The Manchurian Email

by lissajuliana

The Queen of Hearts

The Queen of Hearts (Photo credit: RobHannay)

In these days of the NSA, and its policy of no email left behind, some propose resistance via nonsense. An Ohio man recently designed a program called ScareMail that will add a string of computer-generated sentences containing significant NSA keywords to every email you write. In his view, if every email has something deemed “collectible” in it, then the results will become meaningless.

The sample ScareMail sentences read like nonsense: “Captain Beatty failed on his Al-Shabaab, hacking relentlessly about the fact to phish this far.” They read a lot like the train scene from The Manchurian Candidate. When Marco (Frank Sinatra) meets Rosie (Janet Leigh) on a train from Washington to New York, he’s so paranoid he can barely light a cigarette. The conversation that ensues when she hits on him hardly helps his mental state:

Rosie: Maryland’s a beautiful state.
Marco: This is Delaware.
Rosie: I know. I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this stretch. But nonetheless, Maryland is a beautiful state. So is Ohio, for that matter.
Marco: I guess so. Columbus is a tremendous football town.

Things don’t improve much from there and, really, no one has ever agreed on whether Rosie’s words were attempts to trigger Marco into a brainwashed state (as the Queen of Hearts did for Raymond Shaw), or if she was just a pretty blonde for Sinatra to hang out with.

Either way, the non sequitur banter is precisely the kind of thing that some now urge all of us to consider when engaging in private conversations by electronic means. A literary scholar suggests we re-learn the language of beggars, thieves, and bandits who long confounded authority by making one word stand in for another. A Brazilian commentator has described her country’s “Mad Cow Protection Plan”—an effort to include nonsense language in addition to directly addressing NSA workers with holiday greetings—after Brazilians learned about data mining there.

A Dutch-Iranian filmmaker decided instead to take the cow, or rather bull, by the horns. He politely called the NSA on a number of occasions to ask for assistance in retrieving some lost emails. This was, needless to say, a reassuring exercise:

NSA: “What you’re speaking of we’re not involved in. You have no reason to be afraid.”

Caller: “I can tell everyone, my girlfriend especially, that I have nothing to worry about?”

NSA: “Have a good day.”

The filmmakers and writers of Eastern Europe used to do a marvelous job of slipping messages past the censors of their countries back in the bad old days of the Iron Curtain. Sometimes they’d deliberately place an obviously objectionable phrase or image next to one that was a sly jab at authority. The garbage got cut; the important part stayed in. It worked like a charm and meant that movies like Closely Watched Trains or Man of Marble made it to the screen.

The odd twist now is that no one seems to be worrying much about what gets said publicly. It’s our private remarks that have us going all retro-Red Scare. But then, this is a story in which one of the key figures–the director of the NSA–publicly stated that he gave “the least untruthful answer possible” in response to questions about privacy concerns. So speak up, speak out, but for safety’s sake, at least consider speaking in tongues.