culture, politics, commentary, criticism

Friday, January 17, 2003
Skimble's encounter with Big Brother. I live in a working class neighborhood in Chicago. Recently as I was working at home (actually, I was looking through logs to see if you had linked to this site), someone rapped at the window with a key. I keep meaning to fix the doorbell, but would rather blog than meet actual people who want to sell me something.

A tall man with an official-looking badge on a lanyard around his neck stood outside. I recognized the logo from a letter I had received a couple of days before. I waved to him to wait until I retrieved it.

Here is the letter:

[Skimble's address]
Chicago, IL 606XX

Dear Resident:

To better serve all segments of the American population, the United States Public Health Service, part of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), is conducting a national study on health-related issues (OMB Approval No. 0930-0110). Along with more than 200,000 other residences, your household was randomly selected. RTI [explained below] is under contract with DHHS to conduct the study, and soon one of their professional interviewers will be in your neighborhood to provide you with more information.

When the RTI representative arrives, please ask to see his or her personal identification card. (An example of the ID card is shown below.) he or she will ask you a few preliminary questions and then may ask one or possibly two members of your household to participate in a voluntary interview. It is also possible no one from your household will be asked to participate. If any members of your household are selected for the interview and choose to participate, they will receive a cash payment of $30 at the end of the interview.

Feel free to ask the RTI representative any questions you may have in the study. This research is authorized by Section 505 of the Public Health service Act. The confidentiality of the information collected is protected under Section 501 of the Public Health Service Act. The information collected is confidential and will only be used for research and analysis and cannot be used for any other purpose. This addressed is addressed to "Resident" because the initial selection is made by address, and we are unaware of your name.

Your help is extremely important to the success of this study, and we thank you in advance for your cooperation.

Sincerely yours,

Joseph Gustin
Assistant Project Officer, DHHS

David Cunningham
National Field Director, RTI
(800) 848-4079

[illegible signature]
Assigned Field Representative

[sample of RTI photo ID card]
"Fine," I said to him, "come in," apologizing for the usual volcano of books and papers on my desk. "So what is this study about?"

He handed me another paper, entitled the "2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health." There was a two-page description of the study, which included the following sample questions from the full questionnaire [the original emphasis is shown]:
  • Have you ever smoked part or all of a cigarette?
  • What is your best estimate of the number of days you drank alcohol during the past 30 days?
  • Have you ever, even once, used marijuana or hashish?
  • How much do people risk harming themselves physically and in other ways when they use cocaine once a month?
  • How many times during the past 12 months have you and your spouse spent an hour or more together doing an activity that you both enjoyed?*
  • During the past 12 months, was there any time when you needed mental health treatment or counseling for yourself but didn't get it?
  • How many hours did you work last week at all jobs or businesses?
  • In 2002, did you have money in any kind of savings or other bank account that earned interest?
*Does getting high and having sex count?

Notice how the researchers mix factual data collection (question #3 above) with opinion polling (#4).

I shook my head and said, "I can't participate in this. It's too invasive. So who is RTI anyway?"

"Research Triangle Institute, you know, Duke University," he said, scanning my eyes for a glimmer of sports enthusiasm. There was none. Disappointed, he tapped at an unfamiliar Palm Pilot-type PDA green glowing thing that didn't seem to be cooperating with him either.

"But your information is totally confidential," he insisted. "I don't even know your name." He pointed to the "RESIDENT" to whom the letter was addressed as proof positive of my anonymity. (Reminder: This guy is standing in my house.) Then he handed me a brochure:
What Happens to My Information?

Each computerized interview data file — which is identified only by a code number — is electronically to RTI on the same day the interview is conducted. The answers are then combined with all other participants' answers, and are coded, totaled, and turned into statistics for analysis. As a quality-control measure, you may receive a telephone call [!] or a letter from RTI to verify that the interviewer did complete the survey with you.
I can imagine the finished profile: Boozer. Check. Marijuana or hashish user. Hmmm.

Address. Check. Phone number. Check. Bank account. Check.

Name? Gosh, who knows? Could be anybody's guess.

But I had to know more. He gave me another brochure with some websites that address the question, What do they do with results of the survey?
Lots of things, including making the infamous "drugs and terrorism" television commercial. The survey results are also piped into White House Office of National Drug Control Policy which created the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign with its ad gallery and the faux-super-hip Freevibe where l33t sp34k kool kids can download the hottest J-Lo IM skins and get down with The Man.

The Office also collaborates with the following "Participating Agencies" in the city of Chicago, where I live so very anonymously:
Federal: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Internal Revenue Service, United States Attorney's Office, United States Customs Service, United States Marshals Service, United States Postal Inspection Service, Housing and Urban Development-Office of the Inspector General

State: Illinois State Police, Office of the Illinois Attorney General, Illinois National Guard

Local: Cook County Forest Preserve Police, Cook County Sheriff's Department, Cook County State's Attorney, Grundy County Sheriff's Department, Kendall County Sheriff's Department, Will County Sheriff's Department, Bartlett Police Department, Blue Island Police Department, Bolingbrook Police Department, Braidwood Police Department, Calumet City Police Department, Chicago Police Department, Chicago Heights Police Department, Elk Grove Village Police Department, Joliet Police Department, Lockport Police Department, Matteson Police Department, McCook Police Department, Oak Forest Police Department, Oswego Police Department, Palatine Police Department, Plano Police Department, Railroad Police, Riverdale Police Department, University of Illinois at Chicago Police Department, Waukegan Police Department, Yorkville Police Department
The tall man asked a second time for my cooperation, but I refused and politely showed him the door.

With the selective but extremely potent fragments of personal information they requested, they could easily make the short leap to criminal record, political party affiliations, DMV reports, citizenship status, credit report, legal activity, insurance history, medical records, and so on. Basically anything they want to make nearly any case against anyone.

Saying "yes" to "Have you ever, even once, used marijuana or hashish?" is tantamount to a written, government recorded pre-confession. Whatever public health research benefit might result from the study is dwarfed by the individual risk of personal damage by a growing bureaucracy that, beyond becoming antagonistic to its own citizens as a matter of policy, is totally out of control in practice. They won't know which fifteen Saudi nationals are in American flight schools, but they'll know you smoke pot. J. Edgar Hoover is grinning ear-to-ear as he molders in his crypt.

My wife was upset because she wanted the thirty bucks, which would not have bought even the left foot of the shoes she currently covets. But then I wondered, Who the hell is footing the bill to extract these drug use pre-confessions from an unsuspecting public?

The answer is: you are.**

Is it me, or is American life beginning to resemble Terry Gilliam's film Brazil more and more every day?

**International disclaimer: If you're an American reader and taxpayer, that is.

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