- Associated Press - Sunday, March 30, 2014

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) - When he got the news, it was no surprise Fred Cate was at an airport.

A flight for congressional testimony in Washington, D.C., is followed by a board meeting at Microsoft headquarters in Seattle, which is followed by a conference with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. The data revolution calls because he arrived in the right time and place - an expert on privacy and the law in the age of Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency.

But years before Americans would hear the name Snowden, Beth Cate met her husband at the Charlotte airport and delivered news of a different sort.

“Snowflake died.”

“People passing by,” Fred Cate remembers. “They must have thought I had lost a loved one.”

The world’s weightiest struggles with technology and “Big Brother” are one thing; the death of a pet gerbil is another. The man directing the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University comes to the airport armed with suits and ties and a cool command of intellectual debate, but he leaves the fray with his sensitivity intact.

He loves animals - big and small, real or imaginary. He tells time with a Winnie the Pooh wristwatch, a timepiece prone to slip out from under his left sleeve during committee hearings. He has collected more than a thousand stuffed animals, travel companions during long flights to and from meetings. Because of his crammed schedule, there is no place for live pets at the Cates’ Bloomington home these days, but they dote over an elephant and an Alaskan brown bear they “parent” at the Indianapolis Zoo.

Cate doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he’s an internationally respected voice in his field. The powerful listen as he tells them uncomfortable truths about invading privacy. The Transportation Security Administration placed hundreds of body scanners in airports; too bad, Cate said, they do more to show someone naked than to root out terrorism. Governments use metadata to pre-empt wrongdoers; but remember, Cate said, data can be misinterpreted.

Despite all his thinking, there is no keeping up with a bullet train of technological advances. At some point, between the flights, the briefings and the lectures, he withdraws back to his other life.

That life has its quirks.

Even as Beth Cate utters the name Snowflake years after the gerbil’s death, Fred Cate walks out of the living room, unsure of his composure. Snowflake started out as a neighbor’s pet. The Cates filled in so well during the neighbor’s vacation, her stay became permanent. They made sure she had a mountain of shredded cardboard to scale.

As he recalls Snowflake, his eyes are drawn to the backyard where he buried her. The motion-activated lights have turned on and now illuminate the manmade waterfall outside his bathroom window. “I’m going to see who that is,” Cate says. He grabs his camera and hurries down a dark hallway. Under a pair of bird feeders, a rabbit gnashes its teeth.

Before the lights switch off, Cate gets his bunny picture.

The world was once a simpler place. Cate’s father was an Old Testament scholar and a Baptist preacher who taught the local kindergartners about Petey Church Mouse and Timothy T. Turtle.

According to Robert Cate’s stories, Petey lived in a tissue box in the preacher’s top drawer, but would embark on wild adventures. The fox and the raccoon, who also populated the stories, didn’t sneer at one another as they would in real life. They were friends.

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