18 – 20
The Strong House Inn, Vergennes, Vt. (www.stronghouseinn.com)
$325

“What would happen if just one woman told the truth about her life?” That simple question, posed by poet Muriel Rukeyser, became iconic in the 1970s, when women writers of the “Second Wave” first began telling their stories openly and honestly. Rukeyser’s answer to her own question was “The world would split apart.”

Beginning with an evening talk about the history and meaning of women’s diaries, journals and memoirs, we will explore the enforced silence of “good girls and fine ladies” that kept women marginalized and invisible for centuries — until a few brave souls among them put pen to paper, which they have done (often surreptitiously) throughout history. What will these women inspire in us as we break our own silence in order to tell some truths about our lives (without going down any dark rabbit holes)? Come prepared to be surprised by what you remember, reflect upon, write, laugh about, and share.

All inclusive Retreat Package: 2 nights lodging, 2 breakfasts, 1 lunch, 1 afternoon tea, 2 light dinners and teacher fee – $325 per person, double occupancy or $400 single.

Space is limited. Register at 802-877-3337

The Drone Dilemma

I had to see the controversial film “Zero Dark Thirty” for myself in order to decide if, as charged, it advanced the case for “enhanced interrogation methods,” military-speak for torture. It did not, in my view. What it did was affirm the hideous and inhumane nature of torture no matter where it is carried out, and by whom. It should never be used by any country that positions itself as a moral leader.

Now I need to see the documentary “Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield.” It is likely to confirm my growing antipathy toward the ever-increasing use of drones, especially following the recently leaked memo that has alarmed so many in public and private quarters.

Reading a piece by George Monbiot in the Guardian in December made me think about drones. The essay, called “Bug Splats,” was written shortly after the Newtown massacre. Why, Mr. Monbiot, wondered, were the murders of children by a deranged man in Connecticut any more worthy of the world’s grief than the children killed in countries like Pakistan as a matter of American policy? If the victims of drone strikes are mentioned at all, he wrote, “they are discussed in terms which suggest they are less than human.” An article in Rolling Stone Magazine, he said, alleged that “people who operate drones describe their casualties as ‘bug splats’ since seeing bodies through a green video image gives them the sense of an insect being crushed.”

This is harsh and emotional stuff. So I went in search of fact and further opinion. Facts were hard to come by since much of what happens with drones is classified. But here are some things I learned. The Pentagon has about 7,000 drones. A decade ago it had 50 of them. In the 2012 budget the Obama administration asked Congress for almost $5 billion for more drones, now seen as crucial for fighting terrorism. A reported 1,900 insurgents in Pakistan’s tribal regions have been killed by American drones since 2006 and in 2011 a drone killed Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.

Here’s the problem: the United States is not at war with Pakistan or Yemen and that makes their use in these countries officially illegal. For the first time in history a civilian intelligence agency is using robots to carry out military missions – killing people – in countries where the U.S. is not officially at war.

Proponents of drone use argue that so long as they are grounded in sound intelligence information, they enable the U.S. to attack terrorists with a fair degree of precision without risking American lives. Mistakes happen in war, they say, but not as much “collateral damage” – killing of innocents – occurs as would if bombs or troops were being used. If we didn’t use drones, they argue, what action could the U.S. take to stop Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations?

But concerns are beginning to surface as drones become more ubiquitous and more deadly. A United Nations panel led by Ben Emmerson, special investigator for the UN Human Rights Council, has begun to look at “drone strikes and other forms of remotely targeted killing.” Of particular concern are 25 selected drone strikes that have been conducted in recent years in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Palestinian territories. Noting that it is not only the U.S. coming under scrutiny – 50 other states have the technology to develop “active drone arsenals” – Emmerson says “it is completely unacceptable to allow the world to drift blindly toward the precipice without any agreement between states as to the circumstances in which drone strike targeted killings are lawful, and on the safeguards necessary to protect civilians.”

Such safeguards will not come soon enough for the 64 children killed during the first three years of Mr. Obama’s administration. (Drone attacks began during the Bush administration. One of them killed 69 children.) During those three years, a report by the Stanford and New York university law schools suggests, there were 259 drone strikes. They killed an estimated 569 civilians. Some say that is a conservative estimate.

It is worrying, then, that Mr. Obama’s choice to head the CIA is John O. Brennan, deputy national security advisor, a man who calls drone targets “cancerous tumors.” No wonder kids in places like Yemen are afraid to go to school and people think twice before attending weddings or funerals that might be mistaken for a gang of plotters.

Writing in the Guardian in January, Simon Jenkins sounded this alarm: “The greatest threat to world peace…is from drones and their certain proliferation. … Drones are now sweeping the global arms market [with] some 10,000 said to be in service…some reports say they have killed more non-combatant civilians than died in 9-11.”

The threat of serious backlash looms. A Yemeni writer told The New York Times that al Qaeda recruiters “wave pictures of drone-butchered women and children.” National membership of Al Qaeda in Yemen is now three times larger than it was in 2009.

If that doesn’t worry you consider this: last February President Obama signed a law compelling the FAA to allow drone use for commercial endeavors in this country. These uses range from selling real estate to dusting crops and monitoring wildlife. Hollywood may even use drones to film and local police will be freer to deploy flying robots. While drone manufacturers drool, safety concerns increase.

I understand that drones, used with an abundance of caution for selective anti-terrorism operations, backed by stringent legislation, may be a necessary part of our arsenal. But
I can’t get the picture of those innocent children out of my mind. And no one should have to fear going to school, attending a wedding or mourning at a funeral, especially when the one being buried is a child.