Monday, August 2, 2004

Whatcha doin'?

Whatcha doin, indeed.

After today, I feel compelled to tell each and every one of my readers/visitors/online friends something that they probably already know and have stopped worrying about: You are being watched.

Sound paranoid? Guilty, as charged, but after the past few days, I have every reason to be.

My sister is a wonderful person. Anyone that has read any of my story knows that she is a hero. She is also a mother of 2 and a wife - a long-suffering one, at that. She is also my friend, one of the few that I have. She and I have helped each other through alot of shit, we have bailed each other out of financial binds, shouldered the burden for the other when things were too much to bear, and commiserated with each other when life got tough, which it often has.

She is the kind of person that has always been a helper. She has literally spent her life caring for other people, other people's children, other people's businesses, and other people's wellbeing. She gave up a lucrative corporate career to devote herself to kids - her own, and other people's. She took a position with the local school system a few years ago. She was a network admin with a degree and years of experience, and the position with the school system was one that she was more than qualified for, and one that she was willing to do for low pay and not much recognition.

She got called into a meeting this morning. It was her first day back to school after the summer break, and she had been summoned to an 8:00 am meeting at the central office. She met with her supervisor and the head of human resources, and was accused of spreading subversive messages and misusing county equipment. They presented her with "evidence": reams of paper, all filled with conversations that she had conducted via AOL Instant Messenger.

Instant Messenger became the tool of choice for her and her co-workers. The budgets were thin, the workforce was thinner, and her peers were spread across the county, all trying to manage small in-school networks that had been held together with spit and bailwire. She and her coworkers weren't given cellphones. Because she had alot of experience, they all called upon her via IM and email to help them out. Alot. Also, because she was friends with each of them, she also sympathized and commiserated with their frustration over the job, the lack of support, the hours, the pay, etc. These people were her friends and coworkers; they were all there trying to do their job under pretty trying circumstances. They all thought they had the luxury of privacy. They didn't.

She and I chatted on occasion when she had a minute or two at the end of a day - most of the time it was lighthearted chitchat, and sometimes it was personal. Since I work from home, I never considered protecting my privacy when chatting with her. I have my own DSL connection, and I don't work through any employer's network. We lead busy lives, our houses are filled with inquisitive and attention-hungry children and spouses in the evenings and on the weekends. Sometimes, late afternoon chat is all we have.

She was mortified to be presented with a large stack of printouts. The pages were printed records of EVERY IM conversation she had ever had. Every one. The professional ones, the friendly ones, the personal ones. She had never logged her conversations, and she had never been told that she was being monitored. She was called to the mat for engaging in conversations that weren't work related. She was also called to the mat for having conversations that were work-related, but that cast a bad light on her immediate supervisor.

She called me in a panic today. She had been sent home, and told not to return to work tomorrow. She was told that she would have to write a letter to the county board to address the "issues" that had been thrown at her at the meeting. She was confused, and hurt, and felt betrayed and blindsided.

As I am composing this, I have been asked 3 times "whatcha doing?" and "whatcha writing about?"

Maybe I am just a little touchy about the privacy issue tonight. My husband called me last night as I was shopping at CVS - something that I enjoy doing very much - just me and my coupons and an hour of tranquility and retail bliss. He was in a panic - he sat down at our home computer to do a Google search and noticed that the history dropdown list contained search phrases such as "emergency contraception online prescription" and "morning after online prescription". He wanted an explanation then and there. "Whatcha been doing?"

In and of itself, this isn't so bad, but just last week, something similar happened. He had panicked when he found that I had cleared the cache of the machine. In my meandering, I stumbled somewhere that launched dozens and dozens of popups that were inescapable, and it never dawned on me to shut off the machine. I just let the thing roll, and doggedly tried to trash all the files that had been forced upon me. I wasn't sure I had done anything even remotely right, but I thought that clearing the cache and cookies and dumping the recycling bin was a pretty good strategy.

Because curiosity got the best of him, he somehow retrieved the history and was shocked to find dozens of sites and images of questionable content. He put the entire collection into a file folder, and when I questioned where the images had resurfaced from, he told me he had retrieved the history because he wanted to know "what I had been doing."

From the time I get up in the morning, to the time I go to bed at night, I have an army of people that want to know what I am doing. When I am barely awake, my kids want to stand in the bathroom with me and ask me what I am doing. My client wants to know how I am spending my time and their money, every minute and every dollar by having me log into a VPN and sign into a proprietary chat system that I am mandated to use and watch like a hawk for ramdom and intermittent messages to confirm that I am indeed at my desk. My inlaws (god bless them) watch my kids and anxiously want to know my whereabouts "just in case anything comes up." My family has to constantly know my physical whereabouts, and as if that isn't enough, they demand to know my very thoughts. I have to wear a cellphone, and I am questioned if I don't answer every call. When I leave my house alone (which is a rarity), I am expected to inform all within hearing distance where I plan to go, what I plan to do, what I plan to see or buy, why it is that I am going, and how long I anticipate that I will be gone. When I return, all of these questions are asked of me again.

And I'll be Goddamned, when I decide to take a quiet moment to confide any of this to my trusted sister, some fucking Nazi demanding to know HER every thought and action is privvy to the things that I only wanted her to know, just because they feel the overwhelming need to know "what we are doing."

This evening, I signed out of Yahoo Messenger for the last time. I removed the program, and I don't intend to reload it. If I could trash AOL IM I would, but because my clients use it, I am forced to keep it. I do, however, intend to have an away message displayed constantly, until people begin to get the picture.

I have this fear that right this minute, your employer is keeping meticulous records of your webpage views and your chat, if you happen to use a chat program. If you are viewing this at work, please stop. As much as I enjoy knowing that I have a community of friends, and as much comfort as it gives me to have friends to keep me company throughout the day when I am sitting here alone, hour after hour, day after day, I don't want my thoughts, or my need to communicate to cause problems for anyone.

Oh, yeah, and don't take this personally, but I want to scream at the entire world to leave me the fuck alone.

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