Power and Responsibility

Have you ever looked someone up in a database? Did you find what you were looking for?

The doorbell rang one morning while I was getting ready for work. My then-boyfriend was asleep in our room. The dogs were quiet. The house was at rest. I walked downstairs to answer the door.

There was a man in a suit outside. He looked like a cop. My heart started racing. I cracked the door open and he extended his card. Let’s call him Richard. Richard had kind eyes. He said, “Excuse me. Are you Nicole Jones?”

I met his gaze and said, “Yes, I am. What is this about?” I was scared something happened to someone in my family. It was too early for visitors, and he looked serious in all his seriousness.

“I’m Richard from the Department of Homeland Security. Do you know John Doe?” he asked. (I’m using these placeholder names to respect their privacy.)

I looked at Richard for a moment. He was asking about someone I don’t talk about. Someone whose name I wish I didn’t know. But with the directness of the question, I got right to the point. “I used to know him. He raped me as a child. Has he hurt somebody else?” I was ready to testify then and there.

Richard told me John hadn’t hurt anyone else, at least to his knowledge. He was here to try to stop that from happening.

John was involved with a 16 or 17-year-old girl. She was Richard’s best friend’s daughter.

Richard begged my pardon. He was here for personal reasons. He found me in a database and decided to contact me after things got worse. They had tried everything. She didn’t believe what they told her. She wouldn’t listen. She was starting to slip away.

Richard asked for my help. He wanted to access my own database: my memory. He asked me to tell the girl what happened when I was little. He wanted me to tell her the truth. Maybe if she heard it from me, she’d understand. John was dangerous. Not to be trusted. Not who he says he is. A liar, a manipulator, and a rapist. (I refuse to accept the word “molester” as if forcing sex on a child is simply a bothersome inconvenience.)

John was almost 50 then. What a mess.

I saw what was happening, but I didn’t know how to feel. Richard was breaking the law and risking his job for this girl. He used his authority to access private information, to learn about John, to justify fears, and to contact me at my home, the only private place I had left. I was there in the strings, just waiting to be pulled: Victim, Nicole Jones, Single, White, Female, Born 1983, Living, Austin, Texas.

My home in Austin
My home in Austin

I put Richard’s business card in my pocket and thought about national security. Was it okay for him to be here, as a government employee, asking me for a favor? Was I even surprised? Would he threaten to kill me if I talked about it, the way John had?

I didn’t know what to do or what the right thing was. This was all happening in the gray areas between victim, criminal, government, and network. A man with a lot of power and responsibility was at my door, pleading for help. He seemed genuinely kind and concerned. He asked me to tell a story that I alone could tell. I never really had that chance before. I was too young to testify during the trial. The authorities were afraid it would be too painful for me, and I’m sure they were right. But without my participation, John talked himself out of a 10-year sentence with a plea bargain and probation. He got to walk.

I felt obligated to tell the truth. It wouldn’t be about revenge, I decided. It would be some sort of closure for me, that’s all. John paid for his crimes in serious ways. He lost his dignity, his community, and, most of all, his privacy. He’s listed in the Texas Department of Public Safety Sex Offenders Registry. I learned about this database in a sociology class in college. I was sitting in the dark in a cold lecture hall at The University of Texas, trying to enter the vowels of John’s real name in the right order. My hands were shaking. After a few tries, John looked back at me, weathered by the years. His hair is lighter. His eyes are darker. We both look different now, but the record hasn’t changed.

I felt better knowing there was a record. It was validating for me. He was real. It had happened. They can identify him and they know where he lives. His address is in the database for everyone to see. I looked it up in Google Maps. His house is on the other side of Texas. That helped me breathe easier. Thank god that state is big enough for the both of us.

The University of Texas campus
The University of Texas campus

John has three birthdays and three spellings of his name. He’s a liar and I know it. I can show you, right there in the database. Risk level: moderate. Sentence: 10 years. Status: discharged from probation. Victim sex: female. Victim age: 9. There I am, nameless and faceless. That’s me. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but wherever his crime is printed, I’m in the text too, ready to be tracked and traced.

I swallowed my anger and thought of the girl. She was only a few years younger than me. Maybe I could help, maybe I couldn’t. Richard and I talked about the plan. We figured out how to send her the message without putting me in direct danger. A few days later, I asked my boyfriend to go out for a while so I could record myself. I stood in front of my iSight camera, trying to see the girl’s face in its mechanical lines. I told her what happened and showed her old photos of me and John from the back of my closet. Afterwards, I compressed the video and burned it to a disc. I snapped the disc into its case, tucked it into a manila envelope, and left it under the doormat. There, done.

My childhood home near Dallas
My childhood home near Dallas

Richard picked up the disc while I was at work. He must have lived nearby. I didn’t think of that then either. I didn’t want to know how close all of this was to my front door.

After a few weeks, I emailed Richard at the address on his business card. I can’t find the note now, but it’s there somewhere in the depths of the internet. I asked how things were going. Was the girl okay? Had I been of any help? Was my story worth telling?

Richard said he was sorry. It didn’t work out how he hoped. The girl thought I made everything up. There are a few minutes in the video where I look off to pause and remember. I cried too, which surprised me during the recording. The girl thought I was reading from a script. She didn’t know I quit theatre in junior high. She didn’t know I’m a terrible actor. She didn’t know how hard it was to talk about. She didn’t want to know; she thought I was a liar.

I decided to let it go. I did what I could. I finally got to tell my story.

When I think about the responsibility we have to each other, this is where I start:

Every kind of user information relates to privacy.

You never know where a trail leads. We are connected in unbelievable ways.

People have the right to know how information is used.

If you ask someone to share information about themselves, help them understand where it’s going and how it benefits other people.

Pain is hard to express.

Abusive situations and topics are extremely difficult to talk about, especially when they’re still happening. Simple words like “no” and “stop” aren’t always enough.

Because my mom supported me with love and asked me open-ended questions, I eventually found a way to express myself and stop the abuse. When we talk about boundaries in our own lives, we help others find the courage and the words to do the same.

We have laws for a reason, but this stuff is complicated.

We build systems that talk to each other. We have to think about good and bad behaviors. We have to use our brains and our hearts. We should be sensitive to difficult situations in everything we make.

I’m a writer. I work on interfaces for products and websites. If I do my job right, you won’t notice me at all. My identity isn’t important. I’m speaking on behalf of a very friendly machine.

I’m here to help people feel safe, to guide them, and to ask for information in a non-creepy way, so they’ll find what they need and have an easier time along the way. I work with content that’s wrapped in code. I’m a sort of translator. I take database fields and turn them into something meaningful for readers, so they’ll enter structured information back into the system.

I don’t know what the databases know. I can’t see what a specific person puts into the database and I don’t want to. But I do know what fields we’re prompting for and what kinds of things we’re hoping to learn about people using the system. These details include: names, dates, locations, habits, relationships, topics of interest, or payment details.

The systems I work on talk to people, or users, with words from my mouth. (I write them down as I mumble silently to myself.) These words and strings show up in flows and forms connected by buttons and links. What is your name? Where do you live? What is your credit card number? How did you hear about us? What do you care about? These are all private bits of information. Unique and identifiable. Tiny stories waiting to be strung together or picked apart. And since I can’t see the details, I can only write for the abstract. I write the stories I want the interface to tell, working backwards from everyday language to something a database can relate to.

It’s hard to write interesting stories when you don’t know the subject or the reader. To make it easier, I often use myself or someone I know to fill in the blanks.

When I think about my trail at https://records.txdps.state.tx.us, I can see the log strings stretch out behind me as I walk away.

It looks like John lives by an old two-lane highway somewhere in North Texas. The trees are still. The grass is dead. It’s winter there in the frozen forever of Google Street View.

I hope it’s warm and sunny now, but not too hot. I hope he finds peace and a breeze in the air. I hope he realizes that every action we take becomes part of the system.