By Rob Burgess
Tribune night editor
— I can tell you the exact date I knew I was being spied upon. It was six weeks after 9/11: Oct. 26, 2001. That was the day President George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act. Ever since then, I just have sort of been working under the assumption that every electronic move I make has been classified and potentially experienced by someone else.
This suspicion was confirmed last month by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed the details of the PRISM and Tempora surveillance programs. “The Guardian has acquired top-secret documents about the NSA datamining tool, called Boundless Informant, that details and even maps by country the voluminous amount of information it collects from computer and telephone networks,” reported Glenn Greenwald on June 11. “The Boundless Informant documents show the agency collecting almost 3 billion pieces of intelligence from US computer networks over a 30-day period ending in March.”
There is an upside to this. Gangsters in music and movies have been warning us about the dangers of government officials monitoring communications for years. “They got my faulty tapped, but the po-pos hate it, ’cause I be talkin’ in code, street slang, so they can’t interpretate it,” one of my favorite rappers, E-40, once said.
Through these artists’ work we now have a blueprint of how to behave in this scrutinized existence. “Paulie hated phones,” says narrator Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in the 1990 classic gangster film “Goodfellas.” “He wouldn’t have one in his house. He used to get all his calls secondhand, then you’d have to call the people back from an outside phone. There were guys, that’s all they did all day long was take care of Paulie’s phone calls. For a guy who moved all day long, Paulie didn’t talk to six people.”
Knowing the underworld’s disdain for such supervision, it’s curious that the most popular rapper in the world, Jay-Z, would be joining in on all the surveilling fun. On Thursday, the Brooklyn native’s 12th studio album, “Magna Carta ... Holy Grail,” was unleashed exclusively through a Samsung smartphone app. Prior to installation, the app asks permission to: “modify or delete the contents of your USB storage,” “prevent [the] phone from sleeping [and] retrieve running apps,” “approximate [your] network-based location [and] precise GPS location,” “[have] full network access” and “read [your] phone status and identity.”
“It’s an ugly piece of software,” reported Jon Pareles on Thursday in the New York Times. “When installed, it demanded a working log-in to Facebook or Twitter and permission to post on the account.”
I know times are tough in the music business, but using a hip-hop album release as a Trojan Horse for rampant records cataloging is beyond the pale. This is especially true for Shawn Carter, who has made a career detailing his past criminal exploits. It’s hard to imagine the Jay-Z of 20 years ago signing off on this.
As for Snowden, of this writing, he remains in exile in a Moscow airport. Back home, the United States has charged him with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified intelligence to an unauthorized person. Venezuela and Bolivia have offered Snowden asylum. Yet, he is unable to leave Russia.
Meanwhile, Jay-Z insists on your phone’s approximate location. (Who is the real gangster here, anyway?) But, like I said, don’t fret. You can fight back. The advantage you have is discretion.
Never write any secrets down. Meet face-to-face whenever possible. And, really, so what if Jay-Z, the NSA or anyone else wants to look over your shoulder? “If they’re gonna watch me,” said Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) in one of my favorite movies, “Casino,” “I’m gonna watch ’em right back.”
Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.