Monday, February 27, 2012

The Unknown

Once, there was a woman. We never met, so I can't tell you much about her. I don't know her age or her occupation. I don't know what kind of car she drove. I don't know what color her hair was, or how she liked it styled. I don't know her name or her hometown.

All I do know is that she was married. And that for a while, she shared an apartment with my sister. I don't know what she saw in the town that my sister lived in. When I visited the place, I didn't see much to recommend it. But I'm a city dweller, and rural areas are foreign to me. So I don't know what it had for her. But I do know what it didn't have when she arrived. Her husband. This was intentional, as I'm told that she'd crossed several states to put some distance between her and him. I don't know why she left, but I heard that it was bad.

So this woman and my sister shared an apartment, far away from everything (at least, as far as I'm concerned). One day, my sister told me, there was a knock at the door. And there he was. He told the woman to come with him. And she did, leaving behind all of the things she owned in my sister's apartment. My sister never heard from her again. And as this was some weeks before I arrived to visit, I never encountered her at all.

Part of me wonders what happened to her. The rest of me doesn't want to know. I never pressed my sister for enough details to allow me to Google her.

When people talk about privacy on the Internet, I don't think of tracking cookies and advertising, or the fact that on some server somewhere is a record of the fact that I bought an Iron Kong or one of the last Pocket PCs. I don't worry that my insurance company is looking over my shoulder, sniffing around for some reason to raise my rates. I don't consider that perhaps the government, in the hands of a well-intentioned extremist, will, like Richelieu, sift through my words looking for something with which to hang me.

Instead I think of her. The threat to her was not zealous advertisers or nosy corporations. It was someone, that once upon a time, she had loved enough to say "I do" to. But it had become too much, and she fled. And he found a way to follow her. There are many more like her. People who keep secrets not because they have broken the law, or even violated social mores, but because someone stronger than they is pursuing them to no good end. People for whom knowing who knows about them is a matter of grave concern, if not life or death. The more people who know something, the more difficult it is to prevent others from knowing. And people who make a business out of information are rarely rewarded for keeping secrets well.

I don't know how many more there are like her. They rarely advertise their presence (although, of course, there are exceptions). But even if I knew she were the only one, I would recommend caution. We push and pull each other into things that, left to ourselves, we may not have chosen. And as the tide swells, it costs more to stand one's ground against it. Our privacy is unlikely to ever be taken from us, despite what we sometimes like to think. We will give it away, and in doing so create a world in which it is difficult to not follow suit. And one in which it becomes more difficult to hide.

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