Bettering Plainfield with the facts since 2005

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Creepy recent interactions with government

The Panopticon was conceived by Jeremy Bentham as a cost-efficient
means of supervising prisoners with the least amount of staff.
Bentham would be amazed at today's government watching.

This Plainfield resident recently had two interactions with government that were truly creepy.

I needed to get copies of my birth certificate and to replace a long-lost Social Security card.

Where to start? Google, of course.

First, I learned that New York state (where I was born) long ago centralized its vital statistics; if you were born outside of New York City, all requests for copies are handled through Albany. Fair enough.

However, when I went to the process for obtaining a certified copy of my birth certificate, I learned that all requests are handled by a for-profit, nongovernmental Lexis-Nexis subsidiary.

Their website said I could apply online, but that I would need to supply a copy of a valid driver's license. Since I wondered how this would work, I called the toll-free number and got a young man who said I shouldn't worry, just fill out the form online and if a copy of the license was required I would be able to upload an image or fax a copy.

As I filled out the form -- which wanted place and date of birth and parent's names --- I began to be asked a series of questions.

What high school had I graduated from (multiple choice)?

What state was my Social Security number issued in (again, multiple choice)?

Then a question (offering four answers) to indicate a street that I had NOT lived on.

This is where it got really creepy. Three of the four streets were ones I had lived on -- but one of them was in Brooklyn, forty-two years ago!

Evidently my answers to those questions were considered sufficient to guarantee I was who I said I was. I was approved without ever being asked to submit the copy of the driver's license.

My second creepy interaction was yesterday, when I went to Social Security's new office in Bridgewater (remember the promises that SS was to be returned to Plainfield when it was kicked out of the National Starch building that was turned into a 'swing school'? A story for another time).

I had found the form to request a replacement Social Security card online, printed it out and filled it in.

Once inside the SS office, I logged in via the touch screen computer and was provided a numbered slip to wait for an available interviewer. The whole process was displayed on a large wall monitor, and you could actually see how you were moving up in the chain. I was impressed.

When my number finally came up, I went to the little booth, where an interviewer sat behind a thick glass window (like a bank teller's). She asked me to confirm my SS number and my date of birth and then to slip my driver's license to her through the little tray.

I was waiting to be asked to sign and present the application I had filled out.

Instead, she asked me to confirm my parent's names, which she already had on the screen. Again, I was creeped out.

When I told her I had a filled-out application, she said that it wasn't necessary since all the information needed was tied to my SS number, which one has to supply when signing in.

I have to confess that the only time I can ever remember actually presenting my SS card was when it was first issued at age 14, for my first job as a stockboy after school in our small rural country store.

I lost it somewhere in the 1960s and have never needed to actually show it until these new, more security-conscious times.

So, whatever our notions of privacy are, I think it is pretty clear that we are being permanently watched and tracked.

Jeremy Bentham's idea of a "panopticon" (see more here) -- where authorities were able to monitor prison inmates at all times from a central location -- has been taken to a level he would never have dreamed of.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]
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