Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, February 26, 2002


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  1. The Whole World Is Being Watched
  2. Introducing...'Predictive Software'
  3. Robin and His Merry, um, Eliminators
  4. Big Brother and the Cable Company
  5. The UnGagging of Booksellers and Librarians
  6. Implants: Surveillance of the Voluntary Kind
  7. The Dorks Behind the Scenes



It's hard to keep a sense of humor about the world closing in - mostly as a result of the USA Patriot Act - but gee, have you looked around lately?

Hidden cameras, "predictive" software, website tracking, implanted chips, gag orders and all sorts of monitored comings and goings have become a way of life, not just in airports but in every public place in the nation.

Heaven knows the pressure to search for terrorists at home has gotten fierce since 9/11.

But so have violations and invasions that endanger civil liberties. Many observers believe a worst-case scenario has hit the United States Constitution so hard that nobody can do anything about it.

Well, the good news is that gradually Americans are mobilizing against some of the most egregious abuses and are not about to throw up their hands and give up. Not yet.

Here are a few examples, drawn from news reports of the last month or so:

1) The Whole World Is Being Watched

Thousands of surveillance cameras have been installed in so many places and in so many American cities that we don't even see 'em. They're eyeballing us without visible eyeballs while monitors in control centers make the cameras "zoom in close enough to read a Broadway ticket in a scalper's hand 50 feet away," according to National Public Radio.

These cameras use the latest face-recognition technology to match up passers-by with photos of terrorists and local criminals. Big doubts that it works (see #7 below), but experts predict the technology won't end there.

Drivers' license photos will be "the easiest data to get," according to Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Since DMV photos are now digitized, they're the "most likely," he says, "to end up in the database of face recognition technology."

The Fourth Amendment offers no protection because video cameras in public are believed to do the same thing as police officers - they look, they observe, they search for criminals and suspected terrorists in public places.

The only difference is that these "mechanical police officers" are on patrol 24 hours a day, and other government agencies (FBI, CIA, DEA, IRS, etc.) may get to use the information as well. Private security companies have their *own* cameras. Remember how satellites junked up outer space? Well, the litter is coming down to earth to haunt us. We can't see it, but "they" can.

WHAT CAN BE DONE: In the case of New York, the local Civil Liberties Union has created The NYC Surveillance Camera Project, which has mapped the city's cameras and published their locations at http://www.mediaeater.com/cameras/locations.html .

These guys take a cool and pragmatic approach: "Clearly, video surveillance cameras have arrived on the streets of New York City," the NYCLU says. "But it is up to us to decide if they are here to stay, and if they are, then under what conditions...

"The intent of this website is to raise awareness of the prevalence of video surveillance cameras in New York City, explain the threat they pose to our individual freedom, begin a long overdue, much needed dialogue on the topic and recommend ways to curb cameras' infringement on our right of anonymity and to move and associate freely."

And you thought Civil Defense was a Cold War thang. Bravo, NYCLU, and let's hope this effort and this whole way of thinking - we can set the conditions even in an Orwellian scenario - spreads throughout the country.

2) Introducing...'Predictive Software'

Surveillance cameras are crude toys compared to efforts begun at airports to develop "a vast air security screening system designed to instantly pull together every passenger's travel history and living arrangements, plus a wealth of other personal and demographic information," according to the Washington Post.

All that stuff you worried might one day be collected somewhere in cyberspace - info from your credit cards, voting records, supermarket charges, library records, medical history, employment data, court cases, pizza toppings, pharmacy and bookstore purchases - is potential fodder for private and government databases.

And there's more: "Predictive software" now exists that can compile this information as a means to "intuit obscure clues" about the way you live and work and think. The result: a "threat index or score for every passenger" that will follow you wherever you go, stop you at some security gates and let you pass through others.

No longer do suspects have to be caught with bombs hidden in their shoes; this technology is said to be capable of "rooting out and snaring people who intend to commit terrorist acts," the Post explains.

Oy yoy yoy (at times of danger even shiksas get to use the term): It's bad enough that a computer system can collect factual data and store it for later use; but when some master operator arbitrarily selects various data from a person's "living arrangements" and preserves it with the idea of predicting future behavior, oy yoy yoy yoy yoy yoy.

To mention the smallest example that comes to mind, I'd hate to be that young man who was "caught" reading Edward Abbey's "Hayduke Lives" (see #275) at the Philadelphia Airport and denied access to not one but two flights because the book illustration made him look suspicious to agents of the police, airport security, National Guard and State Troopers.

An incident like that - or the letter of dissent you sent to the local newspaper; or the spirited speech you made at a PTA meeting to offer Judy Blume's novels at a school bookfair; or (fill in here) - could mark a person for life.

WHAT CAN BE DONE: At least "predictive software" is new and untried enough to make some big fat mistakes (see #7 below) but heavens, let's be realistic. The purpose of technology is not to go away once it's introduced; in time, it's only going to become more sophisticated and elaborate, especially in this era of terrorism, which looks like it will never end.

Let's again take a lead from those savvy New York activists. We can't stop Big Brother technology, but maybe we can set some conditions. We can identify it, map it, broadcast it on the Internet. We can organize, galvanize, mobilize (and write like pamphleteers, pardon!). Of course we need new ways to protect the country from terrorism; but we also need to protect fundamental civil liberties at the same time. The two must go hand in hand, and we can insist on it.

In the Post article, privacy specialist Richard M. Smith says: "The computer technology is so cheap and getting so much cheaper, you just have to be careful: Turn up the volume a little bit, and we just use the air transportation system to catch everybody."

All right then: Let's pump up the volume by ourselves; let's investigate the technology and tell the world who and what is being watched, and when, and where, and how. When there's a mistake - and boy, the mistakes will be everywhere (see #7) - let's catch 'em, broadcast them and humiliate those sneaky government agents right outta their hidden control centers.

And one more thing: "Theoretically, the system could be calibrated to watch for people with links to restaurants or other places thought to be favored by terrorist cells," the Post says.

Restaurants! What a hotbed of subversive activity! The idea takes guilt by association to a new level (guilt by menu!).

Well, surveillance is easy if nobody knows about it. Sharing information in an unpatriotic place like a restaurant could add a little gravy (excuse me) to civil liberties. Let's all go to restaurants and eat our way to a New Moral Era.

3) Robin and His Merry, um, Eliminators

In the everybody's-gotta-make-a-buck category, you have to hand it to Robin Hood Software, a company that realizes how frightening all this Big Brother surveillance can be.

Here you are surfing the Internet when you come upon a website that's a little risky - say for political, porno or prescription reasons. A few minutes pass by, and then a sign pops up that says, "YOU ARE UNDER INVESTIGATION."

Whoa. You're about to jump out of your skin when another sign appears: "The material you have been viewing has triggered inquiries into your Internet records." Well, that sounds a little fishy. Then comes the giveaway: "Click here to stop this investigation."

Right, it's a dang advertisement. Click there and up comes one of those hokey products you usually see on infomercials. In this case, it's "The Evidence Eliminator!" - a "security application" that "purports to hide every trace of your illicit Internet activities," reports Wired.com. People do take it seriously. "Its fear-inducing spam has flooded the Internet," says Wired.

To me, the intriguing part is that The Evidence Eliminator doesn't care what you're looking at; somehow it only pops up when it senses your paranoia.

WHAT CAN BE DONE: Send an email query: "Do I get a set of steak knives or measuring spoons with that?" If the answer is no, this product will probably end up in the back of a kitchen cyberdrawer anyway.

4) Big Brother and the Cable Company

It does seem the only rational response to our Orwellian era *is* paranoia. Or so ABCnews.com discovered in an interview with Sissy Walker, a Northern Virginia preschool administrator who shops and researches online.

When Walker read in the Washington Post that her cable company, Comcast, "was tracking webpage visits by her and its 1 million other customers without telling them," she "just couldn't believe it."

She worried that "tracking of visits to Web sites might reveal her political positions" and invite spam. She also wanted "to protect the privacy of visits to health websites, lest her research suggest she or someone in her family might have a serious disease."

That's not an unreasonable fear these days. Warnings have been circulating on the Internet for some time to beware researching Alzheimer websites, for example, because you may tip off health insurance companies that somebody in your family has the disease and, if so, that you're a risk for it, too.

WHAT CAN BE DONE: In this case "after a firestorm of complaints from customers and members of Congress, Comcast suggested it simply made an innocent mistake and immediately stopped its tracking practices." Sure it did. And everybody else's cookies are tracking your Internet visits anyway.

But have you been to the public library lately? I love those free computers that are always online. There you can search the Internet, but the Internet can't search you.

5) The UnGagging of Booksellers and Librarians

Speaking of which, librarians and booksellers are here to acquaint us - and teach us to fight - perhaps the most horrifying threat to civil liberties to come down the pike in many a year.

This one is a direct result of the USA Patriot Act. It gives FBI agents new freedom to "demand from bookstores and libraries the names of books bought or borrowed by anyone suspected of involvement in 'international terrorism' or 'clandestine activities,' " writes Nat Hentoff in the Village Voice.

OK, so what else is new, you say. As we've seen from heroic challenges at Tattered Cover in Denver, Kramer Books in Washington D.C. and heaven knows how many libraries across the country, booksellers and librarians have been fighting this kind of invasion for years.

But with the passage of the USA Patriot Act, "once that information is requested by the FBI," Hentoff writes, "a gag order is automatically imposed, prohibiting the bookstore owners or librarians from disclosing to any other person the fact that they have received an order to produce documents."

A gag order! You can bet J. Edgar Hoover is flapping his skirts over this one. A gag order on librarians and booksellers - it's just inconceivable.

"You can't call a newspaper or a radio or television station or your representatives in Congress," Hentoff adds. "You can call a lawyer, but since you didn't have any advance warning that the judge was issuing the order, your attorney can't have objected to it in court. He or she will be hearing about it for the first time from you."

Hentoff can get pretty dramatic at times, but I think he's right (and you know I'm pretty unemotional about these things) when he says that "never in the history of the First Amendment has any suppression of speech been so sweeping and difficult to contest as this one by [Attorney General John] Ashcroft.

"For example, if a judge places a gag order on the press in a case before the court, the press can print the fact that it's been silenced, and the public will know about it.

"But now, under this provision of the USA Patriot Act, how does one track what's going on? How many bookstores and libraries will have their records seized? Are any of them bookstores or libraries that you frequent? Are these court orders part of FBI fishing expeditions, like Ashcroft's mass roundups of immigrants?"

Of course they are, or will be. When FBI agents are given unprecedented power, they don't usually forget about it.

WHAT CAN BE DONE: First, you can read the whole article at http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0209/hentoff.php and send it to everyone you know. Hentoff's interview with Judith Krug, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, is particularly important.

Krug suggests a simple way to respond to the gag rule. Any librarian facing FBI agents demanding information can call Krug at the ALA and say, "I need to talk to a lawyer." It's like a code. Krug will know a sneaky government agent is on the premises and will contact a First Amendment attorney immediately.

The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) gives similar advice to bookstores in a letter you can read at http://www.abffe.com/fisa_letter.html.

Here the idea is to alert the store's lawyer in advance so that the staff member facing the FBI agents can make the kind of sparely worded tip-off call suggested above. "Then either you or your attorney should contact ABFFE so that we can put you in touch with lawyers who are familiar with the law surrounding the privacy of bookstore records," the letter states.

Lawyers upon lawyers upon lawyers - layers of lawyers and lawyers with layers of legal loopholes; it's not a fun prospect, but right now that seems to be the only protection available.

6) Implants: Surveillance of the Voluntary Kind

To understand how quickly this amassing of personal information may proceed, we need look no further than the Jacobs family of Florida.

The three of them - Jeffrey Jacobs; his wife Leslie and their 14-year-old son Derek, have opted to be "implanted with a new identification device - no bigger than a grain of rice - called the VeriChip," according to ABCnews.com.

The reason is that Jeffrey has been severely disabled by Hodgkin's disease as well as a serious car accident. If he's ever in another accident or becomes unconscious in any other way, his entire medical history can be communicated instantly to doctors via a handheld scanner that can read the VeriChip, thus saving valuable time and maybe his life."

Leslie and Derek chose to have the implanted VeriChip as a matter of solidarity and as a way to contribute to medical research. The more information the manufacturer, Applied Digital Solutions, can collect on the uses of VeriChip, the more "a potential lifesaver" it can become, the company says.

So far, Applied Digital Solutions hasn't received Food and Drug Administration Approval for VeriChip, but as soon as it does - "the Jacobs say it could be just a matter of weeks" - the family will have the surgery. A friend calls it "the wave of the future," and he's right.

Granted, the VeriChip could be a breakthrough in medical care for millions, but it does carry new risks as well: Could the VeriChip "ever become mandatory, like an inoculation?" asks ABCnews.

Indeed, could it be the next step after national ID cards, carrying everything from social security numbers to criminal history to political affiliations? Could it one day bear a tiny transmitter that alerts sneaky government agents whenever you forget to cover a burp? Things like that.

"I don't envision a time like that because we live in the USA, [the land of] freedom of speech [and] democracy," says a cheerful spokesperson from the company. "It's your choice. You elect to have a chip because it's gonna provide a benefit to you."

Of course we expect Applied Digital Solutions to downplay the risks. Requests for 2,000 VeriChips have already come in, and orders from three Latin American countries, where FDA approval is not needed, "should approach $2 million" the first year.

WHAT CAN BE DONE: What concerns observers is that VeriChip implants could be recommended by doctors so strongly - as they did with mammograms, and we all know how great that advice was - that the idea of personal choice will fade into the background. Insertion of the VeriChip *at birth* could even become as routine and automatic as antibiotic eyedrops, some say, and then it would be irrevocable. Look what damage Russell Crowe did to his forearm in "A Beautiful Mind" trying to dig his out. (I know he imagines it! The point is he would have bled as badly if it were real.) So while we still have time to investigate the dangers as well as the benefits of VeriChip, and until we know what protections we can build into the law about it, and since the choice is still ours, let's say no.

7) The Dorks Behind the Scenes

Perhaps we're so used to futuristic technology becoming a reality before we're ready that we forget to look for or monitor or publicize mistakes the technology makes early on

Here's an example that's definitely worth publicizing: "Facial recognition technology on the streets of Tampa, Florida is an overhyped failure that has been seemingly abandoned by police officals," says the American Civil Liberties Union in its awkward way (the failure wasn't "overhyped" - is that a word? - the technology was, but we get the point).

"System logs obtained by the ACLU through Florida's open-records law show that the system never identified even a single individual contained in the department's database of photographs," the ACLU explains.

The face recognition program, which began in June 2001, "has not been actively used since August," and while Tampa officials say they stopped the program because of "disruptions caused by police redistricting" (huh?), the ACLU "expressed skepticism" that that's the reason.

If facial recognition technology had proven to be "a valuable tool in the effort to combat crime," the organization says, the cops "would not have let the system sit unused for so long."

Tampa, it turns out, is not alone. Other government agencies have abandoned face recognition systems "after finding they did not work as advertised, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which experimented with using the technology to identify people in cars at the Mexico-U.S. Border."

Similarly, controlled studies of face recognition software - "by the federal government's National Institute of Standards and Technology, by the Defense Department and by independent security expert Richard Smith - have found levels of ineffectiveness similar to those in Tampa."

A person could cheer about news like this except that face recognition software is still the "latest fad in surveillance technology," especially in airports, and is being "increasingly deployed, largely as a means for combating terrorism."

The latest airports mentioned are Logan Airport in Boston, T.F. Green Airport in Providence, R.I., Fresno Airport in California (Fresno?) and Palm Beach International Airport in Florida.

But since the technology hasn't ironed out all the kinks, it's possible that Osama bin Laden is going to float through security carrying three automatic rifles (for medical reasons) while the guy reading "Hayduke Lives" will be carted off to the Men in Black for interrogation.

We can assume mistakes like this will happen because "facial recognition systems are of little use without a photographic database of known terrorists," the ACLU states. "At Fresno airport, officials have addressed this problem by using photos of criminals from the television program 'America's Most Wanted.' "

Holy cow, "America's Most Wanted!" Smart move, Fresno. And say, do you have a 'Pause' function on your TV? Because a heavyset guy who could be a mobster might walk by the surveillance camera just as "America's Most Wanted" switches to commercial where John Madden is saying, "Bam! Use this great automatic nail gun from Ace Hardware" and when you look back at the heavyset guy in the airport, let's be honest, you could make a mistake.

Maybe the answer in Fresno and other airports is to broadcast "America's Most Wanted" on all the TV monitors so that passengers can surveil each other. That way when John Madden goes "Bam!" about the nail gun we can practice profiling, another infallible method of catching terrorists and criminals.

WHAT CAN BE DONE: Be sure to "dress innocent" - don't look like any of those dirty thieving rats on "America's Most Wanted." Walk around singing "God Bless America" so you'll be identified as the one true patriot in the airport. Make funny faces to show the cameras you value your freedom as an American and are glad George Bush forced his way into the White House so that he could appoint a freedom-loving fascist like Attorney General John Ashcroft.

At a time like this, I always ask, What would Judy and Mickey do? I think once they discovered that not just one camera but thousands of cameras in every nook and cranny are recording our every movement, they would light up with excitement and incite - pardon me, inspire - us by shouting, "Hey kids, let's put on a show!"

That's what happened to George Orwell's characters in "1984" (which you for sure don't want to read in an airport). Living with "the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized," people go about their business putting on a show for the dorks who are watching.

That's one way. The other is to blast 'em to smithereens by exposure.


NOTE TO READERS. Whew! This one's so lengthy (blame the government) I'll just leave the rest of the week empty. See you Tuesday.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I can sympathize with the sentiments in Ed Elrod's letter in #302. He writes that chain bookstores "have often targeted communities already well-served by indies (let someone else do the hard part of cultivating serious readers and spenders)..." When I opened my store six years ago, there were no other bookstores for about 40 miles. Two years ago, two chains opened within a mile of my store. They passed up several other bigger communities that had no bookstores but were dying for one (some had called me and asked me to open a store there) in order to open here.

Mr. Elrod goes on to write: "First my customers shifted their allegiance, then the authors quit coming to speak/sign/appear. Then the publishers shifted their support to the big stores. Is it any wonder that stores like ours closed after 63 years (22 under my ownership)? Although I don't think allegiance shifted, people found it easy to occasionally buy a book elsewhere. Everyone in the area would say, "I love that store" when I told them I worked/owned the store.

Many people still tell me they haven't been into either of the other stores. The fact is that my business has finally fallen off more than 50%.

In terms of publishers shifting their support, two years ago everyone was all smiles around me. The president of the largest distributor took two of my staff members and me out to dinner. Now as I struggle to figure out how to pay off all my closing bills, they want nothing to do with me. While that's the American Way, it doesn't make it any easier.

I will close my doors in two weeks. While people will still be able to buy their bestsellers at the chains, I wonder who will pick up the thousands of volunteer hours we have provided every year and the thousands of dollars of donations that we made to the many charities in our area.

Sandy Dodson
Little Professor Book Co
Temecula, California

Holt responds: I've never been to Sandy Dodson's bookstore, but over the last three years that he has contributed some lively and thoughtful letters to this column, I've imagined the place many times and looked forward to going there one day. This is just one small part of the larger tragedy of an independent bookstore closing: The vital contribution booksellers like Dodson make to the normal discourse of things; the importance of an articulate voice offering original ideas - this will be silenced too when the bookstore closes down. I guess it doesn't matter to many people whether the chains intended to shut down Temecula's Little Professor or if they ganged up on Dodson in their usual predatory way. But I know it matters to everyone whether they know it or not that the flow of books in the region will be largely controlled by two chain bookstores and their formula inventory - an inventory that's in turn controlled by a central office 3000 miles away. Given Dodson's experience I can't imagine many people going to Temecula to open an independent store in his absence. So with the end of the Little Professor Book Co. in Temecula, let's at least put an end to the myth that any bookstore that's survived this long is going to make it from now on. The fact is that many stores are hanging by a thread, and have for years, and deserve our thanks for staying open as long as they have. I hope Sandy Dodson will stay on as a subscriber and contributor to the Letters column - his kind of accumulated wisdom is a valuable addition to any forum on the book industry.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

With respect to poetry and newspaper review sections, the Globe and Mail has been running a "how poetry works" column for quite some time. They also run reviews of new collections on a regular basis.

Check with Martin Levin for details.


Kevin Speicher

P.S. I work for the online side of the large parent organization.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re the two books about Wen Ho Lee:

We had Stober and Hoffman ("A Convenient Spy") here at R Books in Los Alamos for a talk and signing as they started their tour. A number of the people who attended had been players in the drama. Those who had read the book were universal in their praise of the fair, clear and detailed reporting.

We offered Dr. Lee a book event here of whatever nature he desired, (he's a regular customer), but he chose the relative anonymity of the Santa Fe Borders. It turned into a media event anyway, with a sign at Lee's table saying "Dr Lee will sign only. No Questions." He did stop by and sign stock for us.

Your thoughtful appraisal of the two Lee books and the value of careful reading was much appreciated.

R Books http://www.rbooks.com
Los Alamos, New Mexico

Dear Holt Uncensored:

One of the main reasons that people seem to enjoy independent booksellers is the "thrill of browsing," the ability to find something they hadn't been looking for. As for me, my own backlist of books I want to read is so huge--stretching back to things I should have read in high school but just plain skipped--that I very rarely reach a time when I'm just casting about for something to read. I do, of course, value the chance to wander aimlessly in an independent, and wouldn't want them to disappear. Also, I have no festishism whatsoever for new books, and Amazon and the chains are hard on my wallet.

Therefore, I propose the best of both worlds: powells.com and abebooks.com. These are both websites from indies that sell used books. These sites can be browsed just like Amazon, the money goes to support indies that have a bricks-and-mortar presence, and best of all, the books are used...and cheap! Moreover, they have free shipping for orders over fifty bucks. I get the convenience of shopping at home, and the price and moral superiority benefits of shopping at an indie. What could be better?

Zac Unger

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Ed Elrod wrote: "So yes, [Khinoy] is misinformed. And if he would rather shop at an indie he should ALWAYS do so, as the last straggling supporters at my store did, because they were blindly committed to supporting a store that supported the books, the authors, the staff and in many cases through donations and volunteering, the community. If enough people stayed out of those big stores they'd be forced to close 'em!"

I may not have made my whole position plain. I'm a (very) small publisher as well as a (rather extensive) buyer of books. Just as Ed Elrod wishes that I'd always buy at indies, I wish that indies would always buy direct from me, rather than through a distributor (it would be more profitable for both sides). And just as I'm aware that it's much more convenient for a bookseller to purchase from a distributor, he should be aware that it may be more convenient for an end user to buy from a chain (or online). I have no more ethical obligation to buy from him (though I'd try to if he was in my neighborhood) than he does to buy from me. Or than he or I have an obligation to buy from our local bodega rather than the supermarket. If the bodega sells better adobo than the supermarket, or it's closer to my house, or it's faster, or even if the people are just nicer, I'll buy there. If not, not.

Part of my soul wishes all of this were otherwise.

Stephan Khinoy

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

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