Have You Got On The Watch List Yet?

Kid on computer

“Mom, how do you spell ‘fissile material’? I need it for homework!”
CC 2007 Glenn Fleishman

This past weekend, I started work on a story where a woman must get rid of her husband’s body after a domestic battle ends badly. Part of this required that I Google what choice parts of a human pigs would eat. Yeah. I know. Creepy. Yet it’s in the service of the story.

Did I delete my search history? Why? My wife was sitting next to me when I did it. Mind you, I waited until she was out for a run to Google “What does human flesh taste like?” Answer: Pork. I’ll take their word for it as I have no desire to try it myself. Creepy? Yes, but not as creepy as typing “What does human” and have it autocomplete “flesh taste like?” How many people Google that? My skin crawled looking that up, especially since one article had quotes from notorious cannibals Alfred Packer and Armin Meiwes. On the other hand, I now had two methods of corpse disposal. Sick?

Well, I’m writing about sick individuals, who are always more interesting than… Well, you. Or me. I mean do you really want to hear about my adventures maintaining SQL code all day? How my wife and I went to El Rancho Grande for dinner last week? We have Facebook for that.

But writing about the unusual often means Googling about the unusual. I suppose if I wrote spy stories and 24esque thrillers, I might raise a few eyebrows prowling known terrorist web sites, searching on weapons both commercially produced and improvised, and even asking some uncomfortable questions about how good guys and bad guys do battle. (There’s a reason ISIS makes al-Qaeda go “Dude! Seriously. Tone it down!”) During the Cold War, this would have made intelligence agencies very nervous had web sites and search engines existed back then. Actually, if you lived east of Munich, west of Tokyo, you could forget that kind of research. In Soviet Union, spies research you! (Jim stops to write check to Yakov Smirnoff.)

Nowadays, we still live with intrusive intelligence agencies, but even China has relaxed things a bit. But is it completely safe from the Men in Black? Pete Townshend related in his autobiography an incident born of the novelty of Internet porn in the late 90’s. Like many of us, he indulged and even punched in his credit card to one site only to get hit with a banner ad that said, “Kiddie porn!” Close browser. Reboot computer. Call credit card company. Only Britain’s idea of privacy is not the same as, say, America’s or Germany’s or Russia’s (which is non-existent.) Townshend ended up with a “caution.” Never mind that the banner ad scared the shit out of him. British authorities were more concerned with child victimization (ironically one of Townshend’s preferred causes) than the privacy of subjects’ Internet use. Townshend admits it was a stupid men-being-pigs moment, and the police were and are justifiably concerned who’s lurking out there. But was it a stupid situation? Yes. What’s the solution?

Said the middle-aged man about his dominatrix, beats me.

Is that a danger here in America? Are there other things that can raise a red flag? Don’t be naive. Of course there are. If anything, our national and international discussion about privacy is misleading. For starters, someone tell me how social media is anything resembling private. Yes, you can restrict who sees what, but isn’t the point of social media a benign (hopefully) sort of exhibitionism? Naturally, we should hide certain details about ourselves from prying eyes. I don’t post my cell phone number or my employer’s name on my Facebook or Twitter profile. But recently, one financial expert on local TV pointed out that, if you post where you had dinner or what car you bought, Facebook would sell that data to marketers who want to sell you stuff. Isn’t that creepy?

It would be creepy if I hadn’t mentioned it. But since I told the world I ate at Patty Burger in West Chester, Ohio, and that I bought a 2011 Jetta, it’s kind of stupid to think this even falls near the realm of private information, let alone under it. Hell, I just mentioned it on this blog.

For the most part, have a good reason for why you search what you search for. Remember, it’s not Facebook or Twitter you have to worry about. Most problems on those sites are usually because someone got careless or sloppy with their details. If you have a fight in public, don’t whine about it when you get called out for it. You did it in public, dumbass. It’s the odd little sites. Porn sites, sites purporting to sell you something. Where’s your credit card information going? What are they dumping on your hard drive? This is where spam zombies (the real zombie apocalypse) come from.

But think about how you search and where you go. There are some dark, dark corners of the Internet that are under surveillance. If you really need to know what’s there, chances are someone’s already written about it. But being a writer is going to lead you to some strange places. If your spouse or partner understands the strangeness of being a writer, they will leave you alone. If you have  a body of work out there, particularly if you write crime, it should not be all that difficult to explain when something sends the NSA’s computers clicking, buzzing, and whirring. (And frankly, the people who watch such things don’t find you all that interesting anyway.)

It was strange Googling what I did for the short story. It always comes across a culture shock, even when you’re doing it. It was different than researching, say, the presidents, who, despite some having god complexes, were a pretty boring lot. Sorry, liberals. Tough luck, conservatives. Neither Obama nor Bush are the Antichrist.

I have my doubts about Justin Beiber, though.