Can you escape Big Brother in our modern society?

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In part 1 of this blog, we relayed the story of how a young writer named Henry David Thoreau moved to a remote path of woods by Walden Pond in 1845, where he built a humble cabin and lived a Spartan existence. When Thoreau emerged more than two years later, he had produced the manuscript to Walden, a memoir that trumpeted the virtues of simplicity, as well as the perils of conformity to modern industrial society.  And while that was more than 150 years ago, Thoreau’s words still serve as the touchstone of what many people now are trying to achieve – taking a step back from the rat race of work and material possessions and paying bills and stress – in exchange for a slower paced life that allows them to prioritize family, health, philanthropy, pursuing their passions, and that oft-elusive enjoyment.

But today, we’ll explore the vital question to this equation: Is it even possible to “get off the grid” or drop out of society? After all, the Federal Register, which documents regulations, codes, statutes, and laws for its citizens, was only 2,600 pages long in 1936. Today, the same Federal Register is over 80,000 pages long. That’s a lot of rules, requirements, and attachments for the average citizen.

It begs the question - if Thoreau lived today, would the same exercise in living a more authentic life even be possible, considering how connected (or shackled, depending on your perspective) we are to modern society? And will the government even allow you to drop out, or are you inexorably tethered in ways you never even realized? The answers may shock you.

We’ll start this conversation not with Henry David Thoreau in the 1800s, but another notable American - Edward Snowden, former National Security Agency contractor who last year exposed intelligence abuses. At first called a traitor and a pariah, numerous interviews with the man in exile and exploratory pieces by credible newspapers and media around the world formed a different story: the startling and frightening allegations that intelligence agencies in the United States have ways to keep tabs on you that can only be described as Big Brother out of George Orwell’s novel, 1984. 

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One of Snowden’s most stark disclosures was that government security agencies can easily monitor calls, texts, and emails from our smart phones, collecting all sorts of private and sensitive data, and do so liberally without warrants, subpoenas, or even just cause. 

"The NSA, the Russian intelligence service, the Chinese intelligence service, any intelligence service in the world that has significant funding and a real technological research team can own that phone the minute it connects to their network. As soon as you turn it on, it can be theirs," Snowden told NBC News. "They can turn it into a microphone, they can take pictures from it, they can take the data off it."

Here are other ways you’re tied to modern society and the government, whether or not you realize it:

Banking.
Your pay check, your assets, your account balances, just about every dime you spend, where you spend it and when – including ATM video footage – are all available to the government based on your banking records. Of course, the prevalence of online banking has only made it easier to track your every financial move. Of course, you can second that for all credit card purchases and transactions.

Taxes.
Of course we know we have to pay taxes when we’re working and making money. But did you know that as a U.S. citizen, even if you move abroad and work and live in another country, the IRS and Uncle Sam requires you to file – and pay – come tax time? Unless you renounce your U.S. citizenship all together, there’s no escaping. 

Credit report.
Yes, even your credit report monitors a wide array of information, documenting your every interaction with debt, mortgage, loans, and public actions like bankruptcies, judgments, collections, etc.

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Water.
Moving to a remote wilderness location sounds easy and peaceful, but getting both clean drinking water and water for use around the home and bathroom isn’t that easy, as you can’t legally just start siphoning or using water from a body of water you don’t own or is public land because of riparian rights and restrictions. You also can’t live in a house on the public grid and not sign up for public water utilities and even energy utilities in many municipalities. 

Food.
Thoreau cleared, planted, and farmed his plot of land in the woods to become almost entirely self sufficient when it came to food, save the gifts his guests brought. But that wouldn’t be possible these days for the most part. In fact, the government highly discourages you from growing food at your own home or yard, and doesn’t even want people trading or selling local, home-grown food at farmers markets and such. Called, S. 510, The Food Safety Modernization Act is a way for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to govern our food supply and even collecting and planting seeds. The bill is reportedly written so vaguely, it grants broad and unspecified powers to the FDA and other agencies to inhibit the food choices of tens of millions of Americans who want to eat healthier and more autonomously, instead steering them back into the cycle of Big Agriculture, mega-food companies, and questionable practices by giants like Monsanto.

Cable television. 
You’re every remote click and channel change is easy to record, including a complete record of your patterns when you’re home and watching. 


Home phone. 
Remember the days of J Edgar Hoover’s FBI when so many phones were tapped? It’s probably way easier to do that now with modern technology, or at least your phone records are up for grabs.

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Internet/Wi-Fi.
Did you know that the internet service we use ubiquitously today was first launched as a military communication network called ARPANET? So it shouldn’t be a surprise that just about everything you do online is not only easily traceable by national security agencies, but data criminals and hackers. And if you use a normal home internet service or log in to public Wi-Fi signals, there’s almost no protection.

Cell phone. 
Snowden went from “traitor” to “hero” very quickly once it was revealed the extent to which the government has access to your cell phone under guise of the Patriot Act. In fact, the FBI is still pressuring big telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon to install "port reader" software into all phones, allowing intelligence agencies the ability to intercept your calls, emails, photos (even taking photos themselves!), directions, web, apps, and games.

Internet use and searches.
Your IP address is like your individual computing fingerprint, and it shows up everywhere you’ve been online, what you’ve been searching, and whom you’ve been contacting. Password and contact information auto fills are also susceptible to hacking.

Data breaches.
Large corporations are in the business of collecting as much personal and financial information about you as possible. With it, they either try to steer your consumer decisions or sell it for huge profits. But they also don’t worry too much about carefully protecting your data once they have it, as evidenced by the fact that financial criminals frequently steal the data, selling it on the black market or using it to breach your finances. 

Medical data and health insurance records.
Americans are now mandated to enroll in officially-sanction health care, which may help a lot of people, but also gives others infinitely more access to our records, data, and healthcare decisions.

Google Earth and GPS.
If you have a cell phone, tablet, or other smart device, someone can track your whereabouts and find you at all times. GPS in your car or phone does the same thing.

Resumes and employer records.
You really can’t hold down a job these days without a home address, phone number, etc., so Thoreau would have a tough time getting off the grid these days. Also, your employers have access to a whole lot of your employment and medical records.

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Social media.
Of course almost everyone participates in some sort of social media or mobile application these days, and you’d be alarmed by how much data is available and collected about you.


Smart watches, monitors, and Google Glasses.
If carrying our smart phones didn’t give easy enough access to anyone who wants to get in touch with us or track our whereabouts and day to day communications, the rise in popularity in smart watches, health and exercise monitors, and Google glasses will make it even easier. 

Public cameras.
Even if Thoreau escaped the grid enough to leave all of these other devices and amenities behind, he’d still always have eyes on him. That’s because traffic cameras, surveillance cameras, ATM cameras, mall cameras, work cameras, elevator cameras, and cameras set up for public safety are springing up so fast we don’t even realize they’re there.

Recycling and trash.
Believe it or not, but many communities across the country have been authorized by the federal government to track your trash and recycling with RFID microchips and other technology. That way, they can track – and fine – a citizen who doesn’t take out their recycling, or monitor other refuse habits.

Public benefits and assistance:
If you receive Medicare, Medicaid, or social security benefits, you’re certainly accountable to the government with mountains of paperwork that document numerous details of your life. Additionally, over 42 million Americans are now on food stamps and about one in six people are now enrolled in some sort of federal anti-poverty program, all of which require ongoing application, registration and monitoring.

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In short, it still may be possible to get away, but it’s just a whole lot harder. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying to simplify and reprioritize your life as you see fit, without having to drop off the grid entirely and move out to a cabin the woods.

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