Advocate Fights 'Ambient Despair' In Assisted Living
Martin Bayne entered an assisted living facility at 53 after he was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson's disease. Now he writes about long-term care reform. He tells Fresh Air about recording residents' final days and how death is handled "very poorly" in facilities.
Other segments from the episode on September 6, 2012
September 6, 2012
Guests: Martin Bayne â Peter Maass
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Most people in their 50s who have been to an assisted living facility have been there to visit parents, aunts and uncles, but my guest Martin Bayne was in his 50s when he had to move into an assisted living facility, eight years ago, no longer able to care for himself because of young-onset Parkinson's disease.
He was 32 years younger than the average resident. In an article published in Health Affairs and excerpted in the Washington Post, Bayne wrote about living in an environment of disability, depression, dementia and death. He's able to describe life in such a facility in a way that many residents no longer have the capacity to do.
Bayne has worked as a journalist, lived for several years in a Zen monastery and sold long-term health insurance. Now, though, he sometimes barely has the ability to type. He shares his observations of life in assisted living in his blog The Voice of Aging Boomers. And he publishes an online literary journal called The Feathered Flounder, which showcases the work of writers in their 60s and older.
Martin Bayne, welcome to FRESH AIR. So just on a practical level, now, in your life, what are the things that you can no longer do for yourself that require the assistance that you get at the assisted living facility?
MARTIN BAYNE: I'm tempted to say everything. My mobility is not good, Terry, and I need help taking a shower or getting dressed. When I was in my 40s, I was physically fit and very active, and to have to give all that up and stay in a wheelchair now and be helped by so many people to do the simplest of things, it takes a little getting used to.
There were some periods of frustration I had years ago, but I think I've got it under control now.
GROSS: So you were in your 50s, you were about 52.
GROSS: And you were there because you have Parkinson's.
GROSS: The other people in there were in their mostly 70s, 80s and 90s?
BAYNE: Eighties and 90s, yeah. Seventies is still pretty rare to find someone that young.
GROSS: So that's something right there. Like, you're not only prematurely for your age in an assisted living facility, you're with people of another generation.
BAYNE: That's right.
GROSS: And people who have probably - many of them probably had some form of dementia, not full-blown Alzheimer's but some kind of memory impairment.
BAYNE: That's true to say, yeah. It's what I call ambient despair, and that is the recognition that your fellow residents have such high levels of disability, dementia, death, and it becomes a part of your I think subconscious, and yeah, it - it's tough when you're living with - I live with about 70 other residents, and the residents have such a high frequency of dementia, death. Two died last week, and it was a shocker.
I have no one my own age, with the exception of one fellow, to talk to, and he is - it's a joy to be able to talk to him because he's intelligent, he's articulate, he likes model airplanes and...
GROSS: Why is he there?
BAYNE: I don't know. There had been another fellow I just remembered, and it's funny how I discount him when I'm talking about residents, but he was a sophomore in college and got a full scholarship for basketball. He's a big, tall, wonderful guy. And a drunk driver hit him, and he was in a coma, I believe, for four months.
And since then, which has been, what, 30-some years, he's been living in facilities.
GROSS: One of the reasons why I wanted to talk with you about this, is because I think, you know, many people have family members who are in assisted living facilities. They visit the family member in the facility, and then they go home. And often by the time your family member's in assisted living, either they're not able to be a very good reporter about what's going on there, or you can dismiss it as oh, mom's depressed, dad's depressed, this is the best thing for them.
But you're almost acting like a reporter, being there, and bringing the outside world, the story of what it's like for you, and the story of what your observations are of other people who are there.
BAYNE: I call it an observer advocate.
GROSS: So let's start with some of the issues that I know have really gotten to you. Like you've talked - you've written about like the loss of control and identity when you enter an assisted living facility. I mean, on the bright side, you've got aides there, you've got somebody - you've got people making your meals and cleaning your room. Those are no longer your responsibilities. But you write about the loss of control and identity. Talk about that a little bit.
BAYNE: The loss of control, I have to be very careful, because I'm walking a fine line here, because the truth is, in the facility that I'm in, the administration, by and large, are wonderful people, wonderful people. But in many facilities, they're not. And they have a top-down management system, which starts, obviously, with the owners, or stockholders whichever the case may be. And they try and make you as compliant as possible as quickly as possible.
They don't need any revolutions. They want to put out a good face for the public. I was driving with someone else about a mile from where I live, and they saw an ad - a large ad for my facility - and there was a couple dancing. And I said to myself, you know, if I stood outside my room for five years, I would never see a couple dancing in my facility.
But that's not what upset me so much. What upset me was the fact that we as a society have begun to think of what our elders are capable of as merely pinochle and dancing and bingo. And that's such a waste of humanity. It really is. I mean, that's sadder, in my opinion, than cases of neglect that you see in facilities.
To see someone who is or was a doctorate, had a doctorate, or was a high-level professional or just was good at what they did - they could have been a cabinetmaker. And then to see them lose that edge, to see them stop and become what I call elder zombies, it's very sad, very sad.
GROSS: So do you socialize much with the people who also live in the assisted living facility?
BAYNE: As much as possible. I try and sit down and play the myriad card games, many of whom - whose names I don't even know. But it's not because I want to play cards; it's because I want to be around these people. So yes, the answer is as much as possible, sure.
GROSS: Is it hard when somebody comes in, and they're, say, you know, in their late 80s; some of their memories have faded; it's been years since they were active in their profession, if they had one; their spouse might have died; children living far away. And so they have this, like, long life with a lot of history that you're probably never going to know, or a lot of it you're not going to know. You're meeting somebody late in their life and knowing just, like, the tip of who they are and trying, you know, trying to encounter them as a full person but not knowing so much about their past.
BAYNE: That's where video comes in. I find video extraordinarily helpful in that respect. I try and get people on video as soon as possible because you never know how long they're going to be here, and video's never let me down. It's wonderful.
GROSS: How do you use it?
BAYNE: I just set my camera up on a tripod, and I invite people in to sit down with me and talk for half an hour about anything that's on their mind. And I had a fellow in the other night that was weeping during a discussion of his role in a Navy disaster, where one ship had hit another, and a number of men died.
For me, video is a very personal thing. It's almost like the most intimate form of communication that I can think of. And it allows me to sit there with the person, and for a few moments, we just let our guards down.
GROSS: Oh so you - I think I get what you're saying: You're there as an interviewer, and that gives you, as I feel I often have when I'm at the microphone, the liberty of asking anything without feeling like you're being presumptuous.
BAYNE: Exactly or intruding.
GROSS: Or intruding, yeah.
BAYNE: Right, that's right. And I find that people that I've never talked to before in that way all of a sudden open, and their life spills out in front of me, and I am moved, often, to tears myself.
GROSS: And what do you do with the video?
BAYNE: One of the first things I do if someone's died, is show them the video, to their children. I still keep them, but I always show it to the family if I do have the video of the deceased to share.
GROSS: My guest is Martin Bayne. He's now 62 and lives in an assisted living facility because of Parkinson's disease. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Martin Bayne. He's 62 and lives in an assisted living facility because of Parkinson's disease, which has left him unable to care for himself. He blogs about life in assisted living and wrote an article for Health Affairs that was excerpted in the Washington Post.
You've witnessed a lot of deaths. Is death talked about? I know someone was telling me, who lived in an assisted living facility, that one of the things that really bothered them is that everybody there knew that death was either just a little down the road or a few years away, but it was close. But no one talked about it, and when somebody did die that the administration didn't say anything, that you'd notice somebody wasn't at the dining room table the next day, that the room was empty, people were coming in to look at it, but nobody had said that the person had died or what they died off. It was almost as if it would be too depressing to mention it, so they didn't want to bother the other residents with it.
GROSS: What's your experience of that? How is death handled?
BAYNE: Well again, this is a factor of which facility you're in. But I would say it's fair to say that on the whole, death is handled very poorly and very badly. And I think that setting up a time and a place to honor the person who has just died, not only completes their life but in a way brings a sense of even joy and releasing (unintelligible) life. And it gives you a sense, I think, for everyone, that life is purposeful and that we have to acknowledge, not hide under the rug. A death is also an integral part of who we are as human beings.
And I think to talk about it openly, while in a way celebrating the lives of the deceased, I think is very helpful.
GROSS: How has it made you feel about death to be so surrounded by it because the people who you live with are so old that, I mean, even if they weren't sick, you would have witnessed many of them died because you're talking about people in their 80s and 90s.
BAYNE: Right. It has dramatically, and I feel now much more relaxed about my own death than I did before. My relationship with almost all the residents is such that many of the people who die, typically die slowly. I mean, there are some sudden deaths, but it's a slower process, generally, and I'm allowed to kind of take part of it.
This woman that died last week, I went into her room that night and sat with her, holding her hand, and she died the next morning while her son was by her bedside. And I talked to her son and gave her son a hug, and I'm much more - I guess relaxed is a word I have to use again, about my own death. When it comes, it comes. And whatever happens happens.
I'm told that 100 billion people have died up to this point in time on our planet, and none of them have come back to complain, and so it can't be that bad.
GROSS: So how did you become the person who goes in and holds the hand of the person who's dying?
BAYNE: Because I wanted to. I wanted to be there, and people know it. I make an attempt when anybody new comes into the building to introduce myself to them immediately. And when people are coming to an assisted living facility, it's typically after a trauma in their life: They just lost a spouse; they have some terrible disease; or they're in a stage of dementia where they can't live by themselves.
And it can be frightening for people at that age to come in and all of a sudden have to deal with all this foreign, new stuff. So I make it a point to go right up and introduce myself. And I think that my philosophy that it's the small things in life, the very small things, that mean the most. That too has given me a certain position, if you want, in the community.
And I think my age, too, people just kind of scratch their heads and look at me sometimes. But I love the community I'm in. It is my home, and the people there, no matter how demented or how sick, or whatever wrong with them, I feel that my responsibility to make their journey while still on this planet as joyous and fulfilling as possible.
GROSS: So something about your background that I'd like to bring up, you spent five years, I think, living in a Buddhist monastery on the West Coast.
BAYNE: Close, four or five years, yeah.
GROSS: Four or five years. And were you in a Jesuit monastery for a time, too?
BAYNE: I was in a Benedictine Catholic monastery for a year.
GROSS: Oh, for a year.
BAYNE: For a year, yeah.
GROSS: So I'm wondering if the things that you learned there about meditation, contemplation, are helping you at this stage of your life and helping you live in an assisted living facility, in an atmosphere that some people might find very depressing, you know, because people are so much older than you are and so much, you know, closer to death and often more seriously impaired - and so on.
BAYNE: You know, the Buddha said - I wasn't there obviously to hear him, but I'm told he said that life isn't permanent. And the time that I spent as a monk in both monasteries was without a doubt the most productive, powerful period of my life. And I owe, I believe, everything to the training that I received in both monasteries.
Zen is not that far from Catholicism. I was at the Benedictine monastery, and they encourage their monks to be rather eclectic when it comes to religious beliefs. They're obviously Christian. But one of the monks had built a small Japanese tea ceremony room. And I was reading a book one day from - it was in the room. And it said the Buddha had learned how to turn the stream of compassion within.
And I dropped to my knees and started to weep. It never occurred to me that one could turn the stream of compassion within. Sometime later I was on a plane to California to the Buddhist monastery to try and find out how does one do this. How does one love themselves? How does one give oneself the benefit of the doubt?
GROSS: How does one give to oneself the compassion that would come naturally when it came to caring for other people.
BAYNE: Exactly because in my experience, Terry, this is all in a mirror, and how you treat yourself and how you treat other people is identical, identical. The love and affection that you have for other people is only as much as you can afford for yourself. It was like a homecoming. I had forgiven myself, Terry, of all the things that I had done that I didn't think I should have done, of all the things I wasn't I thought I should be. I accepted them.
And when that happened, it's indescribable, really, that something so simple as accepting yourself, turning the stream of compassion within, yet it's such a powerful gift. And not to just myself but to all those now I come in contact with.
GROSS: Well, it's really been good to talk with you. I appreciate you making the trip to a radio studio so we could speak over microphones to each other so that the audience can hear you well. Thank you so much. Thank you for talking with us.
BAYNE: Terry, it was my pleasure.
GROSS: Martin Bayne is a resident of an assisted living facility because of Parkinson's disease. He wrote an article about life there in Health Affairs, which was excerpted in the Washington Post. You'll find a link to both, as well as a link to his new blog, and his literary journal on our website freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. During the early 1950s when rock 'n' roll's history was beginning to come together, no single type of music sold better or was more influential in binding teenagers together as the harmony singing known as doo-wop. It didn't come out of nowhere, however, and scholar Bill Dahl has now undertaken a 15-volume year-by-year survey of the form for Bear Family Records. It's called "Street Corner Symphonies: The Complete Story of Doo-Wop."
The first five volumes, dealing with 1939 to 1953, have been released. Rock historian Ed Ward has heard them and has this review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIXTY MINUTE MAN")
BILLY WARD AND THE DOMINOES: (Singing) Woo-hoo-hoo-hoo. Woo-hoo-hoo. Sixty minute man. Sixty minute man. Looka here, girls, I'm telling you now, they call me loving Dan. I'll rock 'em, roll 'em all night long I'm a sixty-minute man. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
ED WARD, BYLINE: Billy Ward and the Dominoes' "Sixty Minute Man," an underground hit in 1951, is often credited as one of the first rhythm-and-blues records that white kids bought because it was dirty. By today's standards, it's pretty mild, but it was a different story then. Otherwise, the song is pretty normal fare for the day, with bass singer Bill Brown taking the lead and the rest of the group punctuating the lyrics with support.
Vocal groups had been around for a while by the time this record was made, and were often part of a nightclub show back in the 1930s. Some would sing with the band's rhythm section behind them, and some, like the Cats and the Fiddle, played their own instruments.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I MISS YOU SO")
CATS AND THE FIDDLE: (Singing) Those happy hours that once were ours. I miss him yes, I know. Most of all, I miss you so. Now that I'm lonely I...
WARD: Others, like the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers, were famous on their own, and would play package shows with other musicians as well as clubs. Some of these acts went on for decades, often without a single member of the original group appearing with them.
As far as black teenagers were concerned, though, this was old folks' music, and after WWII, they wanted something of their own. For harmony singing, all you needed were some other singers, and basic harmony instruction was as close as the church your parents probably made you attend anyway. The first wave of these groups was referred to as the bird groups, because the Robins, the Orioles and the Ravens were the first to start investigating the new ways of presenting vocal harmony. The Ravens, for instance, had a bass lead singer, Jimmy Ricks, known as Ricky.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "OLD MAN RIVER")
THE RAVENS: (Singing) Doodi doo doo, doodi do do. Well, old man river, old man river, he must know something, but he don't say nothing. No, he just keep rolling, keeps on just rolling along. Doodi doo doo, doodi do do. Keeps on rolling. Doodi doo doo, doodi do do.
WARD: Ricky's bass lead was copied by a lot of other groups, but although the bird groups were younger, this was still the old frontman-with-harmonies approach. As some of the new gospel groups coming up were proving, there was another way, and when one of them decided to go secular, hits often followed.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY, DON'T DO IT")
THE 5 ROYALES: (Singing) If what you say is true, then you and I are through. If you leave me pretty baby, I'll have bread without no meat. I've given you all of me. You are all that I have, you see. And if you leave me, pretty babe, I'll have bread without no meat. You told me that you love me. How good you made it sound. And now you're trying to tell me you going to put me down. Oh, baby, don't do it. Don't do it. Don't do it.
WARD: The 5 Royales' "Baby, Don't Do It," from 1952, translated gospel fire and quick interaction between the soloist and the group into a big hit for the former Royal Sons, and they never looked back. Vocalist Johnny Tanner is rightly credited with being one of the inventors of soul music.
The other approach was to take an old standard and rearrange it, as with this chestnut from the '30s film "Holiday Inn."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STORMY WEATHER")
FIVE SHARPS: (Singing) Don't know why there's no sun up in the sky. Stormy weather. It's me and my gal ain't together. It's raining all the time. Can't go out.
WARD: Sorry for the terrible sound quality there. That's one of the only two known copies of the world's rarest records, the Five Sharps "Stormy Weather," and another the other has a crack in it. Not only was this a holy grail for record collectors, this song became a challenge to young groups to harmonize and rearrange, to show your chops.
By 1953, it was clearly harmony that was the thing, and one of the first groups to throw down the gauntlet was Chicago's Flamingos, who would be champions of the genre for years. One of their first records, "Golden Teardrops," shows what they were capable of.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLDEN TEARDROPS")
FLAMINGOS: (Singing) Golden teardrops, I remember when you fell from the eyes of my love. You made me reconsider what a fool I've been. And swear to God, I'll stray no more by all the stars above. Golden teardrops...
WARD: As you can hear, lead singer Sollie McElroy is only part of the story here. I think the falsetto is by Zeke Carey, but Dahl's liner notes aren't clear on this.
And, of course, combining the rhythms that would eventually become rock 'n' roll with some solid harmonizing could also move records with teenagers, black and white.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD LOVIN'"] YEAH I KNOW)
THE CLOVERS: Wada doo-doo-woop. Doo-doo. Da, da, da, da, da. Baby I love you. I really love you. Baby I need your good nothing. Got to have all your good loving. Baby I want your good loving. You're good loving satisfies my time. Gee, but I crave you...
WARD: The Clovers' "Good Lovin'" was a smash hit on the rhythm and blues charts, although it was doubtful that pop radio would've played. It was too suggestive. But that's OK. It was only 1953. Doo-wop would soon conquer America, to the delight of its teenagers, and the dismay of its grouches.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in France. He reviewed the first five Volumes of "Street Corner Symphonies" on Bear Family Records. You'll find a couple of videos of doo-wop groups on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, why you should start thinking of your cellphone as a tracking device.This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST: We're constantly discovering new uses for our smartphones. We write texts and emails, follow maps, order clothes and food, surf the Internet and, of course, make calls. But while we're doing all of this, our phone carriers are gathering enormous amounts of information about us.
Our guest, reporter Peter Maass, says we should be thinking more about what they're doing with that information. Maass wrote in The New York Times in July that the device in your purse or jeans that you think is a cellphone is really a tracking device that happens to make calls. He suggests we stop calling them phones and call them trackers.
Cellphone carriers are holding on to all the information collected in smart phones, including text messages and locations. And it was reported this summer that last year cellphone carriers responded to more than a million requests for information from law enforcement agencies.
Peter Maass has been reporting on issues of technology and privacy for the investigative reporting nonprofit ProPublica. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Peter Maass, welcome back to FRESH AIR. What kind of information are our cellphones collecting about us?
PETER MAASS: Our cellphones are collecting a heck of a lot more information than we expect them to be collecting about us. They are collecting where we are - not just at one particular moment in the day, but at virtually every moment of the day. This is location information that the cellphone carriers collect and most importantly retain for sometimes quite long periods of time. They are also taking note of what we are buying, how we are purchasing it, how often we are purchasing it. That's just kind of a starting point of the sorts of various sensitive, very important things that these phones take note of - including, I should add, and this is very important, our text messages.
DAVIES: Right. And when we're talking about location information, we're talking about not just where we were when we were on the phone talking or texting, but where we were all the time? Is that right?
MAASS: Yes. As a matter of just kind of their networks operating properly, they need to kind of check to make sure we're people's phones are. So basically through either GPS tracking or through triangulation of the cellphone towers, they are at different intervals depending on which phone company we're talking about, depending on where your location is, they are checking to see where you are and they are recording this information and they do hold on to it. That's very important information for them to have.
DAVIES: And retain for some period of time?
MAASS: It depends on your provider. Some providers keep for an indefinite period of time. Some providers do delete it or say they delete it. But the thing is that they really are able to do as they wish because there are no rules, federal rules, federal laws on how long they can or should retain this information for. And the thing is that for them it's useful information technologically understandably because they need to know kind of what the patterns of phone use are so that if they need to build more towers in a particular place they know how many to build, things of that sort. But it's also potentially a gold mine of data mining information.
When you know when and where somebody is, what they're doing, how long they are there for, that could be commercially useful if not to the cellphone company, at least two other third-party companies that have things to sell. In addition to which this is all very useful to law enforcement because if they are investigating somebody or something and they need to find out where they were, they can get that information from the cellphone companies.
DAVIES: Now for a long time we've known that law enforcement will go to the phone company when they're doing an investigation. If someone is a suspect in a murder case they'll pull phone records and see who they've been talking to frequently for leads and valuable information. Does that now extend widely to geo-tracking information? Are they going to these cellphone companies to find out where we are?
MAASS: Absolutely. And that's one of the, you know, innovations that cellphones offer because previously when it was just landlines were talking about well, you know, you know where somebody is when you're calling from a landline because you know where that landline is. But now because people are calling from all sorts of locations, wherever they happen to be with their cellphones, police can find out where you are at the moment that you are calling even if it's not your home where the landline is or the office where your landline is. And if you're investigating whatever it is, a robbery, burglary, particularly things like kidnappings, of course, this is vital and really important information that they want to take advantage of and it has become - and this is kind of particularly important here - it has become particularly easy for them to access this information.
Because back in the day with landlines, there were pretty clear, pretty strict laws about what the police could access, when it could access it and what sort of judicial oversight was required. These days, because cellphone location technology in particular and the data that, you know, it produces is relatively new and so abundant the law hasn't really kept up with it. So law enforcement is really not faced with as many limits as they used to be and so they are availing themselves quite freely, it appears, in modest amounts, to get a hold of this information pretty much at the drop of the hat.
DAVIES: In general, is it believed that there's a different legal standard for a case where the police are actually wanting to listen to conversations, you know, or get the actual content of conversations as opposed to simply find out where you are? Is it clear that there is a different legal standard for those two kinds of information?
MAASS: Well, what you're talking about there is wiretapping, and there is kind of long established, very firm laws about what police need to do, what evidence they need to have, what kind of judicial approval needs to be assembled in order for that to happen. Whether you're doing that sort of wiretapping on a landline or a cell phone, it is my understanding that the same long established rules apply.
The twist these days is that it's not as important to know what somebody is saying on a phone. What's very important these days and very useful these days and much easier to get is where they were when they were making the call - who they were calling, how often they were calling, where they moved to while they were calling.
These things, for an investigator, turn out to be extremely important. So that what you're actually saying on the phone isn't as important as where you were when you were saying it and who you were saying it to. And law enforcement knows who you were saying it to because they know not only where you call from but also the number you are calling to.
DAVIES: If you wanted to find out, will your cell phone company tell you what they're doing with your data?
MAASS: You know, this is one of the marvelous things that we found out. I should say in particular my colleague, Megha Rajagopalan, found out. Megha contacted her carrier and then other people at ProPublica contacted their carriers, the different carriers, and everybody asked the same question. Could we please have our location information?
And the answer from every single one of these companies was no, you certainly cannot. So the bottom line is, they will provide that information to law enforcement. They may now or they may at some point in the future provide that information to companies that pay for it. At this moment they will not provide that information to you.
DAVIES: If you don't want to be tracked, is there anything you can do? Are there settings you can adjust or anything?
MAASS: Are there ways that you can limit the information that is collected on you? Sure. There are. Some of them are actually quite easy. You know, you cannot use the location apps. That will reduce the amount of location information that is provided to companies that control the apps.
You can turn off your cell phone, but you know, it is possible for malware to be used against you that indicates your cell phone is turned off whereas in fact it's not. So it's still pinging your information around. But if the question is, you know, how do we stop tracking from occurring on us with our cell phones, the answer pretty much is, don't use a cell phone at all.
DAVIES: Well, Peter, you've recently written about the Federal Trade Commission and the challenges it faces in privacy regulation, and one of the points you make is that a lot of the valuable information that is revealed about the way companies may be violating our privacy has come not from federal investigators but from other places. You want to give us an example and tell us about it?
MAASS: Sure. I think the best example and the most kind of well known one is Google Street View. And this is, of course, the application, the program that most people are familiar with, where Google has kind of gone around America and gone around some parts of the world, particularly Europe, and taken pictures of every street.
And so if you plug in an address into your browser you can get a picture of the street. Now, in America there is some opposition to Google taking pictures of everybody's house, but basically the program went ahead and everything was kind of copasetic with that and Google said don't worry, we're just taking pictures of houses. It's not a big deal. We're not downloading any data or anything like that.
In Europe, where there was a much more recent history, in the 20th century, of abuses of personal information, there was a lot more opposition because people were saying, wait a minute, what are you doing? Do you really have the right to take pictures of our houses? Is that all you're doing with these fancy cars that have all this machinery in them?
And there was a data commissioner, a data protection officer, in Hamburg who basically insisted that Google let his office inspect the hard drive of one of these cars to make sure that all it was doing was taking pictures. And to make a long story short, what he found out was that Google wasn't just taking pictures. Google was also downloading data from open Wi-Fi networks as its cars went down these streets.
And Google had said it wasn't doing this. Now, Google had also been doing this in the United States but American authorities had not pushed Google to the wall enough on what its cars were really doing. It was a German official who basically pushed Google to the wall and got it to admit that it wasn't just taking pictures, that it was also downloading data, some of it private.
And Google is in a lot of hot water now with American authorities, but much more so with European authorities over what the Europeans particularly regard as gross violations of privacy in its Street View program. Now, this is the kind of thing that, you know, one would ideally want our own regulators to have been aware of and to have kind of surfaced and punished Google for if indeed this is a privacy violation.
But in fact it was European authorities who really kind of led the way on this. And one of the reasons why is because European authorities have a bit more authority in some important cases and some important areas than the American authorities do. There are folks at the FTC who are real privacy hounds who come from the privacy sphere, but they don't have necessarily the funding and they don't have necessarily the authority to get the information and to do what they might like to do in a more ideal situation.
DAVIES: Now, just to be clear about this, what Google was doing was going down the street and sweeping data from people's personal Wi-Fi networks, meaning potentially passwords and other personal information?
MAASS: Anything that was flowing over an open Wi-Fi network as the Google Street View cars were driving past was downloaded by the Street View cars. Since they were moving from any one particular Wi-Fi network, unless the car happened to be stopped at a traffic light, most of the information that was downloaded was somewhat fragmentary, because they'd be in the Wi-Fi network and then, because they're moving, they'd be out of it.
But in that information there were passwords and there was more than passwords. There was partial financial information and there was more personal information than that as well. So anything that was going over one of these open Wi-Fi networks, whether it was passwords, whether it was a note to a loved one, whether it was financial information, the Google Street View cars could have, and in some cases did, capture.
DAVIES: We're speaking with investigative reporter Peter Maass. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with investigative reporter Peter Maass. He writes for ProPublica, where he and his colleague, Megha Rajagopalan, have done some research on digital privacy issues, in particular how law enforcement are getting information from cell phones.
Now, in your assessment of the Federal Trade Commission, the FTC, and its efforts in this area, I mean it's clear that they seem to be less effective than they are in Europe, and you make the point it's not because, as is sometimes the case with government regulators, the regulators are too close to the industry that they regulate. There are people of goodwill trying to do a good job here, right?
MAASS: Absolutely. At the FTC in the last couple of years under the Obama-era chairman, Jon Leibowitz, there's been a lot of really top tier privacy talent recruited to the agency. The problem is that they don't have as much authority as, in some cases, for example, European regulators have.
Because since the - really since the Reagan era, not just in terms of funding but also in terms of, you know, regulations, what the regulators are allowed and encouraged to do, it's declined in many cases. So they don't have as much manpower to regulate as they did before the Reagan era and the whole kind of government move against - or political move, I should say, against regulation.
And then they don't have as much kind of authority. I mean, there are no privacy laws that are really written for most of the privacy violations that occur today, because we're talking, you know, stuff and technology that has developed just in the last decade or so that has been widely deployed only in some cases in the last couple of years. And the law hasn't kept up with it.
And it's difficult, one has to admit, for the law to keep up with it because the technology changes so quickly. So even if you write a law today to protect, you know, our privacy on, let's say, Web browsers on our laptops, well, more and more of us are using mobile phones to browse the Web than laptops. So you've got kind of apply things to this different technology.
So it is very difficult for the law to keep up with these areas and because of, you know, Congress may not be as efficient as it used to be in terms of passing law, they're not getting passed as much as perhaps one would want in order for actual guidelines, rules of the road, to exist for federal regulators to enforce.
DAVIES: You've written that the Europeans have been more aggressive in pursuing digital privacy issues than American regulators. When they have some success in this area, does that affect policy in the United States and regulation here as well?
MAASS: Well, this is one of the very useful aspects of kind of, you know, the global nature of Web use. For example, Facebook, of course, has about 900 million customers, and a huge number of those, quite obviously, are not in the United States. Now, when the European regulators ask Facebook to make a change or levy a fine against Facebook - and I'm just using Facebook as an example here - Facebook tends to apply all of these changes, positive changes, to all of its customers.
So the advantage of kind of this, you know, in a way it's outsourcing the regulation, is that when a European regulator gets a major technology company, and most of the major ones are American - we're talking about Google, we're talking about Facebook, Twitter, etc. - when European regulators ask them to make a change, those changes are applied in most cases to all of the technology company's clients, including those in the United States.
So we here in America benefit when a European regulator leans for privacy purposes on an American company. And that's one way in which our privacy is these days protected. Because it's not just the federal government, which has its hands obviously quite full, but also European regulators who have influence over American companies.
And there's an argument that actually the European regulators in some respects have more power or will use their power more willingly against American companies, because these are American companies that the Europeans are moving against, not European companies, and there are not the same kinds of concerns in Europe, for example, how is this going to affect Google's bottom line, as there might be in America amongst Washington politicians and other folks who do need to be aware of America's and who are aware of America's competitive position and do that that into consideration.
Nobody wants to shut down Google. Europeans don't necessarily want to shut down Google, but they're less concerned about Google's bottom line in Europe than they are in America.
DAVIES: Well, Peter Maass, thanks so much for speaking with us.
MAASS: Thank you.
GROSS: Peter Maass spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Maass is a reporter for ProPublica. You'll find a link to his article about why cell phones are really tracking devices on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.
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