Frankly, I’m getting a bit fed up with the whole “wiretapping/violation of privacy rights” issue. For as much time as the newspapers spent on it, you’d think someone, somewhere—in the mass media or in Washington—would have simply applied a little common sense. We could have nipped the whole thing in the bud long ago. But your old friend DS is here to set you straight.
Let’s start with the basics, shall we? Everywhere I look, I see people complaining that taping/tapping/listening to phone calls is a violation of “privacy rights.” BZZZZZZT! Wrong! Look up the word “private” in the dictionary. It means belonging to an individual. Privacy rights are those that belong to an individual. For my money, the second the person at the end of that phone picks up and says “Yo,” anything said is no longer private. Get it? You’ve put it out there. Don’t think so? Let me run something by you…
Let’s suppose one day you grow tired of little Jimmy from next door riding his bike through your flower bed, and decide to do away with the little moppet. One thing leads to another and presto—Jimmy’s on a milk carton, and you’ve got the best rhododendrons in the county. You’re celebrating one night, sitting around in a soft robe, drinking mohitos, when you blurt out—to yourself—“Man, I’m glad I got rid of Next-door Jimmy.” Here, in your house, by yourself, you have a reasonable expectation of privacy. A listening device planted in your house (without a warrant), recording your confession, would seem to me to be a legitimate example of a violation of privacy. Let’s look, though, at version two…
You still whack Jimmy, but eventually the guilt gets to you, and you confess your deed to a friend…over the phone. Now if that friend was me, I’d be setting up a schedule for monthly, undocumented payments. But most people aren’t the shrewd businessperson I am, and would probably turn your ass in. In this case, I would argue that you have no expectation of privacy over the phone, since you’ve already decided to share the information with at least one other person. I say “at least” because you can’t even be sure that your friend is the only one listening on the other end. Think back to those days of high school when you nervously called your crush to ask her out on a date only to find out the next day at school that all her friends were listening in on extentions…and struggling to keep from laughing out loud. But I digress. Still, the question remains:
When did we EVER have an expectation of privacy when talking on the telephone? Think about it. When the telephone was in its early years, who was it that routed the calls? That’s right—the operator. And she could listen all day long if she wanted. No privacy there.
Most of you don’t remember this, but there also used to be a little something called a “party line.” No, it’s not the $3.99/min. kind. A party line was when you and your neighbors shared the same phone connection. Only one of you could use the phone at the same time. And guess what happened if you picked up your phone while your neighbor was on? That’s right—you could hear everything he or she said. It was actually pretty entertaining, and made a nice transition, entertainment wise, from those days of radio into the days of television. Again, no expectation of privacy there.
What about cell phones, or cordless phones? Any geek with a scanner and a little knowledge can pick up your conversations as easily as they might get the local FM station. You are broadcasting your conversation into the air!! Nope, no expectation of privacy there.
Anyone try calling a business, or doctor’s office, or even a high school these days? Nine times out of ten you’re going to get a message telling you that they are recording the conversation. And the tenth time, they’re just not telling you. Who’s going to listen to that tape? I don’t know. Neither do you; that’s the point. You can’t possibly expect anything said during that call to remain private.
Do I have to even explain the way that Caller ID breaks down the privacy issue?
Let’s face it: there has NEVER been a time when we could reasonably expect privacy while talking on the telephone. Oh, we may have thought there was, but that’s basically because we’re mostly spoiled, self-absorbed individuals. There’s no free speech issue here: no one’s preventing you from talking on the phone, or even deciding what you can say. It’s just that if you talk about blowing things up, you’re gonna bring some heat down on yourself. And most existing wiretapping laws deal with evidentiary issues—what can and can’t be used in court. I haven’t heard any argument that the wiretapping at issue is to be used to prosecute anyone, and I doubt that any judge would allow them in evidence anyway. It’s my understanding that the Bush Administration intends them to be a preventative measure only. I don’t have a problem with that, and unless you’re planning on wearing the latest in C-4 activewear, neither should you.
An individual’s privacy has always been in balance with society’s safety. Here, though, it seems pretty clear. If the government listening to me talk about my analysis of last Sunday’s game, or my last visit to the proctologist, or whatever might strike my fancy prevents some fucking maniacs from flying planes into buildings, I can live with that. And your lives aren’t that exciting either, my friends. We honestly don’t care what you’re talking about when you pick up the phone. So wipe the spittle away from the corner of your mouths, sheath the claws, and be damn glad that you’ve even GOT phone service.
Now, if somebody’s got a quarter, I gotta go make a private call.