When Good Ideas Go Bad

News sources report “invasion of privacy” situations quite frequently these days. Ironically, their reporting exacerbates the situation. A firefighter in my home state is under the gun for distributing a video, made by his personal cell phone, of an accident victim who was deceased. She won’t see the footage, of course, but her family did, because the person who shot it used electronic means to distribute it. Most of us would see that as a clear cut case of invading the privacy of the victim’s family. Yet, I would never have known about the gruesome video if the local news media had not put excerpts online. Should the family have made their plea for privacy so publicly? No doubt some journalism class is debating it right now.

As a writer, I have attended seminar sessions on how to write realistic crime scenes. A few years ago, I was sitting in a hotel meeting room while a forensic detective showed a video of a murder scene, with the sound muted, because he said that he did not want us to hear what the officers were saying about the situation. Instead, he talked about the process of collecting evidence and the nature of the crime. However, shooting a video at a crime scene is standard operating procedure, but what happens to the file later is not so clear.

Traffic stops are routinely video-taped, and there is a presentation about distracted drivers, featuring videos of local traffic stops, going around to schools in this area. The mission is well-meaning, of course. Having a camera on the dashboard should protect both the officer and the citizen, but again, sometimes good ideas aren’t good ideas, if one values privacy.

Beyond the realm of public safety, modern technology rivals Superman’s “x-ray vision.” Going into a dressing room at a department store may mean being featured on a security video. Stores have reasons to believe that some “customers” are actually thieves, hence the cameras. Flying on a commercial airliner means a trip through airport security, and the scanners they have can render a pretty good nude. Yet, as terrorism is still a concern, most people submit to the scans. With the ease of electronic transfer, such images may be circulated and recirculated. Once posted online, a photo can be “stolen” and the person depicted has lost any control of what happens to the image.

According to news sources, a school in Pennsylvania recently settled two lawsuits, for more than $600K, over using webcams on school issued laptop computers to spy on students. Some 56,000 images were recorded by the laptops, which were issued to over 2000 students. If you don’t remember the story, this situation came to light after an administrator accused a student of taking drugs. It turned out the the student was eating candy (something like Good ‘N Plenty) at home, and the computer was recording images of the student, snacking on something that looked like pills.

Some years ago, an acquaintance was told by her employer that she could not use her work computer after hours to type up a “prayer bulletin” because listing names of people with their medical conditions was a breach of ethics. Prayer is an essential part of spiritual life, and at the time, I thought that was a strong reaction on the part of the employer. Since then I have come to agree with that manager, because the file could read by anyone with access to that computer. If the file is transmitted via email, then it could go anywhere. More than ever before, it is better to avoid naming names and displaying images, because privacy is like reputation. Once damaged, it is hard to restore.

By Pamela/Pilar Posted in writing

Scardown, a review

Elizabeth Bear is a powerful writer, and her Jenny Casey trilogy is entertaining, if a bit complicated for pleasure reading. The first novel, Hammered, got my attention. I do wish I had read this mid-trilogy yarn earlier, because I had to review some of Hammered to get reoriented for Scardown. The politics and “who’s who” backstory is not rehashed, for the most part, in this second novel, which is actually a good thing, since too much backstory slows down even a rapid paced techno-thriller such as this.

At times the narrative shifts from character to character, but when Jenny Casey is center-stage, this novel shines. I especially liked the scene where Jenny is faced with a would be assassin, and she manages to pluck a killer bullet out of the air. Unfortunately she can’t really enjoy the feat, since she is wounded will soon be on the way to a hospital. Okay, Jenny isn’t a superhero, but she has the right stuff to be heroic.

This futuristic vision is gritty and troubled, but throughout most of human history, the planet has had problem upon problem. Certainly, much of what is happening now, with politics and science, inspires readers to believe that Utopia won’t happen, but the Canada vs. China for world and solar system domination which sets the stage for this trilogy just might.

Scardown is a worthy read for fans of hard science fiction, but the characters have enough dimension to reward those of us who like the human elements as well.

Elizabeth Bear has a website and a blog, and from a cursory reading of those, I learned that we have very little in common, other than a love of cats and speculative fiction.