Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Living under surveillance

All this recent talk of PRISM has brought back memories of having our conversations and activities monitored when we lived in Russia. I also believe we were monitored in Syria, but to a lesser extent.

I've already talked a little about what it was like to be spied on in Russia. In Syria, we were never sure if anyone was watching or listening in, but it was a safe bet to assume that at least sometimes, they were. Especially at church (held at a residential apartment), which made those times we sang "Onward Christian Soldiers" as the opening hymn more than just reaaaallly awkward. When we traveled through Syria in the summer of 2010, we had a minder following us for part of the time, to the extent that a taxi driver in Lattakia remarked on their presence.

In both of these situations, we took great comfort in knowing for ourselves that we weren't involved in any subversive activities and that we were, in fact, really boring people. However, when you know someone is listening (or could be listening, and in the end, the distinction doesn't really matter) to you at all times and following you around a lot, it absolutely has an effect on the way you live your daily life. Here's what it's like to live under surveillance.

You watch what you say, at all times. I know, duh, right? But think about it: in some ways, it's as if you're living your life in an airport security line. No jokes about bombs. No jokes about terrorists. No casual remarks that could be taken the wrong way. Except you're inside your own home (or talking on your own phone) and the forbidden topics are spying, or the host government, or inside knowledge about friends and family. One of the basic rules of spying and spy recruitment is that if you can find out someone's weaknesses or secrets, or the weaknesses and secrets of someone's family members, you can exploit them for your own gain. Have you ever talked with your mom about your husband's secret alcohol problem? Have you confided in your sister about an affair you considered, or had? Do you talk with your husband about your coworker who you think is gay but who you also think doesn't want anyone to know he's gay? These are all extreme examples, but they are also huge no-no's if you're under surveillance, at least in certain countries and contexts.

On a related note, the prayers you say out loud with others become necessarily rote and benign. I realize this is not a habit that everyone has, but praying out loud with Jeremy while we lived in Russia was kind of a joke. It was meaningful and we took it as seriously as we could, of course, but we could also never really pray out loud together about serious issues. Because that's the kind of stuff you don't want your minder to be privy to.

You absolutely pretend you don't know anyone is listening. This is kind of a weird phenomena - for some reason, it always just seemed impolite to admit that we knew someone was listening or watching or following. And in return, "they" continued to be fairly discreet about the manner in which they listened, watched, and followed. We heard stories (some first-hand, some second-hand) about people who did not respect this unwritten rule and who had all kinds of annoying or actually unpleasant things happen, like messily searched rooms or - really - pee all over the toilet seat. It has been more than ten years since I heard that last story and I still can't get over it.

You try to get dressed away from any mirrors. Another weird one. Look, to this day I don't know if there were any cameras in our apartment in Moscow. I only know that one entire wall of our apartment was covered in a huge mirror. We covered it up with a nice, 60s-era Russian bedspread almost immediately. The "what if...?" factor just made us too squeamish.

You are careful about who you associate with. This goes two ways: on the one hand, you don't want to be connected with any troublemakers. On the other hand, sometimes YOU (as an American) would be considered the troublemaker for someone else, and your friendship with them could cause serious problems for that person or their family. There were times when we kept our distance from friends because it was just easier that way for both of us.

Finally, you get used to it. Really! Staying away from certain conversation topics really does become second nature. In fact, I remember having to make a conscious effort to get un-used to it when we moved back to the US.

Though as it turns out, perhaps I shouldn't have tried so hard. Ha ha, just kidding! Because PRISM only applied to non-citizens overseas...right?


Liz Johnson said...

I just can't imagine being that aware of what I'm saying/doing. On the one hand, I think it would probably be a good experiment for me and probably a good character trait to have, but on the other hand, oh man. That would be so hard for me at first. I can barely remember to not talk about disgusting things at dinner.

Shannon said...

I feel this way with the things I email or post on the internet. And I also feel this way whenever I'm in the Middle East. In Syria, our landlords got really, really nervous when Abu H. inadvertently wandered into a military zone and was detained for a day for questioning. After that, we were always catching glimpses of people watching us. . . . And that might have been one of the reasons you were closely followed there as well (you're welcome--what a great experience!). The nice thing about being a clueless student in Syria, in my opinion, is that you always assume that even if your minder is watching, he's probably also contemplating inviting you to his home for tea. I would guess that the feeling is a bit different in Russia.

Crys said...

Is it weird that I just don't care about our Government spying on me. Somewhere along the way, I think it was when I had to start wearing G's in the dressing room and thought, "Oh lord I wonder what store security thinks of this." I just stopped carrying about my right to privacy. Here are the states that don't allow people to look at you in the dressing room. South Dakota, New Hampshire, Michigan, Maine, Minnesota, Utah, Kansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Georgia, California, Arkansas and Alabama. Seriously you think it would be longer. And then there is the whole x-ray through your clothes airport thing. I swore I would never fly after that. But here I am plane ticket in hand for my sister's wedding next month. For me, always the thought of someone spying on my physical person has been more disturbing than someone spying on my written words or phone conversations, but maybe that is because I have always felt like think I said would never be of any interest to the government, like they could care less about my brother being gay, or how I felt about church, or the state of my marriage. But maybe that's also because I haven't ever thought someone was listening. Maybe if I knew they were I'd feel a lot weirder about it. I did have an incident recently where I mentioned on N.H.'s Facebook wall about a situation I was having at church with my children, and one of my children's primary teachers posted a response to my situation publicly on my wall and I did feel slightly violated by the whole thing. So maybe I don't mind being spied on, but I don't want to know about it all, I don't want people in my house touching my things, and I don't want it to be anyone I know. Is that too much to ask?

Bridget said...

Yes, in this part of the world it's a different kind of surveillance.

What military zone was it?? Quneitra? I love your point about being asked for true. When we had to get a permit for something from the Mukhabarat (secret police) office one time, they thought it was just the cutest thing that Miriam's middle name was Damascus. The softer side of state surveillance, I suppose.

Bridget said...

Crys, I also have a hard time getting TOO worked up about possibly being surveilled in the US. Maybe if I thought about it hard enough it would bother me, but again, I'm a boring person, so have at it, whoever! I know that's not a correct attitude - that it's the PRINCIPAL of the thing - but it's all I can muster up for now.

Shannon said...

It was on the way back from Deir Marmusa. Abu H. (he had decided to walk back to the nearest town) swears that the military zone was poorly marked. But just for fun, I generally feign skepticism. Predictably, he was treated with great hospitality during his detention--lots of melisseh and yansoon "tea" and such. And they backed down when he started getting personal (noticing his temple rec. in his wallet) with their questions.

The other day while we were chatting, we agreed that having a baby along with us probably made people--even minders--considerably more sympathetic to us.


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