Big Brother is everywhere - and I'm mostly OK with that

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Then there was the time I got a speeding ticket in the mail. A month earlier, during a visit to Washington, D.C., Big Brother had photographed my car and license plate when I was doing 42 in a 35-mph zone, Terri Akman writes.

My 88-year-old mother-in-law recently visited from Florida and was surprised that her tablet gave her the local weather and pop-ups advertised nearby businesses.

“How do they know where I am?” she asked.

Beyond GPS monitoring, everything we do is on record, whether in a photo, on surveillance tape, or as a digital computer fingerprint. Who hasn’t had the experience of doing an online search for something — say, a new couch — and suddenly every time you go online there are furniture ads popping up?

There have been many occasions when I didn’t appreciate Big Brother watching. Recently, my husband went out to run errands. An hour later I got an email from Macy’s with the receipt of the things he’d bought. I support emailed receipts, which are environmentally friendly, but there was a downside. He had hoped to surprise me with a present, but the receipt gave me a heads-up. I guess he could have opted for a paper receipt, but given the preferences I’ve already set in my profile, I’m not sure that an e-receipt wouldn’t have come anyway. Thumbs down to Big Brother.

And then there was the time I got a speeding ticket in the mail. A month earlier, during a visit to Washington, I went 42 in a 35-mph zone. That time I had nothing nice to say about Big Brother, who had photographed my car and license plate.

On the flip side, there have been times when Big Brother has been incredibly helpful and I’m glad someone is paying attention.

I belong to the NextDoor website, where neighbors can chat with one another. On more than one occasion, people have posted actual pictures or videos of crime suspects who have stolen a package or bike, climbed their fence, or seemed to be casing a particular home or street. They not only give the details to police, but also to their neighbors, who might be more likely to recognize the perpetrator. In this case, it is comforting to know that Big Brother is watching.

Years ago, after I checked out at the grocery store, my car keys were nowhere to be found. It was pouring rain, my husband — the only person with another car key — was out of town, and I had to get the groceries home and put away in time to pick one of my kids up from school. I searched the checkout line and store aisles and emptied every grocery bag, but the keys had simply vanished.

Sensing my panic, the store manager went into the security booth, and a few minutes later, informed me that my keys were inside the carton of Snapple. The store’s surveillance video clearly showed the cashier placing my loyalty card (attached to my car key) on top of the tea. Unbeknownst to either of us, it slipped inside. That day, Big Brother really helped me out.

Living in the city, I do feel secure knowing cameras are watching when I’m walking alone at night, or more important, when my daughter is. And now that practically everyone has a cellphone with a built-in camera and video recorder, there is almost always a record when there’s an accident or incident.

There certainly are trade-offs to having our every move monitored. I find it annoying and more than a bit creepy that someone out there knows I’m shopping for furniture or that I’ve traveled to a different place. It would be nice, occasionally, to anonymously disappear.

But, I do take comfort in knowing that eyes in the sky are keeping us safer and that those with bad intentions might be dissuaded by being caught on video. Big Brother is here to stay and for now, that’s the trade-off I’m willing to make.

Terri Akman is a Philadelphia writer. terribakman@gmail.com