Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Importance of Privacy

When I moved to the United States, one of the first cultural concepts I learned was the importance of privacy.  I found the word hard to translate for friends and relatives back in Europe, usually having to resort to something like privatnost or intima, which did not feel like exactly the same thing. I basically thought there was no word for privacy in Croatian because there is no privacy there.  I was wrong.

The way I saw it: in a small town of a small country everyone can find out all they want about another person because there is always someone who has the information you want. For example, if a new guy asks you on a date, all you need do is make a couple of inquiries and you'll have his complete dating history and first-hand accounts of his character - whether he is  a cad or a decent fellow. In the States, you would have to pay an agency to provide that kind of information, and still not be quite sure that you've got all the relevant details.

Fast forward a couple of decades and I think I had it all wrong. Over the years, I have had to fill out hundreds of official forms in the United States with questions probing so far back into my past that I could not answer them even when I was only in my 20s. For example: What did you eat for breakfast on March12, 19-hundred-something? What was your great-grandmother's favorite color? Who was your maternal uncle's first girlfriend? All this before September 11. I'd hate to see job applications college graduates have to fill out today.

OK, these are official matters and one can assume that the name of my elementary school teacher may hint at some important flaw in my upbringing.  So the employer, especially the U.S. government, needs to know. But once you get home and you close the entrance door, you are in your sacred private domain. My home is my castle, right?  Well, maybe.

One thing I know is that my telephone - the land line I am paying quite dearly - is not in my private domain. Almost 100% of the calls I receive are generated by telemarketers, campaigners, pollsters, fund-raisers and scammers. With the advent of cell phones, e-mail and social media, my friends and businesses I deal with very rarely call my home number, except to leave an occasional message - an appointment reminder and such.

The calls made by a human being are relatively easy to answer: "I am not interested, please don't call again."  But increasingly, the calls are made by robots and if you answer, the robot frequently says: "All our agents are busy."  If you put the phone down, or stop answering altogether,  the robot will call again.  You can't win in this game.

In the past few weeks, I've been plagued by a robot with an "urgent" message for Jared Hoke.  The robot has been calling at different hours and is now waking me up every morning at an earlier hour.  I am not able to explain that I am not hiding Jared under my bed because I can't talk to anyone.  So I called Verizon's harassment hotline for help.  A Verizon robot answered to explain that telemarketing robots make more calls than they can answer and if I end the call before speaking to someone, I will be called again.  The Verizon robot also said these calls were perfectly legal and that I can place my name and number on a do-not-call list, but without a guarantee that the calls will stop. says:

Robocallers invade our homes and privacy. They circumvent the Do Not Call list. And they cost us real money – an estimated $350 million a year is lost to phone scams.

Yes, in addition to legit calls, there are criminal ones.  I have been receiving calls announcing in a tough tone that the IRS has filed a suit against me.   Even though I pay an accounting company to make sure I never get in trouble with the IRS, I was fooled for a moment. I had to make a few phone calls to make sure I was in clear. 

According to FTC,  there has been a significant increase in the number of illegal robocalls like that because "internet-powered phone systems have made it cheap and easy for scammers to make illegal calls from anywhere in the world, and to hide from law enforcement by displaying fake caller ID information."

Some scammers remain a little more personal.  I still get calls from a live man who could be Indian or Pakistani, claiming that he is calling from my PC company because my computer is sending signals that it needs fixing.   I recognize his voice and I know I told him several times not to "ever" call back.  But he still does.  Maybe he likes me?  He certainly knows all about me.

Verizon's suggestions?  I can change my number to an unpublished one, or discontinue my land-line service altogether, something I have been reluctant to do because I always picture some friend from my European past passing through Washington and trying to find me.  It has happened.  So if I don't have a published number, I risk missing an old friend.  I know, I know - a friend does not come unannounced - but it is not quite like that where I come from.

Ultimately, I may have to do what some other Americans have already done to avoid harassment calls.

Peggy from Park City, Utah, wrote on page:
Before we gave up our landline, we used to get several a day. Since giving up our landline, the calls have stopped, but I have received an “Award Notification” claiming they had been unable to reach us to deliver a voucher for more than $1200 in airline tickets. I recognized this as phony. As a 70-plus woman living in the mountains, it would have been nice to have kept the landline for emergencies, but I couldn’t get them to stop calling. I really wish someone could make them stop.

My mailbox
Our mailboxes are not private either. I find tons of junk in mine every day and on several occasions I have discarded important mail together with  books of discount coupons. While as a kid I used to wait impatiently for the postman to see if he is bringing a letter or a postcard for me, I now see my mailbox as an additional trash can to be cleaned out daily. The Beatles's Please, Mr Postman is not my favorite song. 

I asked the mailman not to put ads and commercials in my box, but he told me he is obliged by law to deliver every single piece of junk with my address on it. So there we are. My home must remain open to the invasion of every joint trying to make a buck.  My privacy is non-existent either in private life or in the public domain.  Companies know what I last bought and what I may be thinking of buying next. Everyone can find out anything they want about me online.    

This kind of plague has not reached Europe yet, at least not to such an extent.  Friends in Croatia tell me that once they close their doors, their homes are impenetrable.  No one would dare call during dinner time, or during siesta time. Telemarketing would cause a revolution; and robo-calls are unheard of - as yet.

Privacy?  Maybe the Croatian language does not have a word for it, but who needs it when people have the real thing.