A week ago, I spent a good deal of time on the phone with a woman in Manila. Her name is Carolina and she works for Microsoft, which insists on compelling me to “upgrade” to Windows 10. I tried, but for some reason it did not work. My computer froze and so I had Microsoft walk it back to Windows 7 whereupon, a bit later, Microsoft struck in the middle of the night and “upgraded” me one more time, and one more time my computer froze. That’s how I wound up with Carolina. I’d like to think that she helped the FBI unlock the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists.
Carolina took over my computer. (She had my permission.) The cursor started taking orders from the Philippines. It skipped all over the screen and then into this folder and that folder, things opening and closing, my (digital) life unfolding before me, Carolina hopping here and then there, probably jumping into my sock drawer and arranging things by color (there must be an app for that) and, finally, pronouncing the problem solved. The computer was returned to my control and Microsoft, I was assured, would never again take command of my computer and “upgrade” me to Windows 10, which, for some reason, my computer is allergic to. A week later, Microsoft tried again.
While all this was happening, the FBI and Apple were fighting over whether and how to unlock Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone, which could contain important information — maybe relating to a future terrorist plot. Apple spurned the FBI’s request, maintaining that if it unlocked this single phone, the method for doing so would leak and every 14-year-old kid would be hacking cellphones instead of developing useful assassination skills on some computer game. As if to prove that this was not a trivial concern, some third party did indeed show the FBI how this is done. The phone spilled its secrets and the Justice Department dropped its case against Apple.
But nothing has been settled. While Apple and the government were duking it out in court, local prosecutors across this great nation cut and pasted the FBI’s request and demanded the keys to the cellphones they had seized in their own investigations. You could almost suspect they did this in cooperation with Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, who had argued that if the company opened the door for the FBI, every sheriff who has just made a marijuana bust would be at the courthouse door seeking a search warrant.
As sometimes happens in life, both sides had a case, but from the start I tilted toward the FBI. Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, murdered 14 people and wounded 22 others — and this cannot be allowed to happen again. But while I was still mulling over this matter, Carolina clarified things. There she was digging around the innards of my computer, doing things I did not understand, and while she had my permission she nevertheless came to represent all the people and companies and God-only-knows-what who I deeply suspect muck around in my computer all the time.
I have steadied myself for the counterattack — the assurance from the biggies (Google, Amazon, etc.) that this does not happen. Maybe not. But I am told that my location is tracked and my buying habits are known and “cookies” incessantly tattle on me. Some people I know have had their emails filched by the North Koreans or somebody and wind up on the Internet for the malicious or the merely curious to peruse. What privacy is the nice Mr. Cook talking about?
I do not doubt his sincerity. And I will concede that some of my paranoia is attributable to my heroic lack of computer knowledge. (My expertise is in the cloud.) But I long ago gave up any expectation of privacy. While I fear the government more than I do private enterprise — the government, after all, has guns and jails and a US attorney can ruin your life on a whim — I nevertheless feel that nongovernmental actors (I love that term, makes me think of George Clooney) are on me all the time, trailing me, tailing me, watching me: “Hello, Richard, we have that shirt you were looking at.” Loss of privacy? It seems gone. After all, it was not the FBI — and certainly not Apple — that discovered how to bust the phone. It was a private company — maybe, I’d like to think, sweet Carolina.
(c) 2016, WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP