Escape Pod 623: Surveillance Fatigue
by Jennifer R. Donohue
Is this woman a terrorist? It’s my job to decide.
My typical first step is social media, before I delve into the emails, the school records. Fortified with overbrewed office coffee, I take an afternoon and read through all three years of her 140-character thoughts, brief conversations with other users, occasional pictures. We’re encouraged to have our own process, and my entire workload, the entire organization’s workload, takes place on glowing screens large and small. We are constantly reading, listening, watching, bionic earbuds ensconced, AR glasses feeding us a constant stream of information. At the end of the day, we stumble out into natural light like people waking from a dream. The building which houses the organization is officially something too boring to look at twice, data storage or legal processing, office upon shell office of generic secretaries designed to deflect public inquiry.
She seems to like mystery books and horror movies. Here, I diverge to the school records. Drama club in high school. She majored in Communications and got good letters of recommendation from her professors. Moved to a city where she knew no one and got hired on at the temp agency. Maybe it’s her new friends which have put her on this list, writers and artists who still photocopy zines in fluorescent-lit shops, trimming them crookedly and stapling them together to hand out at open mic events.
Her government ID photo is serious, dark skin a stark contrast to the mandated white shirt, hair braided back, smile strained and not reaching her eyes. Her government ID does not reflect who she is; few do. She posts a lot of selfies, though. Far more than I do. There is an official metric of normalcy based on how many selfies one takes and posts and I, like my coworkers, try to do slightly more than minimum so as not to stand out. Of course, we’re graded differently, because we’re in the know. We are not to take this to mean we are immune to scrutiny. The opposite is true.
She likes taking pictures of just one thing, one feature at a time. A close up of her stormy green eyes, with swooping eyeliner and silver eye shadow like moon dust. An awkward arm’s-length torso shot of a new tee shirt while in the gray-lit dressing room, Alice in Wonderland tumbling tumbling down. A tattoo of a semicolon on the inside of her wrist. A card game around a snack-strewn, vapor-obscured table. Her left thumbprint, the one typically used for ID verification, has a scar slashed across it. In one of her selfies, she’s wearing a hoodie designed to interfere with digital surveillance footage, unzipped and hood down so the picture would process. I wonder how much clothing and equipment like that she has. How many photos aren’t in the file because the system deleted them, unusable.
She writes a blog, a disparate collection of ideas that so far fail to gel as a single whole, with few readers, but she never touches upon pop culture hot buttons or political turmoil. She writes poetry, apparently, but I don’t have access to any of it. It isn’t on the blog and none of her poems are published. She’s registered to vote, with no party affiliation. She’s smart, kind of funny. I move through the steps, looking at her email, deleted messages, cell phone locations. As the days go on, even away from my cubicle, her thoughts start to come back to me at odd times. Morbid interests don’t make a person a killer. Taking a year to read the holy books of different world religions doesn’t make a person a terrorist. Calling her representatives once a week makes her a concerned citizen, not radicalized. Disaster donations are a conscionable duty.
But some of those things put you on a list. And careful breaches of privacy are what protect citizens. People develop what the organization has deemed “surveillance fatigue”, where they are so saturated with the notion that every move is watched they are unable to continue caring. For people who are terrorists, this is when they become the most dangerous to themselves, and when we are able to compartmentalize them before they do damage. We’ve caught so many people before they took that bomb-laden backpack to a crowded area. Before they finished loading all of the bullets into their extra magazines. Before they dropped the toxic envelopes into the mailbox. Their communities, their targets, remained safe and never knew. It’s a system that functions.
There are meticulous statistics kept. Decades of data both digital and physical, file boxes lined up in endless storage rooms lit by insufficient puddles of light. But if ever the shadow government is discovered, the watchdogs found out, the real protectors unmasked, the citizens at large would still recoil. Rebel. They think their individual privacy is more important than countless lives. However, a good shadow government remains in the shadows, and there have been few slipups. Enough to make it seems, sometimes, as though the surveillance branches of the government are comical, which in turn makes them seem non-threatening. There has been more than one straw man sacrifice to the world audience.
For all this, I still don’t know what put her in my caseload. Technically, the digital clothing is enough to be that final straw, to draw direct scrutiny rather than algorithms. I still have not been able to read or listen to any of her poetry, and this blank space is another concern. I find myself thinking about her as I pass the beauty display of the drugstore. My makeup has always been understated, existing to meet another minimum requirement, but if I watched the same tutorials she did, got this type of eyeliner . . . I shake off the inclination, go and select my vitamins.
Another time, while shopping for exercise clothes, I pass the same Alice in Wonderland shirt. I take it to try on. The fabric is softer than the other shirts I’ve selected to try, gently figure hugging, long enough to smooth the line of waistband. I look at it for a long time in the mirror, consider the angle I’d need to take an identical selfie, then take it off and leave it in the pile to be rehung.
She isn’t my first case, but hers is the one which has interested me the most. I’d never had a case absorb me as this one has, follow me home, cause me to stop at a coffee shop for something with whipped cream in it instead of drinking what is provided at the office. Is this woman a terrorist? I don’t see how she can be, and I worry my judgment is clouded. I dig deeper.
Other than horror, she likes cartoons. 80’s teen comedies. To further my research, I stream some of these videos in my cubicle, narrow and ill-lit as a dressing room. One cartoon has me stifling laughter in my sweatered elbow. Later, at the coffee machine, a coworker asks if I’m getting a cold. I demur; the organization’s biometric sensors would have flagged me at the door, so a lie is pointless. He was perhaps concerned I’d been weeping, and willing to extend the delicate warning that I had been overheard. The biometrics can still be iffy about emotions due to the broad spectrum of individual differences, but it pushes me deeper into my troubling thoughts. Even my voice feels disused.
And still, I can’t clear the case. While she’s obviously a subversive, I don’t think she’s a terrorist; but we’ve gotten false positives so rarely, I don’t want to erroneously clear her. I obtain the list of books she’s read and download some, swiping through to search for the most common red flag keywords, then the second tier, then the lowest threat. It’s not enough, and sometimes I linger over phrases, sometimes I catch myself reading pages in a row, absorbed. I broaden my scrutiny to the temp agency, to the companies which pull temps from it, to the other temps who sit in the waiting rooms with her, drinking coffee and idly chatting. None of the intel I gather projects anything but blandness.
Finally, I make the decision to go into the field, something permitted within the organization but something I have never before done. I comb through her selfies again, though at this point they are mostly memorized, and I pick over my clothing for a semblance of correct dress. I watch those makeup tutorials and stick my face in the mirror until it is passable, Q-tips piling in my sink like a tiny lumberyard as I correct errors. My dishwater hair hangs lank, immune to Internet fashion tutorials, but I find a scarf to act as a headband. There is an open mic at one of the coffee houses she frequents, and I will go in this disguise so different from the appearance I have cultivated, most of us have cultivated, within the organization.
There is a cover charge of $5, in paper bills, and I fumble as I place it in the tattooed doorman’s hand. In our digital and RFID world, I have never physically paid for anything. Condensation beads the windows from all of the people vaping within.
The coffee house has a wired sound system, all but obsolete in a time where most people have adopted biometric earbuds, but the output meshes nicely with my setup. I have to lower my security settings to even walk into the place, and can only hope my actions are well understood as research and not my own sedition, a break from the organization. I fully expect to be debriefed.
I don’t see her at first and curse my foolishness. All this process and risk for a wasted trip. Then I spot her, at the counter and partially obscured by the brass espresso machine. The lighting in this place is eye-straining LEDs that somebody went to the trouble of programming to mimic the feeble glow of incandescents. Or maybe it’s real incandescent light, the bulbs taken from somebody’s dwindling hoard, thirty years now since the ban.
I go to the counter and get a latte, looking at her a couple of times as I survey the crowd. No red flags pop up in my sight, no individual I know to be a wanted fugitive. The thick porcelain white mug seems shockingly warm, and I will myself to calm down. This is an artist’s event. There will be music and poetry. I am nobody to this gathering. I am in no danger. Hardly anybody looks at me.
The first several people to take the slanted stage are musicians, carrying old acoustic guitars, or in one case, a violin. Next is a man who stares accusingly at the crowd as he recites his lines, stalks back and forth like a caged animal; I can’t tell if it’s a poem or a diatribe. Maybe it can be both. I will have to look him up later, check his file via voice and facial recognition. If he has a caseworker, they will want this information, and of course, our earbuds are always recording. Then she takes the stage and there is an immediate hush. They know her here. That wasn’t in the file.
Her eyes rake over the crowd, seem to linger on me a moment in my awkward corner, where I stand with mug and purse weighing me down. “Surveillance fatigue,” she says, and I become aware of the pulse in my fingertips. Her voice is a silver bell. “Just because you don’t feel the eyes doesn’t mean they’ve closed. Argus does not sleep and still we live within this panopticon and tell ourselves we are free. Does any one raindrop bear scrutiny? There are too many of them to single out, until they break against pavement and follow their fellows down the drain, into the sea. We are not raindrops, though we break against pavement. They number us and always they watch. We are not raindrops, because a raindrop has no voice. Let us lift our voices and say no more. Let us shield ourselves from the prying eyes, and once more know what it is to be free, running to the sea.”
There is no applause as she leaves the stage and she doesn’t wait for it, steps ringing out on the wooden floor. I already can’t remember if there was applause for the others. Does she look at me as she walks through the door? I follow.
It has begun to rain, almost as though she summoned it, plastering my wispy hair against my forehead and my neck. She’s already half a block down the street, hips swinging in her easy confident walk, and I’m scurrying to catch up. When she has to stop at a crosswalk, traffic zooming back and forth, she turns to face me.
“What do you want?” she asks, left hand fisted in her jacket pocket, the other loose, hanging by her side. I know everything about her. She carries pepper spray, took one self-defense course. I am a stranger, a creep, a threat.
“I just wanted…” But the words don’t come; I don’t know my own mind. She understands, somehow.
“I can’t do it for you,” she says, her angry eyes so tired suddenly. And then traffic stops, black SUV’s sliding up to the curb, people from the organization getting out.
“No,” I say, stepping forward with my hands out. I don’t want them to take her.
But it’s me they take.
About the Author
Jennifer R. Donohue
Jennifer R. Donohue grew up at the Jersey Shore and now lives in New York with her fiancé and her Doberman. Though she got a bachelor′s degree in psychology, she has always wanted to write. She currently works at her local public library, where she also facilitates a writing workshop. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Mythic Delirum, Syntax & Salt, and elsewhere.
About the Narrator
Diane Severson Mori
Diane Severson is a lyric soprano specializing in Early Music, especially Baroque and medieval music. She is a dedicated teacher of singing (taking her cues from her mentor the late Cornelius Reid and his long-time student and mentor in her own right Carol Baggott-Forte). She is the mother of a young multi-linguist and married to her very own Rocket Scientist.
Diane has been blogging on this and that since 2005 and has been involved in the SF Poetry Scene (yes, it’s a thing) since 2010. She has narrated for the StarShipSofa Podcast Magazine (StarShipSofa.com, part of the District of Wonders Network) since Tony C. Smith started running fiction and found out that she reads aloud to her husband. She quickly became his go-to-girl when he wanted poetry read. As a result of that affinity with poetry, and because she does her best work when she has a Cause (a budding superheroine?), she decided to become Science Fiction Poetry’s Spokesperson. She produces the sporadic podcast, which runs as part of StarShipSofa, called Poetry Planet and is a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association for which she ran the 2012 Poetry Contest. She is a staff blogger for Amazing Stories Magazine (amazingstoriesmag.com) focusing on Science Fiction Poetry. She continues to narrate stories for StarShipSofa and other podcasts (notably PodCastle and Tales to Terrify) and has begun getting paying jobs as a voice actor.
The best place to find her is on the web because she tends to pick up and move to another country at the drop of a hat. She and her family currently reside in Paris.