Sunday, July 28, 2013

Suppose Everyone Is Listening

There are a lot of words out there right now about who is listening to your conversations, who might be reading your electronic mail, what part of our freedoms are being violated. There are few answers.

I would speculate that since humans first began communication with a coherent and repeatable set of sounds, somewhat more understandable than grunts, there have been eavesdroppers and tale bearers among us. It isn’t hard to understand why that would happen in the most primitive societies: people like to know what is going on where, when, why, and sometimes how. "How" is included in the journalistic code, but the essential four are what drives gossip, innuendo, and reporting.

We have, in recent months, been made more aware than ever of the unknown listeners in our lives. I remember years ago routinely answering my office phone with the admonition that "this is not a secure line." It seemed necessary, dealing with the media and the public as I did. Today I only use that phrase when I’m discussing something that could be mis-interpreted or that might give a third party the wrong idea about something. The same as saying: "Off the record and not for attribution." For the same reason, I’m careful about what I put in emails, text messages (I may use that route three times a year), and even written information. As a writer I am aware of what words mean and what they can do, how they can be mis-interpreted, and what damage they can do either by intent or accident.

While it may be true that "sticks and stones can hurt my bones, but words will never harm me," you have only to look at the face of a bullied child, or an employee following a supervisor’s expression of discontent. It is a wide world in which words live, and we need to be careful about how we channel them.

One of the many signs I had posted in my offices over the years was: "Be Sure Brain is Engaged Before Putting Mouth in Gear." It is far too easy for your thoughts to get ahead of your voice and confuse or anger or hurt the listener. It is still good advice. But back to who is listening.

I once sat as a jury member in the trial of a man who was accused of breaking and entering a residence for the purpose of theft. He was arrested because he had used his driver’s license to open a locked door, and being a bright fellow, left it for the police to find when the homeowner reported the break-in. Well, if you are going to leave your calling card, you must not really understand how information can be used. Today, in addition to driver’s licenses, most of us have electronic signatures for our computers and tablets and pads and phones that are used to recognize us. There are ways of not only finding us, but replacing us with someone who is up to no good, and doing things in our name. Still, it comes down to this: you can find a place to hide only if you cut yourself off completely from the rest of the world. Otherwise you are fair game for others to find and convert to their own use. It is a part of modern life, and I don’t see any really sensible way of avoiding it unless you avoid life altogether.

During WW II there were posters everywhere reminding us that "Walls Have Ears." It isn’t a new thing in our lives, it isn’t going away, and in fact it is probably only going to accelerate. Another saying from childhood is this couplet: "fools names and fool’s faces/often appear in public places." Just consider the stories about people passed over for jobs because of comments they had loaded onto their personal public media pages

If you are going to write your name on a wall, remember that the wall is a public place.

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