Peeing Puppies and Privacy

Leave it to our new puppy Roxy to finally get me worked up about the growing intrusions into my private life by the government as well as internet and electronic communication providers.

I don’t know if it’s political fatigue, laziness or a surge in my Buddhist mindfulness but recently I had  been ignoring even major political and civic issues—such as reports of government surveillance of phone calls—primarily because I feel impotent to influence any outcome.

But the following ad on the right-hand side of my Gmail inbox jolted me out of my stupor:

Your Puppy Will Never Pee or Poop Inside. System Works in 6 Days!

Two days before a post in this blog, published “free” by Google, had mentioned that I had a new puppy I was trying to housebreak. I believe the incriminating words were “pee” and “puppy.” Google’s computers and algorithms went to work, meshing and mashing words in my posts with my email account and helpfully suggested I check with Please feel free to visit the site if your dog is taking indecent liberties with your floor too.

Are you talking about me?

Similarly, after Stew finished making reservations for a trip to Paris and Istanbul, our inbox and other sites I visit suddenly were decorated with pitches for hotels and other attractions at both destinations. I ignored them—I can’t recall ever buying anything as a result of that type of internet plugola—but I’m sure there were ads for baguettes and shish-kebabs in the mix too, and even a recipe or two for kebabs stuffed in a baguette or a baklava-and-crepes combo plate.

I’m not nearly naive enough to think that Google, Yahoo, Facebook and similar outfits operate pro bono. Their business is to help retailers and service providers hook up with customers who are “qualified,” that is, presumably interested in their products. Thus the overt plug for dog training. But I suspect there is much more information-trading in cyberspace about my lifestyle, shopping and other consumer habits, sometimes along with my email address, so interested parties can connect the dots of my personal life in ways that I haven’t even imagined.

Indeed if you think of all the internet vendors and service providers I use, from, iTunes, Gmail, and others as overlapping circles, the free space left in the middle—my private life—shrinks by the day. Perhaps that’s the high price of all those free internet services.

The recent debate over mass government surveillance of telephone conversations has riled some folks on the left and right. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit and Rand Paul’s hair looks even stranger than usual as he too plans to sue the government.

But according to public opinion surveys the vast middle lump of the American public, about sixty-two percent, is not too bothered by what seems to be gross government encroachment into privacy and personal rights, largely as a result of a Pavlovian response to the word “terrorism.” Presumably included in the consenting portion of the population are liberals who would normally be leery of  any government snooping and at the other end, right wingers forever fretting about “jack-booted thugs” breaking into their home to snatch away their guns.

Yet under the Bush administration the government was allowed to peruse personal emails and now under Obama our phone conversations can be monitored too, and with wide approval by a public too scared about terrorism to disagree.

Most alarming is the promiscuous use of the word “secret” which turns the debate into a circle. Secret memos by the executive, secret hearings in Congress, secret decisions by special courts created to deal with secret decisions by secretive security agencies, and in the end the public doesn’t know diddly because the whole thing is, you know, secret.

And unless there’s a thunderbolt from the judiciary upending this trend, intrusions into our private life are largely irreversible. I don’t expect the federal government five years from now to declare it’s inspected enough emails and phone calls and therefore it’s shutting down some of its data-mining computers and giving our privacy rights back.

Indeed, I voted for Barack Obama partly because I expected him to close the American gulag in Guantánamo and claw back some of the constitutional rights that had gotten away from us during the terrorism fear-mongering following Sept. 11. Guantánamo is still open and Obama is instead broadening government intrusions into our private lives.

When asked on Friday about the secret surveillance controversy, Obama sounded annoyed or perplexed by it. “And if people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.”

Yes I trust Obama on this issue far more than Dick Cheney but that’s not saying much. Count me among the motley thirty-four percent of Americans who in the latest poll said they were not comforted by government assurances that in the end it will do the right thing to protect our rights.


17 thoughts on “Peeing Puppies and Privacy

  1. Once again, our sensibilities align. You present an interesting picture of what has happened to our sense of privacy. I suspect living our lives so publicly on the internet has some impact. Even though I ignore the ads on all of my “free” destinations online, their creation does not bother me. But government intrusion does. And I think I know why. Google wants to sells me things. It is not interested in creating an enemies list. I cannot say the same about the government.


  2. Trust the government to know what is good for me? Sorry, they have had their mouth under the teat of free money and power way to long. As I get older I just want to be left alone without having the government take away what little I have left after surrendering my dignity at airports, having the ability to scan my emails, analyze my phone records and next year see all my medical records….But for every Joe that wants their privacy there are 10 Sams that want more government, so it's a loosing battle I have no more energy to fight…


  3. We gave our freedom away long ago in our fight against drugs. We gave dogs standing in court, we let the police search our cars on a whim, check points in the night, pee in this bottle-due process and probable cause became a wink and a nudge between the judge and the officer making a arrest. The very same mindset is in place with our electronic discourse. If you have nothing to hide…the police state has been alive and well most of my adult life. You can have your soap box back, I'm done.


  4. Steve: The problem is that the wall between government and private internet concerns like Google may be crumbling if it hasn't already. If the feds can listen to phone conversation on Verizon and scan emails in Google, why can't they poke into other areas, like what people are buying or selling? That info could be useful in tracking down terrorists. Problem is that such constitutional protections have to be pretty much indivisible inalienable, because once you start adding footnotes and qualifications the edifice crumbles. That's what happens in so many Latin American constitutions, like Venezuela's, where freedom of speech is protected but then there are so many qualifications, ifs and buts that you realize it isn't so protected after


  5. One aspect of airport security that really bugs me is to find a slip from TSA advising me that someone searched my luggage without even the benefit of my presence. Somehow that creeps me


  6. Anonymous

    A few years ago, such a note accompanied the disappearance of two pairs of sunglasses. In retrospect, I was an idiot to put them in checked luggage, but I don't think they could reasonably have been judge a threat to aviation or national security either. Conveniently, they left the cases for both pair. Kim G


  7. Anonymous

    I'm with you. This creeps me out. And I wish the media would raise this most important point.Nearly any increase in government scrutiny, inspections, searches, etc will indeed reduce crime. In Soviet Russia, there was virtually no common crime, as anyone who looked even remotely suspicious was locked up. But 100% security is not consistent with the idea of a free society. We need a government that will tell us the truth. They cannot guarantee our security. Saludos,Kim GBoston, MAWhere we think that living in Mexico would provide some relief from that kind of thing.


  8. I agree with the TSA leaving a card saying they searched my bag. It has happened each time I have flown – the last four times at least.This time I expected it. I had gone to a hockey team farewell party where all kinds of t-shirts, hats, signed photographs and the piece de resistance were given away – a hockey puck. Since I wasn't able to get with my grandson to give him these items while in Houston, i brought them back to SMA. I bet that puck caused a little consternation in my bag. Otherwise, there was nothing but dirty laundry and stinky tennis shoes. Why would anyone care? Oh, I just realized my laptop was in there too. Gosh, maybe they scanned it. Who cares? I don't have anything to hide……well not much at this point in life.


  9. I'm with you, but also, you need a new virus protector program that will screen out most ads.OR get a MAC. I don't get very many unsolicited ads. In fact, I have the other problem. Businesses I am attempting to correspond with sometimes get shoveled into the trash instead of my in box.


  10. All aspect of TSA bug me, especially when you read their effectiveness in having weapons slip by. A system wide test keeps being done with the result being that 1 out of 4 slip by. My opinion is because they are too busy grouping little boys and girls, grandmas and grandpas, to really be effective anywhere else…..That's when there not busy stealing stuff out of your luggage.


  11. Actually I don't know if they have the equivalent of a Fourth Amendment in Mexico. I know in roadblocks they just tell you to get out of the car while the search everything. Originally my reaction was “I don't have anything to hide” but lately I've wondered about some joker planting a gun or some drugs in the


  12. Anonymous

    Oh my god, don't ever put anything valuable in checked luggage. Some years ago, TSA relieved me of two pairs of sunglasses and left one of those cards in my suitcase, just so I'd know who to blame.I even discovered this immediately at the airport when I picked up my bag, as I had flown from DF to Boston in the winter, and I needed to get my coat out of the luggage if I was to survive waiting for a taxi home. I complained to the airline, but they said there was nothing they could do. So I'm sad to report that TSA will steal stuff, and apparently with impunity. Kim G


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